When cooks travel, they inevitably bring back recipes as souvenirs. A trip to central Italy might mean a wonderfully simple braise of fennel in olive oil. Go to southwest France and come back with pork confit. Visit Tokyo and you find a twist on the savory custard chawan mushi. When I hit the road, I usually seem to come back with pancakes.
Several years ago in Mendocino I discovered one of my absolute favorite pancake recipes, from Ole's Swedish Hot Cakes at the Little River Inn. They're rich — 11/2 sticks of butter! — and delicate in texture. What's not to love? My newest pancake passion, though, is neither rich nor delicate, and I love it just as well.
I found these pancakes during a summer road trip through northern Minnesota at a sweet little coffee shop in Bemidji called the Minnesota Nice Cafe — just steps from the giant Paul Bunyan statue. It was a chilly morning (do they have any other kind there?), and I was torn between the wild rice and the blueberry pancakes. So I got both.
And both were terrific, but more than the wild rice or the blueberries that were added to the batter, what really won me over was the nutty, coarse, slightly earthy base itself. Owner Jeannette Proulx, who runs the kitchen with her son Greg Archambault, was cagey about the exact recipe but did reveal that the secret was using ground oatmeal in place of some of the flour.
I vowed that I would break her secret code, but it took me a while to get around to it. There's just something about trying to make oatmeal pancakes when it's 90 degrees outside. However, Southern California's winter being just about the same weather-wise as Minnesota's summer, I recently spent a week working on it. It was worth it.
The recipe wasn't all that hard to figure out. In fact, one of the things that's most remarkable about it is how simple it is. Well, that and the flavor. And the way it adapts so well to so many different accessories.
I started with my favorite basic pancake recipe — the "sour milk" pancakes from the 1943 "Joy of Cooking." Being a responsible householder, of course I never have sour milk in my refrigerator. Or hardly ever. What I do have at almost all times is a carton of buttermilk, which works just as well, if not better.
Just as "sour milk" isn't really milk that has gone bad, buttermilk isn't milk with butter in it. It's milk that has been put through a controlled fermentation, producing lactic acid. That's some of the same stuff that you get in spoiled milk but in a more palatable quantity. In the old days they did that to improve the flavor of butter that would be churned from the milk — the milk being the whey that they poured off after the butter had formed. Nowadays, they make it just because it tastes good — and because it adds a rich flavor without extra calories.
I altered this basic batter by adding oatmeal that I'd ground to a fine powder in a blender. Make sure you use rolled rather than steel-cut oats. Rolled oats — like the familiar Quaker Oats — have been cooked to soften them, then flattened and dried. Unless you're willing to do all of that yourself with steel-cut (O hardy artisans!), it'll never work.
I tried various ratios of ground oats to flour — 25%, 50% and 75%. At 25%, you could barely tell the oats were there. At 75% the pancakes were dense and kind of gummy (ground oats contain very little gluten). The sweet spot was half and half.
Just to be sure, I also tried the recipe with equal amounts of flour and ground oats by weight and by volume. The weight won out, as it was slightly "oatier" in flavor and just the same texture. If you don't have a kitchen scale (and you should have one), you need to grind between 11/4 and 11/3 cups whole rolled oats to equal 1 cup of flour.
These pancakes are terrific as is — they taste the way I always think whole-wheat will but somehow never does. Still, I have to admit they taste even better with a little accessorizing.
Adding cooked wild rice to the batter was a no-brainer. After all, that's what I fell in love with in Minnesota. Blueberries would work too, but they just seem so ... done already.
So instead of fresh blueberries, I got a mix of dried fruit — sour cherries, cranberries, raisins — and softened them in orange juice. I thought that was great until I decided to use the leftover fruit by mixing it into a batch of wild rice. That was even better.
The only thing I can think of that would have improved it was building a statue of Babe the Blue Ox in my backyard. Maybe I'll do that when it snows.