FAR be it from me to attack an icon (and anyway, I’ve eaten my share), but the common pancake is little more than a vehicle for maple syrup. Without that and careful browning in butter, it’s a total bore.
Well-made whole-grain pancakes are anything but.
I recognize that the term “whole grain” can be intimidating, conjuring up dense breads and bowls of gruel — not that there’s anything wrong with either of those. But handled correctly, whole grains can also be used to create superlight pastries, the fastest and easiest of which are pancakes.
In bread, it’s difficult to use whole grains exclusively because you usually want the glutens in white flour for stretchiness and toughness. But in pancakes, you’re looking for tenderness. And whole grains, as long as they’re ground, offer not only tenderness but also flavor.
I first learned that in a pancake article in these pages by Craig Claiborne, who made what was essentially polenta, then used it as a basis for cornmeal pancakes. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that you need not fully cook cornmeal before using it in pancakes. A quick steeping softens it enough. After that initial process, it doesn’t take much to turn the cornmeal into little cakes that are naturally sweet and slightly crunchy (I add pine nuts to enhance that). Make these, and you’ll understand why pancakes made from whole grains have a head start compared with those using white flour: they taste good from the start. Ever eat a white-flour pancake plain? You can do that with these.
Whole-wheat flour is a little more challenging than cornmeal because it has an intrinsic bitterness that has to be countered. (Few people are interested in savory breakfast pancakes, at least of this type.) But it begins to taste nuttier when combined with bulgur — cracked and toasted wheat, which has a natural sweetness that has made it popular as a breakfast cereal. Blend them both with a slew of dairy and eggs, some orange zest and sugar, and you have a spectacular breakfast that is made for a weekend morning.
Oatmeal, always underrated, can also be the foundation of a pancake, in both raw and cooked forms. But the ingredient that really makes this recipe shine is the cardamom, a spice that has been treasured in Europe for centuries and has been subtly employed since then in pastries throughout the northern part of the continent. (You’ve probably tasted it dozens of times in Danish and the like, perhaps without realizing it.) These pancakes are incredibly tender, with a little chew from the grain and the dried fruit, but beyond that they’re exotic. Here are flavors and textures that ordinary pancakes could never approach.