What could be better on a rainy Saturday morning than buttermilk pancakes, slathered with butter and drowned with maple syrup? Add some bacon on the side and a big glass of cold milk to wash it down with and you’ve got breakfast heaven. My late Grandpa Slater – Grand Rapids fireman who liked to entertain his #10 station mates with his cooking – was the first to present me with these wonders. Standing by the griddle, all 6’4”of him smiling, he knew his charges were happy. Of course, I wanted to make them myself, even at that young age, but he insisted his recipe was secret. After he passed, I in my teens found a recipe for “sour milk pancakes” in my mom’s Joy of Cooking, which tasted pretty similar. Ever since, whenever I’m looking for a breakfast crowd pleaser, I turn to that recipe.
This Saturday was one of those days. We are sharing this luxurious beach house in South Haven for the week with Jeff and Deb, our doctor friends from St. Louis. Jeff and I both love to cook, so we’ve been doing way more farmer’s market, butcher shop, and Meijer’s than local restaurants, although we did hit Captain Lou’s for perch. I drew the straw for today’s breakfast. Now Tony, the 747 pilot for Kalitta Air http://www.kalittaair.com/ who owns this place and rents it out when not in town, has a pretty well-appointed kitchen, he did not have some of the ingredients stocked that I would need in my pancake recipe. Specifically, buttermilk, baking powder, and plain vegetable oil (he had olive oil, but that won’t do). Getting those items at Meijer’s was on yesterday’s agenda, but between the wine/cider tour, a nap, the wooden speedboat ride, and tomahawk steak with morels and asparagus dinner, the window did not open. Fine, I said. I’m the earliest riser of the bunch, and Meijer’s opens at 6. Seemed like a plan. But gang aft agley, as we woke around 5:30 to the sound of pouring rain, realizing instantly that our top-down Wrangler was out in the driveway taking a bath in it. Jeff and Deb did not leave their Prius keys in easy reach, so it was time to improvise. I’ve had to improvise with this recipe before, but this would be the biggest yet. Thanks to the internet, solutions are just a keystroke away, and they were here.
Buttermilk. The stuff got its name as the sour stuff that rises to the top as milk is churned into butter. With butter-making an industrial process now, the stuff is made by bacterial fermentation these days, slightly curdling the milk proteins and lowering the pH, hence the sour flavor. With its live bacteria, it’s a wonderful drink to keep your microbiome happy, just like they love yogurt. In pancakes, the lower pH promotes the reactions by the baking soda and baking power that make gas, which makes the flapjacks fluffy. Buttermilk can be approximated by adding a tablespoon of plain vinegar to a cup of milk. The curdling begins quickly, and the pH drop is instantaneous. No bacteria are added, so you miss out on the health benefits, but that is not why you use buttermilk to make pancakes.
Baking powder is composed of sodium bicarbonate, which is known in chemistry as a base, paired with an acid, such as cream of tartar, which is a dry, powdery, acidic byproduct of fermenting grapes into wine. Its scientific name is potassium bitartrate, aka potassium hydrogen tartrate or tartaric acid. When combined with water, the acid reacts with the sodium bicarbonate in an acid-base reaction and releases carbon dioxide gas. This leads to the formation of bubbles, causing the mixture to expand, which adds volume to cakes, breads baked goods, and pancakes. Baking powder is often confused with baking soda, which consists only of sodium bicarbonate and is missing the acid component. Therefore, it must be combined with an acid to have the same leavening effect as baking powder. Omit this ingredient, and your flapjacks will be flat as a pancake. Fortunately, there are at least 10 ways to substitute for this ingredient https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/10-baking-powder-substitutes#TOC_TITLE_HDR_2. Some seek to address the chemical action. I chose one that simply seeks to restore the fluffiness: whipped egg whites, white of one egg per 1 C flour.
A bland lipid is necessary to hold everything together. Lacking anything but olive oil, which has too much of its own flavor, I turned to the jar of bacon grease I’d been saving. I’m so used to the hard consistency the saved stuff turns in the refrigerator; I’d forgotten the stuff is pretty liquid at room temperature. As I’d been keeping the jar from this trip on the counter, I was reminded of that right away. Hardly a flavorless lipid, but we were going to eat bacon with the pancakes, of course, and my eaters loved the flavor. Maybe that’s why we had four strips left over from the two pounds of bacon I fried up for the 4 of us.
So, the product wasn’t quite as wonderful as the fluffy ‘cakes I whip up at home on my griddle using all the called-for ingredients. But very passable, and still a good breakfast for our rainy Saturday morning. Here’s how you can do it, both with and lacking the proper ingredients: