Saturday, February 28, 2009
I took eggs and milk out of the refrigerator, found the can of baking powder, measured out flour and powdered sugar. Mixing the ingredients in a bowl, adding enough milk and then water to make a thin batter, I could have been six instead of sixty, helping my mother make French pancakes in the old kitchen on Silver Street.
Mama was not a rise-and-shine person like my father. It took a cup of scalding coffee and a quiet half hour by herself in the kitchen before she was functional. It was the smell of that coffee, perking in the little metal coffeepot on the front burner that opened my eyes in the morning and drew me down the stairs. When she saw me standing in the kitchen doorway, my toes curling inside my slippers, my bathrobe buttoned wrong (I am not a morning person either), Mama would smile and set down her cup and give me a hug. Then she would ask me what I wanted for breakfast. If we hadn’t already had them three days in a row, I would tell her, “French pancakes, please.”
I learned to crack eggs making French pancakes. I was allowed to pour the milk from the bottle into the measuring cup, to make a well in the dry ingredients, to mix the batter with a big spoon. “Not too much,” Mama would caution. “The lumps will take care of themselves.”
Mama would light the burner on the gas stove and set the crepe pan, a round, shallow-sided, long-handled fry pan, on to heat. Then she would drop in a small dab of butter and when it melted into a yellowy puddle, she would tip the pan back and forth until the bottom was coated.
I climbed on a chair and helped her ladle a spoonful of batter into the browning butter. With deft movements, Mama made sure the batter ran right up to the sides of the pan. I stood and watched for tiny bubbles to cover the upper side of the pancake and when I called out that it was ready, Mama came with the spatula, worked its blade under a curling edge of the cake and flipped it over with a sizzling splat. The top side of the pancake was now a delightful golden brown and steam eddied in little curls from the edges of the pan. The first pancake was flipped onto a damp towel spread on a plate, covered over, and placed in the warm oven. As each successive pancake was cooked, it was stacked under the towel until the batter bowl was scraped clean.
The smell of them cooking, and my frequent yelps of, “Okay! It’s ready!” roused my brother and sisters out of their beds. They tumbled sleepy-eyed and hungry into the kitchen. French pancakes were their favorite, too, and we all ate happily, forking the thin, perfectly browned morsels of syrup-soaked cakes into our mouths. Some mornings we had bacon alongside, other times we spread the thin cakes with applesauce or jelly and rolled them up before eating them. Mama often filled hers with cottage cheese and fruit but I liked them best stacked, a little pat of butter melting into the top cake, and streams of amber syrup puddling on the plate.
I still do. This morning, by myself in the tiny kitchen of my cottage, I made a small hill of the dry ingredients, pressed a well in the top with the back of my spoon, poured in the water and milk and beaten eggs, stirred just enough to make a thin batter (“The lumps will take care of themselves,” said a voice in my head), and watched as a dollop of batter spread in the hot pan.
I don’t need to stand on a chair anymore, but I watched the cake as tiny bubbles began to cover its surface. Beside me, in a bathrobe buttoned wrong, stood the image of my child-self. “Okay! It’s ready!” I heard her cry and I took the spatula, and with a deftness that would have made Mama proud, flipped the pancake, letting its other side brown to perfection.