A couple years ago, I spent the last few weeks of winter traveling through Europe. It was a particularly bitter-cold month – even the local antiques dealers I met said so. My trip ended with a quick stay visiting my good pal, Tammie, an Australian ex-pat who was living outside of London at the time.
Tammie lived in the quintessential English cottage nestled beside the Thames. The night I arrived, we tromped over to the local pub for a bite to eat. We had a spectacular meal (goat cheese and caramelized onion tart – yum!), and then Tammie remembered that it was Pancake Tuesday!
Pancake Tuesday? I had never heard of such a thing. I love learning about the origins of words as well as cultural traditions, so to satisfy that curiosity, I did a little research.
In the UK, as well as parts of Canada, the day before Ash Wednesday is called Pancake Tuesday. As this is the last day before Lent (the 40 days preceding Easter), all of the rich, decadent foods in the household need to be used up in preparation of the lenten fast. A simple, quick and tasty way to use up eggs, butter and sugar… pancakes.
Pancake Day races are another tradition still holding strong in many villages in the UK. The most famous of these races dates back to 1445 in Olney, in Buckinghamshire. Contestants (usually women wearing aprons) run through town while flipping a pancake in a frying pan. The usually short race is, of course, presided over by local clergy.
In France and the US, the day before Lent is called Mardi Gras, from the French, literally meaning Fat Tuesday. In Ireland, Australia and parts of Canada and the US, the day is called Shrove Tuesday. Shrove, past tense of the word shrive, means to confess and receive absolution for one’s sins.
Many scholars agree that Carnival – the traditional pre-lenten celebration in catholic countries – derives from the Latin words carne and vale, which translates to “farewell to meat,” and acknowledges the prohibition of consuming meat during lent.
Whatever the reason and no matter what it’s called, I say any excuse to eat a little something sweet is a good one. Enjoy this recipe for European style pancakes (known in the US as crepes). Serve them this year on February 24th, and enjoy a happy Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day. Me? I’ll hold a happy memory of pancakes in a cozy little pub in Whitchurch-on-Thames… with Tammie.
Shrove Tuesday Pancakes (adapted from a Bon Appetit recipe)
4 large eggs
1 cup whole milk (do not use low-fat or nonfat. It is, after all, FAT Tuesday!)
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup all purpose flour
Additional melted butter
Powdered sugar/Granulated sugar
Fresh lemon juice
Preheat oven to 350°F. Blend first 6 ingredients in blender. Gradually add flour; blend until smooth. Let stand for 15 minutes.
Heat medium nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Brush with butter. Add 2 generous tablespoons pancake batter, tilting pan to coat bottom. Cook until golden on bottom, about 45 seconds. Turn pancake over. Cook until bottom is speckled with brown, about 30 seconds. Turn out onto paper towel. Cover with another paper towel. Repeat with remaining batter, brushing skillet with butter as needed.
Butter ovenproof dish. Sift powdered or granulated sugar over speckled side of each pancake, then sprinkle lightly with lemon juice; fold pancakes into quarters. Overlap pancakes in prepared dish. Cover; bake until heated through, about 10 minutes. Serve with more sugar and lemon juice.
Note: I prefer the crunch of granulated sugar over powdered sugar for the dusting. Use what you like.