Growing up in the American Midwest, Fat Tuesday was a bit of a non-event. I’d be vaguely aware that it was Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but in Illinois it was just another winter day. In Ireland, though, it’s called Pancake Tuesday and it’s a big deal. At my local grocery store, one of the bakers will set up a table in the middle of the aisle with a hot plate and a bucket of batter, making fresh pancakes to order all day. My 3-year-old son will get them for lunch at his creche, while at my daughter’s school, parents will ask if you’ve had your pancakes yet or if you’ll be making them for the kids’ tea later this afternoon. There’s no getting away from pancakes today.
Pancakes were traditionally eaten before the start of Lent to use up rich foods like eggs and butter before the 40 days of fasting. While I don’t think anyone goes in for the fasting bit anymore, a lot of people in Ireland still give up something for Lent. “I’m off the booze” or “I’ve given up chocolate” seem to be two of the most common examples you’ll hear, though at a dinner party I was at a few years ago, one of the women there told the story of how her eight-year-old nephew had given up ketchup for Lent, the point being that he loved ketchup so much, it was a real sacrifice.
Pancakes in Ireland aren’t like pancakes in America — Irish pancakes are more like crêpes. Because they’re so plain and therefore versatile, they lend themselves to whatever kind of sweet or savoury filling you like. The most common way to eat them here is with a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkle of caster sugar, but my favourite filling is Nutella and banana, with a little flaky sea salt for a delicious salty-sweet flavour hit. Failing that though, the American in me still thinks you can’t go wrong with good old maple syrup.
Salted Nutella and Banana Pancakes
Makes 8 to 10 pancakes
It seems that a lot of people fret about making pancakes, but it’s not hard. Just allow that the first one or two pancakes might be less than perfect as you get into your groove. Some people swear by letting the batter rest before you cook the pancakes, but I’ve never noticed a difference. It does make it handy though if you want to make the batter the night before or ahead of time.
200 g (1 3/4 cups) flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
350 ml (12 fl oz) milk + 50 ml (2 fl oz) water
1 small jar of Nutella
4 bananas, thinly sliced
flaky sea salt, such as Irish Atlantic Sea Salt or Maldon
Sift the flour into a medium bowl, then whisk in the salt. Make a little well in the middle of the flour, then pour in the beaten eggs and half of the milk mixture. Draw in a bit of the flour with a whisk, then gradually draw in a bit more. Pour in the rest of the milk and continue to whisk it all together until the batter is smooth. At this point I like to transfer the batter to the Pyrex jug I measured the milk in to make it easier to pour the batter into the pan; otherwise, just use a ladle.
Place a frying pan over a medium heat until it’s good and hot. Add in a little bit of butter and a few drops of sunflower oil to stop the butter from burning. Swirl them around the pan until the base is coated, then pour out any excess into a small dish — you just want a thin film of fat in the pan. Pour a ladelful of batter (or pour directly from a jug) into the hot pan, then immediately tip the pan around to make the batter spread out a bit more so that it’s not too thick. Cook for a few minutes, until the surface of the pancake is dotted all over with holes. Gently shake the pan to loosen the pancake or edge a spatula in underneath the pancake, then turn it over and cook for another minute or two. Transfer the finished pancakes to a plate and set aside. Repeat until all the batter is gone, adding more butter and oil to the pan as needed.
To assemble, thinly spread each pancake all over with Nutella, then top with banana slices. Sprinkle a generous pinch of flaky sea salt all over the pancake, crushing it between your fingers as you go along. Either roll the pancake up or fold it into quarters before tucking in.