Let's Celebrate Mother's 100th Birthday With Her Apple Pancakes
Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of my extraordinary mother, Ruth Hale Roberts, in Magoffin County, Kentucky. Even though she left this world in 2002, and I have tried mightily to sum her up or pin her down in words, she has, so far, resisted.
If I could use only one word for her, it would be vivid. So vivid, in fact, that I have in my head and heart, at any time, without thinking, her views, her sayings, her habits, her ardent loves [God, family (especially grandchildren), Elk Spring Valley Baptist Church, books and libraries, beauty, flowers (especially roses), music, teaching, learning, Kentucky, Wayne County (especially our family farm in its valley setting), young people (especially those in a bit of trouble)].
When I was a child, her activities on a spring weekend might include all this and more—Saturday: fry homemade yeast doughnuts for Saturday breakfast on the wood cook stove | plant 200 feet of late peas and early green beans | weed the flower borders | cook lunch from scratch | listen to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast | finish the ironing | make butter and cottage cheese from our cream and milk | select and practice music for church the next day | cook a large supper | prepare her Sunday School lesson | sleep. Sunday: cook apple pancakes with hot sorghum for Sunday breakfast (about which more shortly) | kill, dress and prepare a chicken and a potato casserole to bake in the wood stove oven while at church | cut flowers and foliage from the garden and (possibly the woods) and make a large floral arrangement for church | dress us kids | iron her own church dress, which she probably had made from a McCall's dress pattern | grab music, Bible, Sunday School teaching materials, kids and flowers and get in the farm truck | try to hide the effects of her beloved habit of gardening bare-handed by applying a desperation coat of Revlon "Windsor" to her nails as we drove down the bumpy road toward church | teach Junior Girls Sunday School class | play piano for all parts of the morning services | come home to finish cooking a big meal that includes yeast rolls* | take a walk on the farm | rest and read | return to church Sunday evening and play the piano for services again.
I've left out a lot. And Dad worked right with her on all but music and ironing. Otherwise, her pushing right up to the living edge of what's possible in a day or a life could not have worked.
She trained me to cook when I was quite young, and to manage whole meals, under her direction, by the time I was nine or ten. Actually, she taught me a framework for cooking meals mostly made from our own farm ingredients. She coached me in ways to diagnose and fix problems, particularly in baking, based on the chemistry and physics of ingredients and the physiology of taste.
She loved being outdoors, working in the vegetable or flower gardens that grew larger by the year. And I loved cooking and not having to do much garden work, so our division of labor convinced each of us we had the better end of the bargain, even when I grew old enough to have much of the house-cleaning and the dreaded ironing shifted into my column.
I never became the family breakfast cook, though. Mother and Dad filled the early morning kitchen with smells, tastes, comfort and warmth as long as they could manage. While each weekday breakfast had heft (eggs, cooked or cold cereal, toast, bacon or sausage), the two weekend breakfasts always went beyond that to center on special foods. One weekend breakfast always included either homemade cinnamon rolls or homemade doughnuts. The other might feature made-from scratch pancakes or waffles, either Cowboy* or Streusel coffee cake*, or French toast.
By my high school years, Mother had added to her perfectly tender standard pancakes a fresh-apple-cinnamon-spiked version, served with heated pure Kentucky sorghum. The smells of this breakfast—butter cinnamon sweetness coffee—drifting up the stairs could get me out of bed for breakfast even when I was a sleep-deprived college student home for the weekend. These pancakes, like her standard ones, leaned toward crepes, and derived from her cooking smarts, not from a recipe.
When I wrote my first book, Sweet, Sweet Sorghum: Kentucky's Golden Wonder, I gathered courage, tried recipes, adapted them, and eventually settled on one that replicates at least some of the goodness of Mother's wonderful take on this nearly flat, semi-fried food loved and eaten in variations around the world.* I'll include my recipe below the photo. It's also always available here, and you can find it easily on Savoring Kentucky's "Recipes" page.
RUTH'S APPLE PANCAKES
Excerpted from Sweet, Sweet Sorghum: Kentucky's Golden Wonder, by Rona Roberts
Ruth -- aka "Mother," "Sweetie Face," "Mimi," or even "Jonnie" -- made small, light apple cinnamon pancakes that soaked up the hot sorghum she served with them. Ruth's seasoned black skillets cooked the pancakes perfectly.
She used only small bits of butter to grease the pans (and boost the flavor). Nothing ever stuck. Ruth did not use a recipe, but managed perfect pancakes every time. This recipe is for those of us who need measures and instructions to enter Apple Pancake Heaven.
Ruth believed her light-textured pancakes depended on sifting the dry ingredients, separating the eggs and beating the yolks and whites separately, and folding all together with the lightest, most minimal touch possible. No skimping on the steps!
IMPORTANT: As you begin working on the pancakes, gently heat a cup or two of excellent sorghum. Add a pinch of baking soda to freshen the taste; this makes a tasty foam. The hot sorghum will be ready when you deliver the first of these unforgettable, tender, thin (never doughy) pancakes to the table.
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
2 Tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 Tablespoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 medium sized firm, tart apple, grated coarsely, with or without skin
4 large eggs, separated
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 cups buttermilk
1/3 cup melted butter, lightly browned if you wish, and cooled to nearly room temperature
- Sift the flour, and then measure it back into the sifter. Measure and add the sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and ground cinnamon to the sifter. Sift these ingredients into a large bowl.
- Add the grated apple to the dry ingredients, and stir well to distribute it through the dry mixture.
- Use two additional bowls, medium sized, for the wet ingredients. The easiest way to proceed here is with two bowls that fit a stand mixer. Separate the eggs, putting the yolks into one bowl, and the whites into the other. Set the whites aside.
- Beat the egg yolks until light yellow in color and very thick.
- Add the buttermilk and melted butter; mix well.
- Add 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar to the egg whites, and beat the egg whites until stiff.
- Stir the buttermilk mixture into the dry ingredients until nearly mixed, using just a few quick turns of a large spoon through the batter.
- When a few streaks of flour are left, add the beaten egg whites and fold lightly into the batter.
- Heat a large cast iron griddle or skillet over medium-high heat. Brush it with butter. Cook the pancakes in batches, using about ¼ cup for each (or more if you prefer larger pancakes).
- Serve with the hot sweet sorghum syrup.
NOTE: The last step—the addition of hot sorghum to the exquisite pancakes—is crucial for the completion of the whole wondrous experience. The underlying deep, dark caramel complexity of sorghum, added to the delicacy of the pancake flavors, lifts this breakfast to the stars. I'm pretty sure Ruth would have offered Kentucky maple syrup as an option, had she had it then. All hail Country Rock Sorghum and Bluegrass Maple Syrup. How Ruth would have praised and cherished you!
Yield: Four generous servings
- The original Cowboy Coffee Cake recipe included two cups of brown sugar—that's a lot. I revamped this recipe, with several delicious variations, as Cowgirl Coffee Cake (or, more frequently, muffins). Only your pancreas will notice—and thank you for—the sugar reduction. I'd try reducing even further now, probably trying 1/3 cup sugar for the recipe when making the red raspberry jam-topped muffin version. And I might now try this with a high quality gluten-free flour mix.
- I don't have the original Streusel Coffee Cake recipe, either. It may have been a lot like this one, or this. Let me assure you it was not the recipe that now comes up first in a search for "Betty Crocker Streusel Coffee Cake;" that one uses a famous name-brand prepared baking mix.
- About yeast rolls: while Mother and Dad's Saturday night rolls, made weekly for 40+ years, work splendidly when the intention is to use them to make cinnamon rolls, doughnuts AND yeast rolls, I recommend Mrs. Moore's Incredibly Tender Rolls if you want yeast rolls only. Mrs. Moore's dough produces a lighter, more tender yeast roll but is too soft for cinnamon rolls, and takes on a good bit of oil when used for doughnuts.
- One more little thing. Our friend Wikipedia, in a deep, deadpan, round-the-world investigation of the pancake, points toward a serendipitous synchronicity. I am focusing on Mother's pancakes just five days before before Mardi Gras—not an event Mother celebrated, but important to many, and centered on pancakes in some countries:
Pancakes are traditionally eaten on Shrove Tuesday, which is known as "Pancake Day" in Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia, and "Pancake Tuesday" in Ireland and Scotland. (Shrove Tuesday is better known in the United States, France, and other countries as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday.) Historically, pancakes were made on Shrove Tuesday so that the last of the fat or lard was used up before Lent. No meat products should be eaten during Lent.