Tuesday, July 19, 2011

International (House of) Pancakes

If you haven’t already, you should check out the latest issue of Penn Appétit (read it online here). From a tour of Philadelphia’s Italian market to tales of learning by cookbook, it’s full of insight, opinions, and—of course—stunning visuals of everything toothsome in Philly and beyond.

I was recently flipping through my copy of the magazine, casually skimming the various articles and interviews, when I noticed a full-page image of a crêpe. It wasn’t my first time reading the magazine (or second, for that matter), but until that point I had overlooked the photo. It was simple but pretty: a light brown pancake topped with strawberries and elegant little streaks of ganache. What really captivated me, though, was the banner below the photograph, which details five kinds of thin pancakes native to different parts of the world.

There’s the ubiquitous French crêpe, which has traveled far from its humble Brittany origins; the Irish boxty, a latke-like cake that’s inspired its own folk tune; and injera, the spongy Ethiopian staple used to sop up spicy stews and greens. There’s the yellow, turmeric-tinged Bánh xèo from Vietnam, and the crisp, slightly sour Indian dosa. Each flatbread plays poster child for its respective cuisine, serving as a vessel for the many colorful flavors that distinguish it.

That got me thinking. If a certain style of pancake represents a nation’s culinary culture to outsiders, would natives of that country agree with the choice? Regional variations exist for any national dish, of course, but there’s something about the pancake that’s gripped the fancy of locals everywhere. The Indian pancake, in particular, springs to mind.

Now, I love a good dosa as much as the next self-respecting Indian kid. The masala dosa alone, with its characteristic filling of spiced potatoes and onions, conjures enough warm-and-fuzzy childhood memories to power me through winter. But I’ll always be partial to the lesser-known dhirda, a pancake native to the western Indian state of Maharashtra.

The texture of the dinner-plate-sized dhirda—a soft, doughy middle and edges that crisp up into dainty lace-like patterns—encourages mix-ins. These range from the traditional tomato, onion, and cilantro to more adventurous ingredients such as cane sugar and pumpkin purée. I prefer the savory version, which, when enriched with fragrant, roasted cumin and coriander, makes a light and satisfying meal.

So does that mean dhirda should replace dosa as the official Indian pancake in the eyes of the world? Honestly, I’m not sure; the dosa does, after all, have its merits. But for me personally, dhirda will always reign supreme among the subcontinent’s flatbread offerings.

(For more about the five international pancakes discussed above, take a look at Elliott Brooks’ wonderfully informative article, “Flatten It Out,” in the Spring 2011 issue of Penn Appétit.)

Recipe for Dhirda

For a more authentic version of dhirda, use 1 cup of chickpea flour, ½ cup of all-purpose flour, and ½ teaspoon of baking powder. This will yield a thicker, heartier pancake that’s sometimes referred to as a “tomato omelet,” notwithstanding the lack of egg in the batter. I prefer the version below, which creates thin, crispy dhirdi that are perfect for snacking.

Makes 4-5 large dhirdi

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 medium onion, chopped
2 small tomatoes, chopped
1-2 tbsp chopped cilantro
2 small green chilies, chopped (optional)
½ teaspoon ground, roasted cumin seeds
½ teaspoon coriander powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt to taste
¾-1 cup water
Vegetable oil, to grease the pan

In a large bowl combine the flour, baking powder, cumin seeds, coriander powder, cayenne pepper, and salt. Slowly whisk in the water until the batter reaches the desired consistency; it should be watery and slightly thinner than traditional pancake batter. Add in the chopped onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and green chilies. Mix well.

In a medium-sized nonstick pan, heat about a teaspoon of oil over medium heat. Make sure to swirl the oil around so it evenly coats the pan.

Using a soup ladle, pour a scoop of the batter onto the hot pan. With the ladle or the pan handle, spread the batter until a thin layer coats the entire pan. Cook until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes on each side. Serve immediately with plain yogurt or spicy chutney, if desired.

Recipe for Testaroli

In my quest for the hidden gems of the pancake world, I also came across this recipe for Italian testaroli, or “chewy mountain pancakes.” It’s from Jessica Theroux’s beautifully narrated Cooking with Italian Grandmothers, which flows with stories and recipes from some of Italy’s most beloved matriarchs. The more popular crispelle (the Italian equivalent of the French crêpe) often eclipses these ancient Lunigianan treats—but one bite of the nutty, semolina-enriched pancakes will have you wondering why. They taste best hot off the griddle, with a side of pesto for dipping.

Makes 20-24 small pancakes (serves 8 as an appetizer)

1 ¾ cup water
1 cup semolina flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
Olive oil, to grease the griddle

For the garnish:
½ cup basil pesto


Freshly grated Pecorino
Finely chopped marjoram leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil

Place the water in a medium-large bowl. Slowly whisk in the flours and salt, continuing to whisk until no lumps remain. Set aside for 15 minutes to thicken and settle. Check the consistency of the batter and add water if necessary. It should be like thick pancake batter.

Heat a large (preferably cast-iron skillet) over medium-low heat. Lightly grease the pan with olive oil.

Pour scant 2 tablespoons of batter onto the hot skillet to form small pancakes; as soon as the batter hits the pan, use the back of the spoon to spread and widen the batter around. Ideally, you will create pancakes about 3 inches wide. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, until golden brown.

The testaroli can be stacked on top of one another and kept warm in a clean cloth until they have all been made; otherwise they can be served hot off the griddle and slightly crispy. Either way, serve the testaroli warm with pesto, or with shavings of Pecorino, chopped marjoram, freshly ground pepper, and olive oil.

-Eesha Sardesai

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