I was frying apples the other evening in a desperate attempt to get to the bottom of the bushel we picked a few weeks ago. The recipe was for a sauce to top pork tenderloin, but the minute those apple slices started to caramelize in butter, all I could think of was pancakes.
It’s always amazing to me how transportive food can be in your life, how with just one whiff an entire slice of your childhood can be served to you like pie. Instantly, I had a clear image of me, age 8, back in our kitchen in Headingley, standing on a kitchen chair and mixing pancake batter.
It was the first thing I ever learned to make and, until I was about 19 and decided that deviled eggs would be my signature dish, it was the only thing I knew how to make. My dad taught me, showing me how to mix the dry ingredients and then the wet, how to melt butter, how to whisk and whisk until the lumps disappeared.
Because he was Ukrainian, his pancakes were heavy on the sour cream, because, if possible, Ukrainians put sour cream in everything, which I personally think accounts for our Ukrainian thighs. It also, incidentally, makes the pancakes have a nice tang. To sweeten, we only used brown sugar, which I discovered a little later on, when I was independent enough to make the batter while my parents drank coffee in the living room, tasted just fantastic mixed with the butter and cinnamon.
How many teaspoons of butter and sugar slurry did I consume while they thought I was toiling away? Enough to worry about my cholesterol to this day. I suppose they must have had a bit of a clue when I had to get the microwave rolling again to melt another knob of butter, but they never said anything.
Anyway, once the batter was mixed, it was time for dad to take over at the stove. It’s kind of funny because I never remember him letting me pour or even flip the pancakes, but he did put me charge of frying the bacon. I’m not sure what his thought process was here. Clearly, he wasn’t concerned for my safety, since he was letting me stand on a chair over bacon spitting at my face out of the cast iron. Maybe he thought he was teaching me another Ukrainian life skill. Whatever the reason, it was a great pleasure, wrist burns be damned, turning and turning those bubbling slices using my super-duper bacon tongs, the kind that look like a pair of scissors except the ends look like horse stirrups.
So together we’d cook up breakfast for the Fam, managing to coat nearly every surface of the kitchen with freckles of flour or spatters of grease, mess that we were unaware of because we never had to clean it up; my near-saintly mother took on that unsexy job.
Then, around 10, it would be time to eat. I took my pancakes silver dollar-style, thank you very much, with a smear of butter on each one and not too much maple syrup, please. Interestingly, I have absolutely no memory of what our pancakes tasted like, golden, burnt, or underdone.
That is, of course, until my dad came up with the Giant Apple Pancake.
It was, as they say, the best of times, it was the worst of times. My little brother Matthew and I had graduated into our teens and tweens and getting up before noon was a rare occurrence. When we did awaken, having already missed Saturday morning cartoons, Matthew would force me to watch either fishing shows, This Old House or My Classic Car, programs to which I would groggily succumb.
Finally around 1, my dad would call us up rather sternly for breakfast, not at all impressed by his lazy kids who wasted their Saturdays so unabashedly; nothing Ukrainian about that. Still, he loved to feed us.
And how do you get a 12- and 16-year-old to come running? The smell of apples and cinnamon.
The pancake was basically a giant plain one, big enough to fill the pan, that he then sank thin slices of apple into. Then he combined butter, brown sugar and cinnamon together (I wonder where he got that idea?) in a bowl and drizzled it over the apples. Obviously, cooking the bottom of the pancake was a cinch, but turning that monster over took skill. And then removing it from the pan without losing any apples? Well, that was just talent. While it steamed on the plate, he smeared butter, which melted instantly, on top of the crusty, gooey face of the pancake and cut it into slices pizza style. The pancake, it was terrific. The memory, instantly engrained.