Pancakes

After working in the theatre for so many years I got accustomed to sleeping in every morning. If there was a show running, I wouldn’t need to be at the theatre until early afternoon and I wouldn’t leave until after the show was over late that night. It was just natural to sleep in the next morning and if you couple that with the fact that I don’t really consider myself a morning person, well… one can see how sleeping late could become a habit. The weird thing was no matter what time I had to wake up I always felt it was too early and I would keep hitting the snooze button until there was very little time to do everything I needed in order to get ready and make it to work on time.  That isn’t to say that I was late very often, it just meant that I was always in a mad rush when I finally got out of bed.  In a few places, where I lived, getting up late wasn’t too much of a problem as I lived fairly close to work.  In Alaska I was literally two blocks away from my office so I could roll out of bed and be at work in about fifteen minutes.  Where I started to run into problems with this “system” was when we moved to New York and I actually had a nine to five job for the first time. And since my job was at the New York Philharmonic, which is at Lincoln Center in midtown Manhattan and I lived in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn there was also a hefty subway commute to deal with.  By this point my habit of sleeping late was pretty well ingrained in me and getting up and getting to the subway station in time was always a bit challenging.  Again, I usually made it to work on time (I have this thing about being late) but in order to accomplish this I would almost always skip breakfast.  This wasn’t a huge problem for me because I never really had an appetite in the morning anyway. In fact just thinking about food first thing in the morning always made me a little queasy. Actually, for me eating was never something I ever really thought about. In fact most days, for a very large portion of my life, I would skip breakfast and lunch and only eat one meal when I got home.  I found that if I focused on my work, which there was always plenty of, I never really got hungry, and before I knew it, it was five o’clock and time to head home.  

One day, I had to be at work much earlier than normal to do something before I started my regular work. After completing those tasks I still had about 40 minutes before I had to start my usual day and as I sat at my desk I noticed I was a little hungry. Normally I would just start working and forget about the hunger, but this day I decided I would go out and see if I could find some place where I could grab a bagel or something. So, I left what was then called Avery Fisher Hall (don’t get me started on the new name) and walked up towards 66th street. Just one block from Avery Fisher Hall, on the corner of 66th and Columbus Avenue, is ABC studios where Live with Regis and Kathy Lee (now Live with Kelly and Ryan) is taped. I suppose I was blissfully thinking about how I might run into Regis - where he would undoubtedly and instantaneously offer me a job working with him on the show – when I turned the corner towards the stage door entrance.  It was there I found not just the stage door but also a very small deli neatly tucked into the building. And when I say small… this place was just big enough for the grill, a small refrigerated case that also served as the separator of the kitchen and the customer area and enough space for about five or six people to stand and wait for their food. It was packed. Behind the counter there were at least three cooks, one guy who took the orders and another person who collected the money.  When I first walked in I politely stood trying to assess who was in line in front of me and when it was going to be my turn. I listened to these people, who obviously had been there many times, tell the guy behind the counter their order. These people had it down; it was almost like listening to shorthand… “Two scrambled, links, buttered wheat”, one guy said.  The next person called out “two easy, bacon, no hash, buttered white”. The guy would scribble the order on a ticket, call out the same thing to the chef and move on to the next person and it was all happening so fast.  

On that first deli visit I don’t recall how long I stood there listening to people order, some for full-on breakfasts, some for just a bagel with a smear, but it was obviously longer than I thought as the guy behind the counter finally looked my way, pointed his pencil right at me and said “hey kid, you want something?” Caught up in this frenzy of activity which was completely new to me and for some reason I cannot fathom, I decided to forgo the simple bagel that I originally wanted and out of my mouth came the words “Sausage and eggs please”. Suddenly it seemed like the entire place got quiet and nothing moved for a very long time while the guy, pencil poised above his pad, just stared at me. “How do want your eggs?” he asked. “Oh sorry, scrambled.” I replied. “Links or patties?” he asked. “Oh sorry, patties, please.” I answered becoming increasingly aware that I had broken the rhythm of the place. “And what kind of toast do you want?” was his next question. “Oh sorry, wheat toast please.” I said as apologetically as I could and just as I thought I was done, he said  “buttered or dry”?  “Buttered… please…” I answered. He turned his head away from me and called out my order to the cooks… “Two scram’d, patties, butr’d wheat” then handed me the stub on which he had written the price and my order number.  And just like that the place was back on track. I’m pretty sure the person behind me gave me a nasty, sideways glance (probably trying to figure out who let me in), but I might have imagined that.  I paid, then stood near the back of the pack of people, looking at the floor, trying not to make eye contact with anyone and hoping to just fade into the woodwork. I waited about five minutes and then I heard the guy behind the counter call out my number. I moved to grab my container of food and he said to me, “Next time kid, just yell out what you want, ok?”.  I said “thank you” then grabbed my food and off I went, thinking in my head, next time? Who was he kidding? I’ll never show my face in there again.

When I got back to my desk and opened the container, which was one of those round aluminum containers with the cardboard top, the pleasant aroma caught me slightly off guard. I had actually anticipated a bland breakfast, lacking any seasonings at all. But then I started to eat and that was not the case. This food, for as simple as it was - just eggs, sausages, some potatoes with onions, peppers and garlic and a couple pieces of toast (cut in half diagonally), was so good, I was absolutely astounded. I sat at my desk, and ate slowly from that container, savoring each bite and the whole time thinking I could not believe it came from a place the size of a large closet and had been made so quickly without sacrificing quality or flavor. So… A few days later I decided to go back. This time I stood outside the door for just a few minutes and watched people come and go. When I felt I was ready I stepped in and quickly assessed who was in front of me. As soon as he put in his order and was handed his little ticket stub, I looked right at the man behind the counter and called out, “two scrambled, patties, buttered wheat”. I got my ticket, paid, and this time stood proudly among the other people waiting. When my order was ready the guy handed it to me and said, “Good going, kid”. From that day on, every other week or so, I went over to that deli and ordered the exact same thing each time. I felt like I was fitting into the whole New York thing. Mind you most of the time I went, I wasn’t even all that hungry. There was just something about walking into that place as if I had been going there all my life: calling out my order like it was the most natural thing in the world, and navigating the crowds like a “real” New Yorker was what kept me going back. Oh, and the food was always very good, I mentioned that, right? In all my trips to that deli, I never did see Regis so I never started working for him (or ABC), but I did get a great breakfast each time and that’s almost as good, right? Regis, if you’re reading this… oh, who am I kidding…

I realize it seems like I should be giving you my secrets for the perfect scrambled eggs, or the best way to make an egg sandwich, or even how to make really great hash-browns, but instead I wanted to share with you one of those breakfast recipes that you might reserve for a lazy Sunday morning. For me, and I don’t know why, a plate of warm pancakes, drizzled with maple syrup, gets me right in my happy spot. Pancakes are a “comfort food” breakfast and it’s a breakfast that you can customize to your own tastes.  I like blueberries, so if I have them I add those to my pancakes. I have added chocolate chips to pancakes, bananas to pancakes, and apples to pancakes.  I have topped them with maple syrup, honey, plain yogurt, apple compote, and even peach or plum jam.  And, although it is very rare, I have also been known to eat them plain or with just a little butter.

I know pancakes don’t seem “sexy” or “glamorous”, but maybe that’s because we have relegated ourselves to using boxed “just add water” mixes and maple flavored syrups that are overly sweet and artificially thick. We make them quickly and eat them just as fast, without taking the time to actually enjoy what we’re eating and that’s a shame.  I often think about how I went into that little New York deli to get a bagel so that I could eat and get back to work as quickly as possible and I am so glad that the small container of eggs and sausages I bought that day made me stop and think about my food differently, not just as a source of energy, but as something to “experience”.

This recipe was only slightly adapted from The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion and you can see the original recipe here. Use an electric or stand mixer to make the batter and a large heavy bottomed skillet to cook them, if you don’t have a griddle. This recipe yields about a dozen approximately 4-inch pancakes.

 So, here is how I make one of my favorite weekend breakfasts:

 Ingredients:

  • 1½ cups all-purpose flour

  • ¾ teaspoon salt

  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

  • 2 tablespoons sugar

  • 2 large eggs

  • 1¼ cups milk

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

Directions:

Whisk together, thoroughly, the flour, salt, baking powder and sugar in a small bowl and set aside.

Beat the eggs, the milk, using 1 cup of the milk if you're baking under hot, humid conditions, or if you're going to let the batter rest longer than 15 minutes or using up to 1¼ cups milk in cold, dry conditions), and the vanilla with an electric mixer on high speed, about 3 minutes, until they are very light and foamy.

Stir in the vegetable oil.

Gently and quickly mix the flour mixture into the egg and milk mixture just until the flour is absorbed, then let the batter rest for 15 minutes (it will thicken slightly). It’s okay if there are a few lumps in the batter.

While the batter rests preheat a large nonstick frying pan over medium heat or if you have an electric griddle set it to 350°F.

Lightly grease the frying pan or griddle. The trick is not to have pools of fat in the pan.  I grease my griddle with butter then use a paper towel to wipe up excess leaving behind just a very thin coat. 

Pour the batter onto the lightly greased griddle to make pancakes that are about 4 to 4½-inches large, about ¼ cup or so of batter, per pancake, is about right. 

Allow the pancakes to cook until bubbles begin to form and break, about 2 minutes; then turn the pancakes and cook the other side until browned, about 1½ to 2 minutes more.  If they cook too quickly or start to burn, lower the heat slightly.

Only turn the pancakes once or they can deflate, which is sad but not the end of the world. 

Serve immediately with warmed real maple syrup or the topping of your choice.

Notes:

To make blueberry pancakes: sprinkle fresh (or thawed frozen blueberries) over the batter after you pour it on the griddle. Also be sure to not go overboard with fruit or the pancake will be hard to turn and can become soggy inside. 

Substitute any berry or fruit you like using the same method as for blueberries.

If you want a traditional diner taste to your pancakes omit the vanilla and sugar and instead add ¼ cup malted milk powder to the dry ingredients.

While setting up, Riley made himself comfortable - close by of course.