If you were to ask me what my favorite kind of restaurant is, I would answer, without hesitation, teahouses. There are many things I love about teahouses, but the one that is relevant to today’s post is bite-sized eats and the ability to have a varied spread of deliciousness from which to sample. Dim sum, tapas, afternoon tea–I love them all! Our semesterly study breaks embrace the spirit of sampling by taking on a food theme. We’ve had three to date. The first two were brownies and chips and dips-themed. Between all of us here at R2R, we have a veritable sweet tooth, but when it comes to gorging on food, I find my stomach is much more bottomless with savory dishes. Thus was born the idea for a pancake party for this past weekend’s study break.
At their most basic, pancakes, as we know them in the United States, are round, relatively flat cakes made of flour, milk, and eggs. There are many variations of this all over the world, sometimes including the addition of fruit, savory ingredients, or other ingredients to the batter. They are a wonderful medium for experimentation and variety and it was tough to choose just a few for our study break. In the end, I went with some classics, plus one “adventurous” pancake.
First up, buttermilk pancakes! I didn’t grow up with homemade pancakes, and although I did like pancakes, for a long time, I just thought they were okay. The first time I tried a banana pancake (years later, as a college student), I was hooked. And when I started making my own pancakes, I quickly realized that I liked them best fluffy. I’ve tried a few recipes and I’ve used pancake mix, but to date, my favorite pancake recipe is the one from The Perfect Egg co-written by Teri Lyn Fisher and Jenny Park. I’m always amazed by how much the pancakes fluff up by the time it’s time to flip them. Between the egg, baking powder, and buttermilk/baking soda reaction, I suppose there’s quite a lot going on that encourages those pancakes to rise, rise, rise (and fluff)! I set up our mentors with the batter ingredients, bananas, blueberries, and chocolate chips and put them in charge whilst I turned my attention to the day’s other pancakes. When I checked in a bit later, some interesting things had happened….
For example, this rectangular pancake (from what I was hearing, it didn’t seem deliberate…):
While the mentors were working on the buttermilk pancakes, I spent most of my time directing the efforts for scallion pancakes. I’ve munched on these at restaurants so many times but this was my first time trying to make them. There are a wealth of recipes out there, with slight variations depending on whether you’re looking for simplicity, flaky layers, or some combination of both. I used the recipe from The Woks of Life (a wonderful blog in general for those of you exploring the world of Chinese homecooking), which was a good balance of simplicity and flakiness. The dough was a simple mixture of water and flour and after plenty of resting time, very easy to work with. Since we don’t have rolling pins at the office, I used my palm and knuckles to roll out each pancake. I should have photo-documented the process a bit more thoroughly, but here are some pictures from the process:
After the first round of rolling out, each pancake gets a sprinkling of sesame oil, salt, and scallions. This is then rolled up into a cigar, coiled, and flattened into a disk again. At this point, the pancakes are ready to go in to the pan!
For something so thin, they do actually require a bit of patience to get that nice browning. We ended up with some less circular pancakes, but since we sliced them up anyway, that didn’t matter too much. Another delicious success!
Kunali had a crew working on the zucchini pancakes (recipe courtesy of dagny at Food52). You really don’t know how much liquid a zucchini holds until you let it drain and then attempt to squeeze out the remaining liquid. We had to squeeze it out in batches because ten grated zucchinis made for a LOT of zucchini bits and a seemingly neverending trickling of liquid. Since the stove and griddle were very occupied, I decided to try to make these in the oven on a greased pan. As it turned out, that was not a good alternative. The pancakes didn’t bind very well, even after significant browning, which made them hard to flip and later, get off the pans. We made the last few on the griddle and those definitely held together much better.
These were tasty and had a relatively good texture, despite the floppiness and refusal to bind well (perhaps we didn’t sufficiently get all the liquid out?), but they were surprisingly lemony. I later found out that one of the lemons had been grated down to the flesh for a large chunk of it. That certainly explained a lot in terms of the zucchini pancakes’ flavor profile and the comments I overheard about the lemon blueberry pancakes being bitter… At least it was a mystery solved!
Last, but definitely not least: okonomiyaki. I have a group of high school friends who were really into Japanese food, and back in the day, I first tried okonomiyaki (and takoyaki!) at Otafuku near St. Mark’s Place in NYC’s East Village. At the time, they were a tiny storefront with a tiny counter AND lines that often went out the door. Despite the limited space, the cooks expertly and deftly navigated around each other, ladling and flipping the okonomiyaki cabbage-batter mixture on the griddle, filling the wells of the takoyaki pans, and stir-frying yakisoba. Wonderful aromas and sizzling sounds were a constant, and I’ll never forget seeing the phenomenon of wriggling bonito flakes for the first time. The takoyaki were crispy and gooey and the okonomiyaki, a perfect balance of sauce, cabbage, and tenderness. Otafuku has since moved a few doors down and expanded their storefront, but in true street food style, they remain a takeaway place. Needless to say, my first okonomiyaki made a lasting impression on me and I was both, excited and nervous when I made it for the first time this past summer. I use the recipe from The Perfect Egg (same book that the buttermilk pancake recipe is from!), but add a lot more cabbage in order to get a less cakey mouthfeel.
The majority of the prepwork for okonomiyaki comes from chopping–in this case, cabbage, carrots, and scallions. Once that’s done, the rest of the prep is very straightforward and easy. The batter is made primarily of egg, flour, and a liquid (dashi if you have it, water otherwise) that is seasoned, then tossed with the cabbage mix. Then volià! You’re ready to heat up the pans and make okonomiyaki.
We made shrimp and “plain” ones, so we divided the batter into two batches:
The okonomiyaki came out a touch burned on each side, probably because I had the heat a bit high and I didn’t clean the pans super thoroughly after the scallion pancakes. The veggies cooked perfectly though, and visually, it was nothing some sauce and toppings couldn’t fix. I was trying to use up as much of the cabbage as possible so ended up stretching the batter mixture quite a bit, resulting in some okonomiyaki that were on the precarious side of holding together (simply because of the sheer density!).
One of my favorite things about making okonomiyaki (second to devouring it of course) is decorating and topping it. A few flicks of the wrist and you have a photoworthy–and deliciously seasoned–okonomiyaki! The classic sauces are mayonnaise and okonomiyaki sauce. Okonomiyaki sauce can be purchased in stores (a well-stocked Asian market is a good place to look) or made at home from some common condiments (ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, oyster sauce), but since my (very Asian) pantry at home lacked most of these ingredients, I just used soy sauce glaze instead.Sweet, tangy, and deeply savory and flavorful, the soy sauce glaze was definitely a substitute that packed a punch. I had just purchased a bottle of kewpie mayonnaise (Japanese-style mayo, which is creamier and tastes more complex than the mayo you’ll find on American grocery store shelves) so that was a nice treat to complement the other flavors. And of course, to top it all off, bonito flakes!
We had so much leftover that the subsequent week was filled with pancake day reduxes!
Pancake breakfast the next morning started our work week off right! Maybe it’s because they were hot off the griddle or maybe it was because the batter was a better consistency (I didn’t really see what it looked like before it made it to the griddle the first time around), but I’m pretty sure they tasted even better the second time around. A swirly Nutella topping added to the scrumptiousness! (How have I never tried that on pancakes before??)
Okonomiyaki later in the week made for a scrumptious lunchtime treat. The intention was to finish up our ingredients but there is still cabbage leftover. Napa cabbage, the cabbage that keeps giving, folks…
It was a bit hectic trying to get all these pancakes going all at once, but when we could all finally sit down and just enjoy the food, it was wonderful to be able to sample different things. Not to mention, the kitchen smelled amazing!