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Shrove Tuesday, is the last day before the beginning of Lent. Prior to the advent of Christianity, this day was very much tied up in anticipation of the coming growing season. In the northern hemisphere, it was also the point when food sources were becoming stretched, if not gone altogether. So it's an interesting commentary on cultural memory that we actively keep alive the impact of difficult times through fasting. Even though these periods mean very different things to different peoples, they all acknowledge the historical deprivations that humans have survived through actively re-experiencing them.
But, as is often the case, the day(s) surrounding extended religious periods of penance or fast are often given to wild merry-making, a kind of emotional release prior to (or following) the serious business of religious focus. In the Christian world, this has certainly been true of Shrove Tuesday.
In England, the celebration of Shrove Tuesday was very carnival-like for several hundred years. Known as Pancake Tuesday, it's the day when all the dairy products need to be used up in preparation for Lent; and what better use than pancakes? The origin of this tradition goes back to the town of Olney during the Middle Ages. A pancake-baking housewife, hearing the bell of the Olney church calling parishioners to be "shriven" (the granting of absolution after confession in preparation for the Lenten fast) ran to the church, pan in hand and pancake in pan. The Olney church bell is now known as the Pancake Bell, and every Shrove Tuesday it rings at the beginning of the great pancake race, in which every female villager over the age of 16, wearing a skirt and apron and carrying a pancake-laden pan, is invited to race 415 yards to the church, flipping her pancake at the beginning and end of the race and once in the middle. At the church the vicar is there to greet the winner with a prayer book as first prize.
Traditional English pancakes are quite different from our own, more closely resembling the French crêpe. The following is one of our favorite versions. Like popovers, these are best if the batter is allowed to ripen for 1 to 2 hours. These can be served a couple of different ways, in a flat stack called a "quire of paper" with accouterments between the layers, or folded in quarters with the goodies inside.
1 cup milk
1/2 cup water
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon sugar, granulated, caster or unbleached
1/2 teaspoon salt
zest from half a lemon or 1/8th teaspoon lemon oil
1/2 cup King Arthur 100% White Whole Wheat or Traditional Whole Wheat Flour
1 cup King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/4 cup melted butter
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, beat until bubbly the milk, water, eggs, sugar, salt and lemon zest or oil. Beat in the flours and continue beating until large bubbles appear. Cover lightly and allow to rest for 1 to 2 hours (or overnight in the fridge if that's most convenient). Just before cooking, whisk in the melted butter.
The best pan to use is heavy and 6 to 7 inches in diameter. Heat the pan until it's quite hot, then wipe it with butter. (You don't want the batter to cook in butter; you just want to prevent it from sticking.) Pour in about 2 tablespoons of batter and tip the pan until the batter fairly well covers the bottom. Because it's so thin it'll cook very quickly. If you're planning to serve the pancakes flat, you can flip them over and lightly brown the other side. If you're planning to fold them, you can cook them on just one side, as the top side of the pancake will be folded into the center.
As the pancakes are cooked, stack them on a warm plate, and put them in a warm oven, covered with a damp cloth to keep them from drying out.
Serve the pancakes sprinkled with lemon juice and caster or icing sugar, or anointed with strawberry (or other) jam and a dollop of double or whipped cream. Yield: about eighteen 6-inch pancakes.
Nutrition information per serving (1 pancake, served with 1 teaspoon each lemon juice and sugar, 45g): 80 cal, 3.9g fat, 3g protein, 8g complex carbohydrates, 1g sugar, 1g fiber, 43mg cholesterol, 119mg sodium, 55mg potassium, 47RE vitamin A, 1mg vitamin C, 1mg iron, 37mg calcium, 46mg phosphorus.