Saturday, July 25, 2009

The banana pancake mystery

Brunch is pretty much my favorite meal. Carbs, sugar, salt (e.g., waffle, syrup, bacon). Like eating dessert with a little bit of dinner thrown in.

I'm not a great cook, but I'm pretty good at brunch basics. The first meal I hosted here was a brunch: two families, with kids. Chocolate chip pancakes and whipped cream, and plain pancakes and syrup for the more conservative. It was a hit. Everyone loved these pancakes.

My next meal was just with a few friends. Banana pancakes, blueberries, strawberries, two kinds of chocolate chips, whipped cream, and syrup. (I always serve bacon, too, to please the remaining taste buds.) Another hit. They said they were the best pancakes they'd had and encouraged me to invite them over next time I was using up an overripe banana.

One day I had a very ripe banana, and no one was coming over, so I made pancakes for myself. I like to make a full batch of pancakes and then save the leftovers to pop in the toaster oven later. I used the same recipe I've used my whole life, the "Griddlecakes" recipe from the Fanny Farmer cookbook. My cookbook opens to this page. (If I flip the pages, it also opens to the page for blueberry pie.) It was the same recipe I used for my hugely successful chocolate chip and banana pancake brunches.

The pancakes were awful. They tasted salty, bitter. I threw the entire batch out.

I double checked the recipe and decided I must have left out the salt, so the baking powder didn't rise or process or whatever baking powder does, so I figured I must have been tasting baking powder.

Next overripe banana: same recipe. I focused on adding the salt. And ... the pancakes were terrible. I was hungry, and they were perhaps somehow less bitter than the last time, so I doused them in syrup and ate them anyway.

This was a total mystery. How had the Fanny Farmer recipe stopped working? What was I missing? Do bananas mess with pancake batter, somehow, chemically? I had taken the short cut of not mixing the dry ingredients before adding them to the wet ingredients, figuring they all get mixed together in the end. Is that what broke it? I've made these pancakes a gazillion times, and I'm pretty sure I don't always (rarely, in fact) mix the dry ingredients first.

Next overripe banana: I carefully assembled the dry ingredients. And ... mystery solved.

The recipe calls for baking powder. Baking powder, as we all know, comes in a canister. Baking soda, on the other hand, comes in a box. Well, when I had gone to Trader Joe's to buy baking powder, I had grabbed the canister, had used the canister, had used the canister in all the pancakes I've made since I moved in ... and it turns out that Trader Joe's puts its baking soda in canisters. I'd been using backing soda all along. Pfffttthhh.

I made banana pancakes again this morning, this time with a new canister of baking powder. They were terrific, and, not surprisingly, were very different, with a lighter texture than all those other pancakes. The new mystery is: did the chocolate chips and whipped creams and berries and chocolate and syrup really mask the terrible flavor of those early pancakes? Did all of those people really not notice the bitter, salty, baking soda-flavored pancakes?

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