Tomorrow is Shrove Tuesday, the last day before the start of Lent. In Ireland, it’s more popularly known as Pancake Day.
In order to begin Lent in the right frame of mind and with your soul sufficiently pure, many Christians want to be shriven on Shrove Tuesday. They confess their sins, perform an act of contrition, and their soul is cleansed. To prepare the body, they consume the last of the rich foods that they will have to give up for Lent: milk, eggs, and butter.
Those are the key ingredients in pancakes. It’s interesting to consider that we would now consider them staples of the kitchen, rather than luxuries that should be given up in order to fast properly. Today, chocolate and refined sugars are the luxuries most people try to give up for Lent, but the tradition of making pancakes continues.
Pancakes are so associated with Shrove Tuesday in Ireland that until recently, people hardly cooked them at any other time of the year. When I was younger and living in shared accommodation in Dublin, I would often cook pancakes (being a healthy and relatively inexpensive meal) and my flatmates would always make jokes about it not being Pancake Day.
Irish pancakes are much closer to French crepes than what Americans think of as pancakes. They are very flat, with no baking powder or soda added, and wider than English crumpets. We like to serve them sprinkled with sugar and lemon juice, although a variety of more gratuitously sweet toppings are now become popular — which doesn’t quite fit with the original purpose of using up the rich ingredients you have on hand before beginning your Lenten fast, but so be it.
Irish Pancake Recipe
1.5 cups milk
1.5 cups flour (plain or wholewheat)
3 Tbsp oil
.5 tsp salt
Pour the batter onto a hot pan (a medium to small pan, light, and long-handled if possible to facilitate “the flip” — see below) and swirl it around the surface quickly so it spreads thin. Flip it before the first side is over-cooked.
The Art of the Flip
When I say flip I don’t mean turn it over with a spatula, I mean flip it! Pick up the pan, toss the pancake into the air and catch it in the pan with the other side down. Yes, it’s hard to get the hang of it. And, yes, a few pancakes might stick to the ceiling or land on the floor, but that’s part of the tradition. The art of the flip is one of those things you have to learn for yourself, and a bit of showmanship doesn’t hurt.
Drizzle with lemon juice, roll and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve hot!
That’s how to cook your basic Irish pancake. You can of course go wild and add whatever toppings or spices you wish from that base. Like crepes, Irish pancakes can be filled with sweet or savory fillings, and children love coming up with new combinations and flavors.
But remember, no more until after Lent!
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