Shrove Tuesday: Elizabethan Pancakes

Alright, let’s do some historical(ish) cooking!

Today is Shrove Tuesday, the last day before lent. Pancakes have been a traditional food on this day for quite some time, at least back to the medieval period. Why pancakes? Because they let you use up all of those sinful eggs and butter and milk before the start of Lent. The holiday is a bit more flamboyant in some non-British parts in the world, known variously as Mardi Gras and Carnival… But, we’re British, so, pancakes.

And speaking of British History, I found possibly the oldest recipe for pancakes that ever made it to print in English, online at the British Library. From the “Good Huswife’s Jewell” in 1585, it’s worth clicking through just to see the image of the old manuscript. (You can also read the whole thing here: Good Huswife’s Jewell at Oakden, though curiously they put the date at 1597. Possibly another edition?). The recipe is as follows:

Take new thicke Creame a pint, foure or five yolks of egs, a good handful of flower and two or three spoonefuls of ale, strain them together into a faire platter, and season it with a good handfull of sugar, a spooneful of synamon, and a little Ginger: then take a friing pan, and put in a litle peece of Butter, as big as your thumbe, and when it is molten brown, cast it out of your pan, and with a ladle put to the further side of your pan some of your stuffe, and hold your pan …, so that your stuffe may run abroad over all the pan as thin as may be: then set it to the fire, and let the fyre be verie soft, and when the one side is baked, then turn the other, and bake them as dry as ye can without burning.

I may try the recipe exactly as described at some point, but since we’re having a pancakes-for-dinner day, and wow, a pint of cream and 4 or 5 egg yolks(!) would make a very, very rich pancake, I dialed it back on the cholesterol a bit. I don’t really feel like I’ve “cheated” the authenticity too much as they obviously had access to regular milk and eggs. The fact that the recipe lists a “handfull” of sugar, and one of flour is… interesting. I don’t really think they would have been equal portions. I’m also guessing from the fact that the “stuffe may run abroad over all the pan as thin as may be” that they were making something more akin to a crepe than a big fluffy modern pancake, so I broke out the crepe pan. Here’s the “modernized” recipe I came up with, based on the one above.

Print Recipe
Elizabethan Pancakes, "Modernized" (1585, Good Huswife's Jewell) ✔
Adapted from the 1585 cookbook, "Good Huswife's Jewell". These pancakes are closer to what one might call a crepe today. They are modernized in that I substituted in milk for thick cream and some eggs for egg yolks, as well as providing useful modern measurements. No "handfull"s of flour needed!
Thin pancakes with berry preserves.
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time ~5 minutes per pancake
Servings
pancakes
Ingredients
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time ~5 minutes per pancake
Servings
pancakes
Ingredients
Thin pancakes with berry preserves.
Instructions
  1. Whisk together everything except the butter. It ends up being a slightly frothy batter just a bit thinner than modern pancake batter.
  2. Heat up a crepe pan or frying pan to medium heat, and melt a little butter in it, just enough to coat the bottom. (A crepe pan is convenient for getting your spatula at a nice angle to flip from, but it's not strictly necessary.)
  3. Pour one ladle full (I think my ladle is probably about 2/3-3/4 cup. An ordinary sized ladle.) of batter in the center of the pan, and slowly tilt/swirl the pan to spread out the batter a bit.
  4. Cook about 3 minutes on one side, or until the top looks dry (the first couple might take a little longer if your pan isn't quite up to heat yet, just watch it and see). Once it's at this stage, you should be able to slide a spatula/flipper under the edge fairly easily.
  5. Carefully flip the pancake and cook the other side 2-3 minutes. They're firm enough that you should be able to lift the edge and "peek" to see if it's looking done underneath after a couple minutes.
  6. Once done, transfer to a plate with your spatula, and start the next one. You can keep them in a just-barely-on oven with a clean cloth or some foil over to keep them warm while you make the rest. They should stack nicely without sticking together.
  7. In between each pancake, add another little bit of butter (probably 1/2 tsp or less) just to keep things from sticking and add a bit of buttery flavor. If you start to get leftover butter or bits of batter burning around the edges, just give the pan a really quick wipe with a cloth before adding butter for the next one.
  8. Continue making pancakes until you run out of batter. Serve with butter and jam or preserves.
Recipe Notes

On Ale: I used a "Mutiny Red Ale" that had been in the fridge for quite some time. I'm really not an expert on beer or ale at all, and I'm not sure if the ale was added for flavor or for some kind of leavening, so I'm not entirely sure what to suggest as a substitution for someone who wants to omit it. It may have added a little bit of "frothiness" to the batter, in which case, maybe you could replace it with sparkling water? I have heard of that being used for leavening in 18th century America... I don't feel like it came through as a strong element of the flavor, even though I did "oops" a bit and add a bit more than the 3 tbsp I meant to this time, but maybe the bitterness of the ale helped tame the sweetness of the pancakes a bit? I'm not sure.

I used the recipe “To Preserve Fruit” on Leoba’s Historical Food blog to make the berry preserves to top the pancakes. It’s a 1604 recipe, so pretty close to the right era, and it’s wonderfully simple in terms of ingredients: an equal weight of sugar and fruit, and enough water to cover the sugar in the pot. The method is somewhat different from modern jam making, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

I did cheat in that I used frozen berries, and I used some of the juice that ran off as they thawed as “water”, which the recipe advised for low pectin fruit. Not because I thought my berries were pectin deficient so much as that they produced a lot of juice as they thawed and I may as well use it for something! The result was very dark, and full of berry flavor, but also (not surprisingly) incredibly sweet. I may have overdone it a bit when I topped my pancakes ^.^;

All in all, it was a successful recipe, although maybe a bit more like dessert for dinner than breakfast for dinner between the sweet pancakes and the very very sweet preserves. The pancakes themselves are a bit like a heavy crepe, although I found them much easier to work with than crepes I’ve done before. I think the amount of eggs makes them a bit more durable. If I do them again, I will perhaps make a sauce that’s a bit more tart, or maybe try them with lemon and powdered sugar, which is probably not period accurate, but I bet it would be tasty.

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