Sunday, August 12, 2007

Buttermilk Pancakes

There are a few things you can do with blueberries in Maine. Meg, the professional baker in the family, makes a terrific blueberry pie. In fact, my wife brought several pie doughs she'd made here in the District of Columbia and paired them with Meg's pie filling for dessert one evening.

You can also make blueberry muffins, but Shelly prefers her muffins with raspberries. Over the years, we've become accustomed to raspberry muffins in the morning on a daily basis during our stays in South Freeport. But curiously, we did not see Shelly making her usual muffins this year. Her thoughts must have been elsewhere.

The local blueberries in Maine are reputed to be exceptional. They are much smaller than what you typically see in the store. And of course there is the classic children's book Blueberries for Sal, by Robert McCloskey, singing the praises of Maine's berries.

I took a bit of heat for purchasing blueberries from Michigan. What can I say? Those were the berries for sale at the local grocery, Shaw's. And besides, I don't see anything wrong with blueberries from Michigan. Michigan is famous in its own right for blueberries, and I've been eating them all my life. The only question, as I saw it, was this: Were there enough days left in our vacation for all the pancakes I had in mind for these blueberries.

At home in the District of Columbia, I am famous for the blueberry pancakes I make on Sunday mornings. We usually make an annual pilgimmage to Butler's orchard, way out in Germantown, MD, to pick 15 pounds or so of blueberries and then freeze them for the year to come. I'm sorry to report we never made our blueberry picking appointment this year. We still have a bag left from last year.

My method of making pancakes is to follow, with some personal adaptations, the recipe for buttermilk pancakes in Marion Cunningham's The Breakfast Book. These are chemical-rise pancakes, using the reaction of the acid in the buttermilk with a teaspoon of baking soda. I also add some corn meal to the batter for a little extra color and texture. Then the blueberries are plopped onto the pancakes just after they're poured onto the griddle. (My 7-year-old daughter likes hers in a "happy face" pattern.)

Finding authentic buttermilk these days, like so much else that used to arrive in its natural state from the farm to the grocery store, seems darned near impossible. Sometimes at the farmer's market you will see a vendor making a big deal of selling quarts of "real" buttermilk. You may then walk away mumbling to yourself, wondering what the difference is between the "real" buttermilk being sold at the farmer's market and the stuff you buy in a plastic carton at the grocery stored labeled "buttermilk."

Originally, "buttermilk" was the liquid left over from the process of churning cream into butter. It is tart, low-fat, and sometimes flecked with bits of butter. Nowadays, "buttermilk" is a manufactured, cultured product made by adding lactic acid bacteria to regular or skin milk, then fermenting it for a period of days. It's that acidity that makes buttermilk ideal for a chemical rise in baking, as in pancakes and biscuits. Because of the acidity, it will also keep for months in the refrigerator without going bad.

Still, reading the labels on the "buttermilk" products at the supermarket can be a jolt to the senses. I found three varieties of buttermilk under three different labels at the Shaw's in Freeport. One of them listed the following ingredients: "pasteurized culture fat-free milk, modified food starch, mono and diglycerides, carrageenan, locust bean gum."

The second product listed all of those ingredients plus "modified corn."

I went with the third product, which was mostly low-fat milk plus citric acid, or so it said. (The fewer the ingredients the better, I figured. Who knows what might be coming from China?)

If you can find authentic buttermilk, so much the better. Otherwise, proceed with your pancakes as follows: In a mixing bowl, place 3/4 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour, 1/4 cup corn meal (yellow or white), 1 teaspoon baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Mix thoroughly. Meanwhile, in a small pan, melt 3 tablespoons butter. In a separate bowl, mix 1 cup buttermilk, 2 well-beat eggs and the melted butter. Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir together until just blended.

Cook the pancakes in batches on a buttered griddle or in a heavy iron skillet over moderate heat. After pouring out the pancakes, dot them all over with blueberries. Flip when browned on the bottom and cook another minute or two until the pancakes are done. Hole them warm in the oven, or on a plate set over a pot filled with steaming water, using a pot lid to cover the pancakes.

This recipe will make six large pancakes, or eight medium-sized pancakes. Serve with butter and warm maple syrup. Warm blueberry syrup is even better, if you can find it. And if you have room for a few more calories, some nice hickory-smoked bacon or locally-made breakfast sausage caps this breakfast nicely.

1 comment:

Rob said...

Few phrases in the English language are as terrifying as "modified corn," especially when it turns up where it shouldn't.

I've often thought of making my own buttermilk, but haven't had the ingredients and motivation on hand at the same time. New England Cheesemaking Supply sells the culture.