Make Way for Pancake Day
The flat treat that makes Shrove Tuesday worth flipping over.
by Kate McGowan
Many in America are familiar with Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday—but in the UK and Ireland, this holiday has a lesser-known nickname: Pancake Day. Whatever the name, around the world, this Tuesday (which marks the last day before the lent season) has long been celebrated with parties, feasting and general merriment—and often an awful lot of pancakes, both for eating and in some cases, for racing with.
Pancake day has both practical and religious origins that date back to medieval Europe. While most don’t fast during Lent today, in centuries past Christians were required to periodically fast and abstain from rich and fatty foods, in preparation for Easter. Because of this, medieval Christians would make Shrove Tuesday a feast, as a “last hurrah” before the fast season, and as a way to use up their perishable eggs, dairy and fat in a time before refrigerators. Although pancakes were common fare for prince and peasant alike, the surviving early recipes we have – which were often written with wealthy manor homes in mind—show just how much of a “feast” pancakes could be: one recipe from a 1588 cookbook calls for crepe-like pancakes to be made such top-shelf ingredients as ale, cream, butter, sugar, cinnamon, and ginger. These traditions were brought to North America in the early colonial period by British colonists, and today in the US many churches host pancake suppers for Shrove Tuesday.
In other parts of Europe, similar traditions have formed around other pastries. In his 1559 work The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, Pieter Brugel the Elder painted a town in the Southern Netherlands in full Carnival celebration, complete with pretzels, waffles, and pancakes. In Germany, the tradition is Fastnacht, a word for both a type of doughnut and the Shrovetide festival itself. Russia and other Slavic communities, the festival leading up to Lent is called Maslenitsa, and blini are the snack of choice.
Pancakes themselves are one of the oldest dishes in the world. Many of the earliest breads were flatbreads cooked on hot rocks or in the griddle, but beyond the cooking method, these bore little similarity to the fluffy and delicate pastries we think of today. Many historians consider the true first pancake precursor to be Alita Dolcia, which dates back to first-century Rome and would have been sold on market streets and eaten covered in honey. The first recorded mention of the term pancake comes in the year 1430, and the expression “flat as a pancake” dates back to 1611. By the 18th century, pancake recipes were widely available in the cookbooks of the day. Here’s one of our favorites, from the first edition of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1743) by Hannah Glasse:
To Make Fine Pancakes Take half a Pint of Cream, half a Pint of Sack, the Yolks of eighteen Eggs beat fine, and a little Salt. half a Pound of fine Sugar, a little beaten Cinnamon, Mace, and Nutmeg; then put in as much Flour as will run thin over the Pan, and fry them in fresh Butter. This Sort of Pancake will not be crisp, but very good.
18 eggs may seem impossibly rich, but it’s worth noting that not only were eggs generally smaller back then, but recipes were generally written to have a high yield for large manor homes. We’d recommend would-be pancake flippers using these scaled & modernized instructions:
– 10 egg yolks – 2/3 cup heavy cream – 2/3 cup medium sherry (cream sherry will yield sweeter pancakes) – 1/2 cup white sugar – 2 pinches salt – Generous Dashes of Cinnamon & Nutmeg (to taste) Beat together 10 Egg Yolks, ⅔ cup heavy cream, ⅔ cup medium sherry. Add 2 pinches salt, ¼ cup white sugar, generous dashes of ground cinnamon and nutmeg, and ground mace if available. Beat together. Slowly add flour until a thin to medium batter forms. Use a ladle to spoon onto a hot pan greased with unsalted butter. You may have to continuously mix the mixture as it can separate. These pancakes come out quite rich, with a more complex flavor than we are used to today, and can easily be eaten alone, or with powdered sugar/whipped cream, in lieu of maple syrup.
Happy Pancake Day!
If you would like to learn more about 18th-century foodways, stop by the National Colonial Farm on March 28th for a lenten foods themed program.