Saturday, September 25, 2010

Buttermilk-Soaked Buckwheat Pancakes

I never, ever vary my breakfast routine. I get up at dawn and putter about for a few minutes until my hunger wakes up. Then I move with a swiftness. I heat the skillet, toast a slice of homemade bread, and circle back to the skillet to crack in two eggs. The eggs barely make contact with the pan. (Over-easy is the term, but we called them "gook-out" when we were young.) Then the toast pops, and the butter drips down through its chewy holes, and I tuck in. Once my hunger wakes up it's a growling beast.

After dipping my toast in the warm yolks and sliding the whites through the dripped-down melted butter, I can more leisurely turn my attention to things like sauerkraut and tea. It's a splendid breakfast, so splendid that when I make fancy breakfasts for other folks, I still make myself eggs and toast.

Indeed, I never, ever vary my breakfast routine. Except for yesterday. And today. The folks at the farmer's market didn't bring eggs on Wednesday, being too busy with tomatoes. I am such a snob that I just can't tolerate the sight of ordinary commercial eggs anymore, not even the expensive organic omega-3 faux-family-farm eggs. They look flaccid and mucilaginous, not at all muscular and perky and bright like real eggs.

So I went back to an old recipe I was saving for the dark of the year when real hens cease to lay. It's a recipe that was outdated before it was published a century ago. Helen Marsden, the endearingly nostalgic author, bemoans modern methods and the modern fear of inconvenience. But back then, "modern methods" meant baking powder instead of soda. And "inconvenience" was taking the time to soak your batter overnight. These days, breakfast itself is the great inconvenience.

Take heart, though! She assures us that "the setting overnight ... is in fact a very simple and convenient process, consuming only a few minutes and doing its leavening work in accordance with nature's chemistry during the long hours of the night."

It turns out that nature's chemistry is delicious, and truly easy. There's nothing in our modern repertoire quite like these buckwheat cakes. You know the spongey sour Ethiopian flatbread, injera? The cakes are spongey like that, but more delicate on account of the milk, and not sour. Like a cross between crepes and injera. They're tiny little chewy toothsome morsels. She calls it "light nothingness." Yes, that's true, but they're also satisfying -- they fill you up without the midmorning pancake crash. I ate a dozen and they kept me humming till lunch.

Real Buckwheat Cakes

This recipe makes enough pancakes for two hungry people, with maybe a few left over for a third person who generally prefers coffee to breakfast.

The night before, put two cups of buckwheat flour in a large bowl with a cup of sour milk (buttermilk, kefir, whey, or clabber), and a cup of water. Whisk until all the lumps are gone. Add a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of molasses, and whisk in. I think Marsden assumes you're using toasted buckwheat flour (the grey-colored kind, readily available), but I usually prefer freshly ground untoasted buckwheat groats.

Put a tea towel over the bowl, a plate on top to hold it on, and a thick dish towel over the whole thing. Set it somewhere warm. I put it directly on my stovetop over the hot spot from the pilot light. A radiator would also work. It shouldn't be so hot that it hurts to touch -- that would kill the fermenting bacteria.

In the morning, heat a cast iron skillet over a medium-high flame. Don't let it smoke. Add a teaspoon of baking soda to the batter, and whisk it in until it's all bubbly and evenly distributed.

Grease the skillet well (use ghee, lard, or bacon fat -- or butter, if you're careful not to burn it). Marsden says to use a "cooking-spoonful" of batter for each cake. It's not a lot. These are little guys. Put four or five in the skillet.

Flip them when they have bubbles in the middle. Remove when they're brown on the bottom and re-grease the skillet before you put the next round in.

Serve hot with gravy or butter. Or syrup, if you must, but I warned you about the pancake crash.


Helen Marsden recommends an innovative pan-greasing device: a piece of fat pork stuck on the end of a fork. I suppose I could keep it handy in a little jar on the back of my stove; no more running around for the butter knife between pancakes. In fact, I could even use the fat-pork fork for my ova over-easy.

Thursday, September 02, 2010


Hollandaise! It's mayonnaise, but with butter. Do you know why that makes it hollandaise? Because in Holland they fry their bacon in butter. Yes, and it's delicious. The only confusing part is why I never made hollandaise until today. And that confusing part is also an embarrassing part -- hollandaise is one of the Mother Sauces!

But at lunch today, hollandaise became a simply ineluctable condiment. I was making a salad, and realized that I wanted some butter. Sadly, there was nothing to spread it on, since I had just run out of bread and wouldn't be baking till tomorrow. And then I knew what I had to do: dress the salad with butter, of course. The time had come for hollandaise.

I went straight to the stove and made it. I didn't stop to look in a cookbook or ask the Internet. My conviction was complete, and left no room for doubts or hesitations. I cracked the egg, I melted the butter, I beat it. A pinch of salt, a splash of vinegar. In less than five minutes, I returned to my salad, and poured over it a glossy golden ribbon of sauce, and became a whole woman again. I can still feel it, shining inside me.


Gently melt 3-4 tablespoons of butter in a small pan. Turn it off as soon as it is melted. For the hollandaise to be really sunny, use butter from grassfed cows.

Separate an egg (and fry the white; why not?). Put the yolk in a small jar or bowl and beat it well. For the hollandaise to be even more sunny and golden, use an egg from a pastured hen.

Pour in one drop of the melted butter. Beat it thoroughly, so that the butter is completely incorporated into a creamy, shiny emulsion. Repeat until you've added all the butter. (Towards the end you can add the butter in larger quantities, but don't stop beating until it's all smooth.)

Add some salt and a little apple cider vinegar or lemon juice. I think lemon juice is the preferred thing, but I didn't have any lemons today.

Note: this dressed one large serving of arugula-apple salad.

Also, now I'm beginning to doubt myself. Surely I've made hollandaise before today? In a little way, for a last minute supper? For crepes at breakfast? I'll ask W. Crawford. I make him eat so many things, and they just float away without recipes to weight them down. Or maybe I dreamt about making hollandaise. That's just as likely.

OH MY GOODNESS! I just had an idea. Hollandaise in Waldorf salad. No, better: browned butter hollandaise in Waldorf salad.