52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 18: Pancakes Pancakes Pancakes!

Thursday 27 February 2014

This year Shrove Tuesday falls on Tuesday, 4th March. Naturally, there is only one thing I should cover in this week’s blog post…Pancakes, Pancakes, Pancakes!

Shrove Tuesday, the religious celebration marking the start of Lent, is traditionally and perhaps more commonly known in the UK as Pancake Day. Historically, during the season of Lent those who were committed to fasting or giving up certain luxuries in penitence used up the last stocks of their rich and perishable foods, like eggs, milk and butter. The resulting dish was pancakes.

The tradition of pancake making on Shrove Tuesday has endured and you could argue has even overshadowed the religious reasons behind its creation. Some people, however, endeavour to uphold the true meaning behind Pancake Day, albeit in a slightly humorous and energetic way. The Olney Pancake Race is a tradition dating back to 1445 where townswomen race through the streets of Olney to the local church with a pinny, a pan and a pancake (which must be tossed at the start and end of the race).

Olney Pancake Race past and present.
Olney Pancake Race past and present, courtesy of olneypancakerace.org and Robin Myerscough.

Pancakes have also appeared in academia, posing a mathematical problem with an algorithmic solution. In 1978 Bill Gates co-authored a paper on pancake flipping and the number of flips required to reorder pancakes according to size. It appears this simple dish transcends science and society!

That said pancakes are a real treat. They’re cheap and simple to make and offer great flexibility in how they’re dressed! What more could you ask from four ingredients!

So with subject matter in mind I trawled the shelves of Archives and Rare Books and found a number of recipes, with great variations. One general trend I noticed in those I studied, dating from late 18th to early 19th century, was the distinction between ‘common’ and ‘fine’ pancakes. Common pancakes were made from milk and fine pancakes (or Pancake à la Française, as referenced in some resources) were made from cream (lots and lots of cream). Being somewhat of a cream addict this appealed to my taste buds, so had to try one of these out.

The first I tried was in the Manuscripts collection, emphatically called ‘Pancakes Pancakes’ by Grandmother Cockayn, who authored the recipe. It appears in a family recipe book, kept by the Edwards family of Henlow Warden (ms38783).

Grandmother Cockayn’s Pancake Recipe (ms38783)
Grandmother Cockayn’s Pancake Recipe (ms38783)

A pint of cream, six eggs, the whites of four, well beaten,
thicken it with flour, as for other pancakes then add to it
half a pound of melted butter, put no butter in the pan,
but let the pan be very hot.
Pancakes Pancakes

Grandmother Cockayn

– recipe in ms38783

This could, based on assumption, be considered a fine pancake as it’s full of fat (1 pint of cream, 6 eggs, 4 whites, half a pound of melted butter and flour to thicken).

Ingredients for Grandmother Cockayn’s pancakes, eggs, butter, flour, cream.
Ingredients for Grandmother Cockayn’s pancakes.
On the left, the eggs beaten with the cream and on the right, the melted butter added to the pancake batter.
On the left, the eggs beaten with the cream and on the right, the melted butter added to the pancake batter.

I only made half the quantity as I felt 1 pint of cream was a little extravagant for an experiment. And so with the eggs well beaten in the cream, I added flour to thicken. Whilst this recipe gives no measure of flour I found that 4 large spoonfuls (of plain flour) was sufficient to give this a pancake consistency. To that I added the melted butter.

Even at half the quantity this looked really fattening, but it blended well and I could completely understand why the recipe said that no fat was needed in the pan. Indeed there was so much butter in them each pancake fried itself!

The resulting pancake…looking good!
The resulting pancake…looking good!

This recipe, at half the quantity, made 10 small pancakes. And with a sprinkle of sugar and a dash lemon juice, they tasted divine!

Mrs Greig’s pancake recipe, (ms37011).
Mrs Greig’s pancake recipe, (ms37011).

To 4 eggs take 4 table spoonfuls
of flour and pint (mutchkin of milk).
Beat the eggs and flour well together
stirring in the milk. This quantity
makes 5 pancakes. They require
to be done with a slow fire with
a good dash of butter in the pan

-Mrs Greig’s recipe in ms37011

Ingredients for Mrs Greig’s pancakes, eggs, mik, flour..
Ingredients for Mrs Greig’s pancakes.

I tried a ‘common’ pancake too, using a milk based recipe, which didn’t turn out too well. This was from Mrs Greig’s (of Myres Castle) Recipe Book, post 1800, and called for 4 eggs, 4 table spoonfuls of flour and a ‘mutchkin’ of milk (which is an old Scots measure equivalent to about ¾ of an imperial pint). Mrs Greig, possibly the wife or relative of Alexander Greig, was the occupant of Myres Castle in the mid-19th century.

It started off well. The mixture blended when whisked, though was markedly thinner than the previous recipe. However, when it came to cooking them my success ended.  I think the problem was three-fold; pan too hot, not enough batter in the pan and I ‘didn’t commit to the flip’. For thin, crêpe style pancakes you MUST COMMIT TO THE FLIP!

 Poor flipping technique results in omelette-style pancake!
Poor flipping technique results in omelette-style pancake!

In fact it looked worse when I put it on a plate!

I didn’t do Mrs Greig’s recipe justice. I apologise!
I didn’t do Mrs Greig’s recipe justice. I apologise!

Curious as to how pancakes were traditionally dressed I flicked through a number of cookery books in our Rare Books collection, most of which date from the early 19th century (Cooking and Confectionary (sT X717.C6), The Housekeeper’s Guide (sTX717.C7), The cook’s dictionary and housekeeper’s directory (sTX717.D6), The cook and housewife’s manual (sTX717.J6), The Modern Cookery (sTX717.L2), Domestic economy and cookery, for rich and poor (sTX717.L2) and The new French and English professed cook (sTX717.R2)).

Lemon juice and sugar, which is a commonly recognised method of dressing pancakes today, was just as popular and common in the 19th century too. Recipes from that era also suggested orange juice or slices of lemon, or even pouring wine, brandy or vinegar on pancakes. One recipe which appeared in a couple of resources (The new French and English professed cook (sTX717.R2) and The cook’s dictionary and housekeeper’s directory (sTX717.D6)) actually recommended boiling a little of the batter with ratafia (a brandy based liqueur), sugar, egg yolk and orange flower water, and using that as a sauce.

Recipes also suggested that pancakes should be served ‘a few at a time, hot and hot’ and rolled ‘lightly up as a collar’ in a similar manner to how we serve them today.

Other recommendations to ‘spice’ up pancakes before cooking them were adding ginger, nutmeg or cinnamon spices to the batter or adding currants or raisins. Indeed a couple of recipes stated that if eggs were in short supply you could use ‘snow’ instead.

Pancake recipe with snow from The Modern Cookery, sTX717.L2
Pancake recipe with snow from The Modern Cookery, (sTX717.L2).

I had to do a bit of digging to make sure I was interpreting this correctly but indeed in Ransom’s Family Receipt Book, 1884, there is a recommendation for using “Snow as a substitute for eggs”, which claims that “In making pancakes or puddings, snow is an excellent substitute for eggs; two tablespoonfuls of snow stirred in quickly are equal to an egg in puddings or pancakes for making them light. It is explained by the fact that snow contains in the flakes much atmospheric air, which is set free as it melts.”

Well I never!


– Kirsty Lee

Archives Assistant

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2 thoughts on "52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 18: Pancakes Pancakes Pancakes!"

  • christiane
    Thursday 27 February 2014, 6.09pm

    very nice the story of pancake, and the recipe very easy to do it, thanks you for this nice story of pancake,christiane

  • joycecormie
    Saturday 1 March 2014, 1.05pm

    Fascinating recipes - but I am just about to make mine the 'poor' way!


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