Wednesday, January 7, 2004

Amid the flurry in Colorado Kitchen’s tiny kitchen during weekend brunch, chef Gillian Clark keeps a watchful eye on one sizzling pan of pancakes, an island of calm in an increasingly active sea.

“You have to nurse them,” she explains, simultaneously whisking Hollandaise sauce for eggs Benedict and frying doughnuts. “You can’t just leave them to it.”

Pancakes, you say? Aren’t they the original set-it-and-forget-it winter comfort food, one that you can mix up in a hurry from a box sitting in the back of a kitchen cupboard?

Not at all, say area chefs. Venture beyond your pantry or local pancake house, and you are likely to see a whole new take on the genre, with seasonal variations, carefully parsed recipes, and scrupulously fresh ingredients.



But whether they’re filled with fruit or just plain, those little brown rounds of milk, flour, and eggs will still stick to your ribs.

“Everything we do is seasonal and from scratch,” says Miss Clark, who set a pot of her special pancake filling — cranberries, cinnamon, sugar and orange juice — to simmer on the stove long before her pancake batter was ready to be spooned into the pan.

Colorado Kitchen is at Colorado Avenue and Kennedy Street in Northwest. Here, bright red napkins and vintage advertisements for food favorites from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s — including Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix — pay homage to a culture when pancakes were an integral part of a weekend breakfast.

Pancakes rule here every Saturday. This time of year, Miss Clark offers pancakes filled with her special cranberry mixture. But she starts off with the freshest ingredients: milk and buttermilk, eggs and fresh baking powder.

Vienna resident Robert Pereira stops by with his wife, Sarah Schuler, and 7-month-old son Robert Henry at least once a month, after they have finished their round of food deliveries for Bread for the City (a private, non-profit Washington organization that provides food, clothing and other services to those who need them).

“They’re really good,” Mr. Pereira says of the pancakes. “I love the fruit in them.”

Most customers also like the little hint of crunch. Miss Clark adds a bit of sugar to her batter; it caramelizes to ensure a crisp top.

Miss Clark and co-owner Robin Smith are sticking to pancakes on Saturdays and French toast on Sundays. They once tried making waffles, a venture that proved less than fulfilling. The issue was crispness.

“The new waffle makers don’t get as hot as the old ones,” says Miss Clark. “It’s hard to get a good, crispy waffle.”

So Miss Clark relied on older waffle makers she got from EBay and garage sales. But with so many waffle makers going at once, the increased power demand shorted out the electrical system.

Of course, part of the lure of Colorado Kitchen is the old-time atmosphere, with brightly colored soda bottles on the shelves and the sight of Miss Clark cooking over a stove that resembles one your grandmother may have had. Pancakes are part of the picture, too — dimly remembered from long ago, but with fresh fruit fillings and real maple syrup, a reality that is even better than the memory. Just don’t expect them to be perfectly round.

“Food shouldn’t look like it came out of a factory,” says Miss Clark.

• • •

Done right, there isn’t a whole lot that can beat a freshly made batch of pancakes as the perfect winter breakfast; crisp on the outside, light and fluffy within. Make a mistake, and you’ll have a sodden, lumpy mess.

Remember those pancake stacks of yesteryear? Don’t try it at home. Stacking pancakes is a no-no, say area chefs. The stacking blocks the circulation. Instead, layer your pancakes. Distribute them around the plate so the steam can escape into the air and not into another pancake.

At the Tabard Inn near Dupont Circle, diners routinely linger over chef Huw Griffiths’ carefully prepared pancakes, which alternate with French toast as a weekend favorite. These are no ordinary pancakes, but big, thick, hand crafted rounds, deeply golden on the outside and nearly an inch high.

“It’s the standard recipe,” says Mr. Griffiths. “Buttermilk, eggs, butter, flour, sugar, baking powder, soda and salt.”

So what’s the secret? It’s all in the mixing, Mr. Griffiths says.

“The most important thing is not overmixing. The best pancakes are a little lumpy.”

So how did Chef Griffiths learn to make such delectable treats? Not, as you might expect, in his mother’s kitchen. Mr. Griffiths is from Scotland, where pancakes are of a different sort entirely. He had to make his own way through scores of classic, thick, American pancakes before coming up with his own recipe.

“We never made pancakes much,” Mr. Griffiths says of his family in Scotland. “Ours are thin, like crepes.”

• • •

Pancakes come in many guises around the world. They may be sweet or savory, thick or thin, made with wheat, rice or buckwheat flours. But nowhere else have they captured the consciousness as in America, where pancakes have reflected cultural changes, precipitated new ones, and promoted whole industries, from pancake mixes to maple syrup.

Consider the American pancake. Perhaps no other food has so many names — batter cakes, flapjacks, or hot cakes, to name a few, or so many variations. In Colonial times, settlers adapted the Indian practice of making cakes out of cornmeal. Thomas Jefferson served a version of pancakes at Monticello, while Western loggers swore by what they called flannel cakes. Neither thin like a crepe nor puffed like a popover-style Dutch baby, the American pancake is designed to stay with you through a cold winter or a hard day’s work.

“We had a splendid breakfast of flapjacks, slapjacks, and whortleberries,” wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne in “American Notebooks.”

Other monikers for the ubiquitous pancakes have included sweatpads, flatcars and griddle cakes. Typically, the use of the term “flap” or “slap” coupled with “cake” meant a batter made with cornmeal. A stack of pancakes was often referred to as a “string of flats.”

By the 1830s and 40s, “flapjacks” and “griddle cakes” were being made with white flour rather than cornmeal. The batter got thinner as well, poured on a griddle rather than shaped as a cake. According to John F. Mariani in the “Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink,” the term “pancake” did not come into general usage until the 1870s.

Then in 1889, two entrepreneurs, Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood, introduced the first pancake mix at the New Era Exposition in St. Joseph, Mo. Their “Self-Rising Pancake Flour” was later renamed “Aunt Jemima” after a popular minstrel song, and an industry was born.

The modern American pancake is a synthesis of those early versions made with cornmeal and crepes suzette, popularized by famous French chef Henri Charpentier, who emigrated to America in the 1930s and brought the recipe with him.

So it seems somehow fitting that Mr. Griffiths, as a transplanted Scot, has learned to make a perfect American pancake, with seasonal variations like gingersnaps or berries.

“We are big pancake lovers,” says Mary Rosenstein, who along with daughter Hannah and husband Jon is visiting the Tabard Inn from Massachusetts. “We have pancakes wherever we are and these are excellent.”

• • •

At the Tabard, pumpkin pancakes are served with an apple cranberry compote. Over in Georgetown, the pumpkin pancakes at Billy Martin’s Tavern are served with nutmeg, cinnamon and fresh whipped cream.

“We were looking for a seasonal approach,” says Kevin Early, general manager at Martin’s, who developed the recipe for the pumpkin pancakes. “It took some trial and error before we got these right.”

Judging by the number of telephone calls that come in from regular patrons checking to see whether pumpkin pancakes are on the menu, they’ve succeeded.

Some version of pancakes has been on the menu practically since Billy Martin’s Tavern opened in 1933. Back then, of course, prices were a good bit cheaper; an order of pancakes could be had for under a dollar — today, the pumpkin pancakes cost $10.50. While you can still get the original recipe plain pancakes, many diners prefer Mr. Early’s seasonal innovations, which have included maple pecan pancakes with bourbon butter, blueberry pancakes, and even peach pancakes.

Housed in the same building for the past 70 years, Martin’s Tavern brings a sense of history to the dining experience, even if the pancakes have been updated to reflect 21st-century sensibilities. Diners enjoy the dark wood tables and creaky floors as much as they do the food. Some have been coming regularly for more than 40 years.

Even the kitchen at Martin’s Tavern harkens to an earlier era, when restaurants were designed in keeping with the enjoyment of the diners and less with the comfort of the kitchen staff. Pancakes here start upstairs, where a cook mixes up a batch to Mr. Early’s specifications. The batter makes its way downstairs, where it will be cooked up in a prep area hardly bigger than a closet.

Of course, it is the taste that matters most.

“Every time we come someone orders pancakes,” says Ann Lahr, from Potomac, whose nieces Cassie and Libby Whiteside got the pancakes this time. “We’re pancake lovers, and we enjoy them tremendously.”

• • •

Clearly, comfort food demands comfortable surroundings and sometimes, the most comfortable surroundings are those close to home. At Nancy’s Kitchen in Wheaton, patrons from nearby Leisure World come in nearly every day, as much for the feeling of being cosseted by owner Roy Barreto and his staff as for the food.

“We get an opportunity to meet them and to know who they are and where they come from,” says Mr. Barreto. “For a lot of people, this is their second home.”

Nancy’s Kitchen got its start in 1992, when Mr. Barreto’s brother Cleto opened it and named it for his wife Nancy. Mr. Barreto took over in 1997.

“A lot of the recipes we use are hers,” says Mr. Barreto, who is originally from India and grew up eating pancakes in a “different style” from the thick and fluffy ones served at Nancy’s. Today, the pancake recipe is a closely guarded secret, although Mr. Barreto will share one pancake-making tip.

“The secret is mixing with the magic touch,” he says with a smile.

Patrons might disagree about what makes Nancy’s Kitchen so special. Pancakes, as good as they are, are just part of the allure.

“Everyone is so nice in here,” says Jesse Frank Minton Jr. “I’ve gotten to know all of them.”

Mr. Minton is the “opening customer,” strolling over from his home in Leisure World each morning to open up and turn on the lights.

Others come by nearly that often.

“It’s such a nice comfortable atmosphere,” says Ed Kaszynski. “It’s a good place to get up and go to in the morning.”

Breakfast is served all day long here, so anyone with an afternoon craving for pancakes knows Nancy’s Kitchen is the place to go. And if the customer can’t get out of the house, they even deliver.

Because nursing the customers as well as the pancakes is all part of the process.

“It’s nice to have a family tradition going,” says Mr. Barreto. “I’ve got good employees and good customers and I’ve gotten to know them all very well. We really enjoy ourselves here.”

Locations, serving times

Ready to reach beyond the pantry or the chain waffle joint? Here’s where to find the pancakes in the story.

• Colorado Kitchen: 5515 Colorado Ave. NW, at Kennedy Street. Pancakes on Saturdays only. Hours: Brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, Sunday; Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Friday; Dinner 5-10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday, Tuesday. 202/545-8280, www.mmmmbetter.com.

• Billy Martin’s Tavern: 1264 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Pancakes served during brunch, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Open 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Friday, Saturday. Bar open till at least 1 a.m.

• Nancy’s Kitchen: 3808 International Drive, Leisure World Plaza Shopping Center, Wheaton. 7 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. 301/598-1886.

• Tabard Inn: 1739 N St. NW. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Dinner until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Brunch Saturday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Sunday 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Reservations recommended. 202/785-1277, www.tabardinn.com.

Favorite pancake recipes

Looking for a fresh start on pancakes at home? Here’s a sampling of some old-time recipes that may move you away from the mix.

Mrs. Lincoln’s buckwheat cakes

From “Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book: What To Do and What Not To Do in Cooking,” by Mary Johnson Lincoln (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1884)

Pour one pint of boiling water on half a cup of fine corn meal; add half a teaspoonful of salt. Mix well, and when lukewarm add half a cup of white flour, one cup of buckwheat flour, one fourth of a cup of yeast. Beat vigorously. Let it rise over night. In the morning stir down, and beat again. When risen and ready to bake, add one saltspoonful of soda, sifted through a fine strainer. Beat again, and fry in large cakes.

Buckwheat cakes, even if not sour, usually require the addition of soda just before baking, to make them light and tender. But when in their best estate, they are far from perfect food. They should be eaten only in very cold weather, and but seldom even then. They are better and brown better when made with boiling milk instead of water.

(Editor’s note: A saltspoon was a spoon used in 19th century salt cellars; it equals 1/4 teaspoon.)

Martha Washington’s pancakes

From “The Martha Washington Cookbook,” by Marie Kimball (New York: Coward-McCann, 1940)

2 cups ale

1/2 cup white wine

2 tablespoons rose water

3 eggs

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

Butter

Cinnamon

Sugar

Warm the ale. Beat the eggs well and combine. Add wine and rose water. Sift together salt, nutmeg, and flour, and gradually pour onto it the first mixture. Stir until a smooth mass. The dough and the resulting pancakes should be very thin. Fry in butter and serve with cinnamon and sugar.

Gillian Clark’s pancakes

From Miss Clark’s recipe at Colorado Kitchen

4 cups flour

3 tablespoons baking powder

3 tablespoons sugar

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

3 beaten eggs

6 tablespoons oil

1-1/2 cups buttermilk

1-1/2 cups milk

Mix the dry and wet ingredients separately. Combine and let rest so “the baking powder can work a little bit.” Cook in a hot pan about 4 minutes on the first side and 2 to 3 minutes on the other.

Cooking tips

Pancake batter can be surprisingly temperamental. Here are some tips for handling it, culled from half a dozen American cookbooks:

• Let eggs come to room temperature before making the batter. This will help them incorporate better.

• Measure carefully.

• Don’t overbeat the batter. Overbeating creates gluten, which will make pancakes tough and nasty.

• Wait until a few drops of water bounce on the griddle before putting on the batter. If the drops evaporate, your pan is too hot.

• Cook the second side half as long as the first.

• Don’t stack pancakes. Steam makes the pancakes soggy.

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