As a student, I lived in England for a few years and, like most other waay-from-home Americans, I missed a few things terribly, all out of proportion to their importance to day-to-day life. One of them was corned beef, but I won't tell you about larders full of pickling crocks or the oversalty, awfully dry results of my first experiments.
High on my list of longed-for items was the American pancake breakfast, with American bacon and maple syrup. I found the bacon alright, under the name of Canadian Bacon, of all things, but I had to work on the pancake problem.
A problem it was. I tried all sorts of recipes, some with yeast, some with baking powder, some with beaten egg whites. All of them were a bore and none of them fulfilled my need for the kind of pancake I really wanted.
Then one day, at a shop called Palm's Delicatessen, I saw a box of good old Aunt Jemima's, specially imported for the convenience of Oxford's fairly substantial American community, I was saved.
I am a great advocate, in theory and in practice, of doing things from scratch. We make our own sandwich bread, ice cream, Danish pastry, preserved duck, and all sorts of other things. But we swear by pancake mix, the kind you add eggs, milk, and oil to, not the all-in-one sort.
Yeast-raised pancakes may be wonderful, and we use them on occasion for serving with Russian-style hors d'oeuvres, but for breakfast there's nothing like hotcakes out of a box.
But I am still a tamperer. And in the course of my tamperings with packaged pancake mix, I have come across a number of variations which can add interest and novelty to the breakfast table. Insofar as I shall be giving specific proportions for anything, they will be for the following amount of batter: 1 cup mix; 1 cup milk; 1 egg; 1 tablespoon oil.
The easiest variations for pancakes are substitutions. For a change in flavor, you can substitute buttermilk for the whole milk in the mixture. The slight sourness is a pleasant foil to the syrup but it is not in any way overpowering.
Then, for a new texture accompanied by new flavor, you can use about 3/4 cup of pancake mix and replace the missing 1/4 cup with medium or coarsely ground cornmeal. The result will be a bit drier, and can even be somewhat crumbly, but it is pleasant on the tongue. You may want to use more butter than usual on these cornmeal pancakes.
We now come to additions. When I was a child, my mother sometimes used to add a chopped apple to the batter. The hot apples invariably burnt my mouth, but that was because of my impatience, not because of any fault in the notion of apple pancakes. A medium-size apple of considerable character, like a Granny Smith, is best. All you need to do is peel it, cut it into small dice-sized pieces, about 1/8-inch thick, and add to the batter just before you start cooking.
If you use an apple like a McIntosh or even a Golden Delicious, you will get a nice result too, but these cook away quickly and the slight crunch of the semi-cooked Granny Smiths is attractive.
While on the subject of apples, you can make these pancakes even nicer by adding the same sorts of spices you might add to apple pie. Nutmeg, cinnamon, ground clove, mace, and so forth, discreetly added, will be a very pleasant surprise to the sleepy eaters.
Bananas and blueberries are also traditional additions to breakfast pancakes. Try, if you feel energetic, to brown the slice bananas in a little butter before adding to the batter; the sugar in the frut will caramelize and make the pancakes special indeed.
Nuts are another possibility. Walnuts and pecans are the most obvious choices, about 1/2 cup of chopped nutmeals per recipe, although a bit more doesn't hurt either. A few nuts added to the spiced apple pancakes are a good idea as well.
Note that any of the fruit pancakes are likely to take a while longer to cook than plain ones because of the moisture in the fruit.
A final word about syrups. Maple syrup is dangerous stuff.Those of you who use the real thing will know that once you get used to its flavor you become spoiled and none of the mass market syrups, with pictures of the great outdoors on them and about 2 percent maple syrup in them, will do ever again.
The highest grade of maple syrup easily found is Grade A, and it is a light, highly refined syrup. We always try to find Grade B. It has a lot more maple flavor. It also has a slight, altogether natural, aftertaste which you soon grow to miss, even in Grade A syrup and certainly in any of the nonmaple syrups, which, alas, have aftertastes of their own, but resulting from various artificial flavorings.
A change from maple syrup is sometimes welcome, and very nice fruit syrups are imported into the United States from Poland and Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavian ones are especially good, made only of fruit and unrefined sugar. They are also extremely inexpensive. We have seen them for as little as $3 for a full quart bottle. Our favorites are the cherry and the raspberry, in that order. The strawberry is nothing special.
Anyway, pancake mix makes foolproof pancakes. The very foolproofness of the formula allows you to play around with additions and new ideas with great safety. And if you go abroad for more than a month, take a box with you and give an American breakfast party.