Category Archives: cooking

Suet – A Beginners’ Guide

Suet is the essential fat in many British puddings, both sweet and savoury, as well as stuffings and dumplings, mincemeat at Christmastime and – of – course suet pastry. It makes some of my most favourite British foods. It’s role is to enrich and lubricate mixtures, producing a good crust in steamed suet puddings.

Suet is the compacted, flaky and fairly homogenous fat that is found around animals’ kidneys, protecting them from damage. Here’s a very quick little guide to buying and using it in recipes.

snapseed-02Flaky fresh beef suet

Don’t be put off by suet – I served up Jam Roly-Poly to a group of 18 American undergraduates recently, and they’d never heard of a suet pudding before. They all came back for seconds!

Several recipes already on the blog use suet:

Fresh Suet

Fresh suet can be bought from your local butcher at a very low price. Most commonly available is beef suet and it can be used in any recipe in the book. You can also buy lamb and pork suet – and sometime venison – which are all great when using the meat of the same animal in the filling (e.g. Lamb & Mint Suet Pudding). Pork suet is sometimes called flead or flare fat. Sweet suet puddings, however, require beef because it is flavourless, whilst lamb is distinctly lamby; not great in a Jam Roly-Poly.

Fresh suet can be minced at home or by your butcher or can be grated. I prefer to do the latter, as it’s quick and easy. You must avoid food processors however, as you end up with a paste. Grater or mincer, you will need to remove any membranes and blood vessels – much easier to do as you grate, hence why it’s my preferred method.

snapseed-01Freshly-grated beef suet

I find it best to buy enough suet for several puddings, grate it and then freeze it. Fresh suet can be kept frozen for up to 3 months.

atora

Preparatory Suet

Although not as good as fresh, packet suet bought from a supermarket is a perfectly good product and store cupboard standby. Atora is the iconic brand producing a shredded beef suet as well as a vegan alternative; these vegetable suets are made from palm oil and are therefore somewhat environmentally unfriendly. However, Suma produce one that is made from sustainably sourced palm oil, so keep a look out for that in shops.

suma_vegetarian_suet

Preparatory suet can be switched weight-for-weight in any recipe unless otherwise indicated.

And that’s my very quick beginners’ guide to suet, have a go at cooking with it, you won’t be disappointed.

 

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Macaroni Cheese

At the end of last year, I finally had the opportunity to visit the United States to visit old friends – and haunts – in Houston, St Louis and Chicago, as well as discovering new cities such as Dallas, New York and New Orleans. It was a crazy whistle stop road trip and no mistake.

Having lived on both sides of the Pond, I can really appreciate the American influence on British cuisine. So much deliciousness has drifted over the Atlantic to wedge itself firmly in the psyche of British – nobody in the UK could possibly imagine a world without mouth-watering pulled pork, pillowy cinnamon buns or squidgy chocolate brownies (and blondies!).

One of the best foods of all is Mac and Cheese, and although considered very much an all-American (or perhaps the American) meal, macaroni cheese has its origins firmly planted in Britain.

Macaroni cheese emigrated to the US and Canada with the British settlers, but it wasn’t until the 1930s, during the Great Depression, that it really became part of American culture. Millions were starving, but one entrepreneurial salesman from St Louis, Missouri had the idea to combine nonperishable dried pasta with dried processed cheese. It could be mass produced and priced low. It was a huge hit, quickly establishing itself as the ‘American Housewife’s Best Friend’, feeding a family of four for just twenty cents. It literally saved a nation from starvation.

Elizabeth Raffauld

The first mention of it my side of the Pond can be found in the 1769 classic cookbook The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffauld. It says To Dress Macaroni with Parmesan Cheese:

Boil four ounces of macaroni till it be quite tender and lay it on a sieve to drain. Then put it in a tossing pan with about a gill [a quarter of a pint] of good cream, a lump of butter rolled in flour, boil it five minutes. Pour it on a plate, lay all over it parmesan cheese toasted. Send it to the table on a water plate, for it soon gets cold.

All the elements of a modern macaroni cheese: the appropriate pasta, a proto-béchamel sauce, plenty of cream and lots of cheese; perhaps surprisingly, parmesan cheese.

But we can go back even further; back to the 1390s in fact, with Britain’s earliest cookbook Forme of Cury. Pasta made from breadcrumbs (I must try it sometime) cooked in a velouté sauce (like a béchamel but made with stock instead of milk), and something called chese ruayn which was a hard cheese similar in taste to brie, resulting in something half-way between macaroni cheese and a lasagne. I wonder if there’s an extant French cheese that could fit the bill if I tried to cook this dish?

Take good broth and do in an earthen pot. Take flour of payndemayn [high quality white bread] and make thereof past[e] with water, and make therof thynne foyles as paper with a roller; drye it hard and seeth [simmer] it in broth. Take chese ruayn grated and lay it in dishes with powdour douce [a mix of warm spices such as cinnamon, cloves etc], and lay on the loseyns [the pasta sheets] isode as hole as thou myst, and above powdour and chese; and so twyce or thrice [i.e. layer it up], & serve it forth.

This dish must have remained popular because macaroni and other pasta dishes using cheese and velouté sauce appear crop up again in Eliza Acton’s 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families. There is also the more familiar béchamel sauce version. What is interesting is that there is a variety of cheeses used in these recipes: Cheddar, Parmesan, Gruyere and blue Stilton all feature. I love blue cheese, so this one really stood out for me and I have adapted it below.

If blue cheese isn’t your thing, replace it with another. Cheddar, red Leicester or a mature Lancashire would all work. This recipe produces a rather saucy macaroni cheese, if you prefer a thicker consistency, add an extra 50 grams of pasta.

Blue Stilton Macaroni Cheese

Serves four:

30 g plain flour

30 g butter

400 ml hot full-fat milk

150 ml double cream

200 g macaroni

1 slice stale bread

½ tsp chopped fresh rosemary leaves, or ¼ tsp fried rosemary (optional)

225 g Stilton cheese, grated

200 g Gruyere or Cheddar cheese, grated

Pinch Cayenne pepper

Salt and freshly-milled black pepper

First of all make a roux by melting the butter in a saucepan. As soon as it has finished foaming, tip in the flour and mix well with a small whisk or wooden spoon. Cook on a medium heat for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently. If the roux starts to brown, turn down the heat.

Beat in around a quarter of the milk with your whisk, adding another quarter once the first lot is fully incorporated. Repeat until all of the milk is used up. Add the cream and allow the béchamel sauce to simmer gently for around 10 minutes. Make sure you stir every minute or so, to stop the flour sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Meanwhile cook the macaroni in plenty of salted water – follow the instructions on the packet and cook for two minutes less than the instructions state.

Make the bread into breadcrumbs by pulsing in a food processor. If using, add the rosemary half way through the pulsing process.

Take the sauce off the heat and drain the pasta. Stir in the cheeses, mixing until fully incorporated. Tip in the pasta and mix. Now season well with salt, black pepper and Cayenne pepper.

Pour the whole lot into a baking dish of a capacity of 1.5 litres, or thereabouts and bake for around 20 minutes at 180°C until brown and bubbling and the breadcrumbs are well-toasted.

Serve straight away with crusty bread or a rocket salad.

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Medlar Tart

It’s medlar (aka openarse) season at the moment, and I thought I would try the recipe I mentioned in the medlar post from last year.

There’s quite little to go on with medlar preparation in books and the internet as people don’t really eat or cook with them these days, beyond medlar jelly, so every year, I learn a little more about eating and cooking them.

This year I have been more patient and waited for them to get fully-bletted. Medlars are a strange fruit in that they cannot be eaten until they have gone very dark, ripe and soft, a process called bletting. Any other fruit would be thrown away in this state, but medlars are unique because they go from sour and astringent to a tart, soft date-like fruit. They can be sliced in two and the soft flesh can be squeezed or spooned out. Within there are 5 large seeds, so you have watch out for them.

This medlar tart recipe comes from the 1597 book The Good Housewife’s Jewel by Thomas Dawson. It is a very simple paste made from medlar pulp, cinnamon, ginger and sugar baked in a pastry case. Here’s the recipe as it appears in the book:

Take medlars that be rotten and stamp them. Then set them on a chafing dish with coals, and beat in two yolks of eggs, boiling till it be somewhat thick. Then season them with sugar, cinnamon and ginger and lay it in the paste.

Back in Tudor times (Elizabeth I was on the throne when the book was published), sugar was not always as refined as today, so to replicate this I used soft light brown sugar. I decided to use rough-puff pastry as my ‘paste’, as it was often used for the more delicate desserts and posh pies. I changed the method slightly and instead of thickening the medlar mixture in a pan, as you would for pouring custard, I put the uncooked mixture into the case and baked it in the oven.

I did have a look for other recipes and found that things like butter, nutmeg, candied fruit or citron, sweet cider and musk powder (that final one might be a little tricky to source) were all added merrily.

This tart is very good indeed, evocative of the American pumpkin pie. I would certainly give it a go should you happen upon a medlar tree.

For the tart:

Blind-baked shallow 8-inch pastry case

750 g well-bletted medlars

75 g caster or soft light brown sugar

3 egg yolks

1 tsp each ground cinnamon and ginger

 

Cut the medlars and twist in half widthways, as you might do with an avocado (except there are 5 pips rather than one large one). Scoop or squeeze the soft flesh into a bowl, removing pips as you go. I tried to pass the squeezed flesh through a sieve, which was a little tricky and boring but realised quite quickly that I wasn’t patient enough and decided instead that the flesh was smooth enough straight from the fruit.

Beat in the remaining ingredients and spread the mixture over the pastry case and bake for 20 minutes at 175°C.

Eat warm with thick cream.

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King Alfred Burns the Cakes

It’s a story familiar to most of us:

King Alfred, exhausted and lost in the woods after beating the Danes in a vicious pitched battle, stumbles, bedraggled, upon a herdsman’s hut. The huntsman’s wife invites him in, and not recognising him, just assumes he is merely a soldier of Wessex, not the King! She kindly offers him rest and nourishment, as she has just put some cakes in the embers of her fire to bake.

Alfred burns the cakes

Alfred is chastised for burning the cakes

The housewife pops out to collect some more firewood, and instructs the soldier to keep an eye on the cakes whilst she is away lest they burn, but almost as soon as she is leaves, poor Alfred falls asleep. A few minutes later the housewife returns, greeted by the smell of burning cakes and a sleeping soldier:

“What sort of careless man are you, who neglects to attend to burning bread? Never have I seen so negligent a man – one who doesn’t even know how to turn ash-baked bread – and yet when it is put in front of you, you’ll no doubt rush to eat it!”

Well that’s him told!

It is assumed that this story is apocryphal, the earliest written example doesn’t appear until 300 years after the event, but I’m not so sure, it sounds like a story that would be passed down as gossip about the king. If it was made up years after the event, it would be a strange story to select; it’s not tale of derring-do, nor is it a tale of any religious significance. Is it supposed to tell us all how humble a man Alfred the Great was? What’s the moral – don’t bake cakes after pitched battle? It’s a lack of these elements, which usually appear in fantastical stories of early monarchs, that makes me think that it may be true.

Well whatever the source of the tale and the reasons for its retelling, it is a story that is almost taken for granted, but I thought I’d take a closer look at the food in this story – what were these cakes, and how were they made?

As with all food history, one needs to understand the broader historical context behind, serving as a backdrop to the food itself, setting the scene.

Alfred statue

The Statue of Alfred the Great in London (bbc.co.uk)

King Alfred – who he?

King Alfred was a late 8th Century Anglo-Saxon king, he wasn’t king of England, because England was not yet joined into one united cohesive country, Alfred was king of Wessex. The other kingdoms in England – Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia and all been occupied and taken by the Danes, or if you prefer, the Vikings!

The security of  theKingdom of Wessex and its King sat on a knife edge, and pressure from the Danes moving into the kingdom had forced Alfred and his household to hide in the marshes of the Somerset Downs. An alternative version of the story of the cakes, says that Alfred, who so lost in thought and worry about his kingdom that he wandered into woods, got rather lost and happened upon the herdsman’s hut.

Alfred plotted and planned and managed to communicate with his allies well enough to form an army. In the year 878 he fought the Danes at Edington, which he eventually won. It was in the aftermath of this battle that he discovered the herdsman’s hut. The Battle of Edington is one of the most important events in Anglo-Saxon history, because in the months afterwards, Alfred made a peace treaty with the Danes and forced them to convert to Christianity.

Alfred had reclaimed Wessex and the Danes began to settle and assimilate with the Anglo-Saxons, making England a more cohesive place, indeed Alfred’s nephew Athelstan was the first King of all the Kingdom within England, uniting the kingdoms until his death.

9th century britain

The British Isles in the late 9th Century (britroyals.com)

Ash-Baked Cakes – what they?

For folk in mediaeval times, a home-baked loaf of bread was usually out of reach, most homes lacked a suitable oven and so relied on the oven (and skills) of local bakers. For those that lived in the futher fringes of the towns – such as herdsmen – it simply wasn’t viable to make the long trek into town, it was much easier to bake cakes on their fire.

Cast iron equipment such as griddles or waffle irons, were expensive, so many had to bake little cakes of ground cereal grain (wheat, rye or oats) directly into the embers of their fires.

Baking these cakes required both an eagle eye and excellent judgement – the outside needed to be just scorched, and the inside fluffy and warm. I must admit that I am not one for making fires or having barbeques, so I’ve not had the chance to have a go at making these devilishly difficult ember cakes. However, as soon as the opportunity arises I will, and I’ll report straight back to you guys!

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Favourite Cook Books no. 3: The Forme of Cury, part 2 – recipes

FC scroll The vellum scroll rolled up (British Museum)

As promised in my previous post, a few recipes from the Forme of Cury. I have translated them into modern English, so you can follow them a bit easier. For the hippocras drink, I have given you my interpretation of the recipe as there are some hard-to-find ingredients. All the recipes are easy to make and taste delicious.

Cabbage Soup

A very simple dish – not everything Richard II ate was ostentatious. This is a very simple recipe with ingredients we use today. The addition of the saffron give it an interesting earthy flavour. Powder douce was a mixture of sweet spices – the spices we would associate with desserts like apple pie – shop-bought mixed spice is good substitute. The base of the soup is broth or stock, use any you like, though I think chicken is the best for this soup.

Caboches in Potage. Take Caboches and quarter hem and seeth hem in gode broth with Oynouns yminced and the whyte of Lekes yslyt and ycorue smale. And do þerto safroun & salt, and force it with powdour douce.

Cabbage Soup. Take cabbages and quarter them and seethe (simmer) them in good broth with chopped onions and the white of leeks, slit and diced small. Add saffron and salt, and season it with powder douce.

forme of cury stitchesThe Forme of Cury with stitching where a new piece of parchment was added to the scroll (British museum)

Rabbit or Kid in a Sweet and Sour Sauce

Any kind of meat can be used here really, chicken legs or diced lamb are the best substitutes. Sweet and sour sauce was called egurdouce; -douce meaning sweet and egur- meaning sour, e.g. vin-egur was sour wine, in other words vinegar! The meat is browned in lard, removed, so the onions and dried fruit can be fried, the meat is replaced with the liquid ingredients and spices and simmered just like a modern casserole or stew.

Egurdouce. Take connynges or kydde, and smyte hem on pecys rawe, and fry hem in white grece. Take raysouns of coraunce and fry hem. Take oynouns, perboile hem and hewe them small and fry them. Take rede wyne and a lytel vynegur, sugur with powdour of pepr, of ginger, of canel, salt; and cast þerto, and lat it seeþ with a gode quantite of white grece, & serue it forth.

Take young rabbits or kid and cut them into pieces and fry them in lard. Take currants and fry them. Take onions, parboil them, and chop them small and fry them. Take red wine and red wine vinegar, sugar and powdered pepper, ginger, cinnamon, salt and add them, let it simmer gently in a good quantity of lard and serve it forth.

Hippocras

hippocras MS Straining hippograss through a bag

This is a really excellent recipe for spiced wine; mulled drinks were drunk throughout the year and could be served hot or cold. There are some tricky to get hold of spices, but I’ve added alternatives where appropriate. If you have to omit a spice or two, don’t worry, it will still be delicious.

Pur fait ypocras. Troys vnces de canell & iii vneces de gyngeuer; spykenard de Spayn, le pays dun denerer; garyngale, clowes gylofre, poeure long, noieȝ mugadeȝ, maȝioȝame, cardemonii, de chescun dm. vnce; de toutes soit fsait powdour &c.

To make hippocras. Three ounces of cinnamon and three ounces of ginger, spikenard of Spain, a pennysworth; galingale, cloves, long pepper, nutmeg, marjoram, cardamom, of each a quarter of an ounce; grain of paradise, flour of cinnamon, of each half an ounce; of all, powder is to be made etc.

There are a couple of tricky spices in the list: long pepper and grains of paradise are available to buy online quite easily, but are very expensive, so you can get away with regular black pepper as a substitute. Galangal is easier to find fresh than dried these days, as it is used extensively in Thai cuisine as part of their delicious red and green curries, however, seek and ye shall find the dried variety.

Spikenard of Spain is the extract of the root of a valerian plant and was used in the church as an anointing oil, it also appears very commonly in recipes. I’ve never had the opportunity to taste it.

 

Here’s my version of the recipe:

1 bottle of red wine

1 tsp each ground cinnamon and ground ginger

¼ tsp each ground galingale, ground black pepper, ground nutmeg, dried marjoram, ground cardamom

honey to taste

 

Pour the wine into a saucepan with all of the spices and bring slowly to a scalding temperature. Don’t let the wine boil as there’ll be no alcohol left in it! Let the spices steep in the hot wine for around 10 minutes.

Meanwhile spread a piece of muslin, or any other suitable cloth, over a sieve and pour the spiced wine through it into another pan or serving jug. Add honey to sweeten. Serve hot or cold.

 

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Favourite Cook Books no.3: The Forme of Cury, Part I

FC blanc mangeSome original text from the Form of Cury – a recipe for blank mang              (British Library)

The Forme of Cury (literally, A Method of Cookery) is Britain’s earliest known cook book, dating from around 1390. Regular readers will know, I am somewhat of a mediaevalist and so I have leafed through this ancient text many times, slowly soaking up the recipes just like a sop in potage.

The effort required to produce the food, prepare it an obtain the ingredients, the surroundings and equipment and the wonderment of a mediaeval feast are all there to see, but from one person’s perspective: the cook.

Angry cook Angry Cook and Waiters c. 1330

By cooking recipes from books like this, we get a glimpse of a bygone world, and with a bit of knowledge about the ingredients and methods used to prepare them, you get to experience history almost at first hand and really fires up the imagination. Anyone with as passing interest in history will love giving recipes like this as go, and I implore you to try, whether it be this book, or something more accessible like Mrs Beeton’s Book of Houshold Management, you won’t be disappointed.

Of course, for the Forme of Cury you have to brush up on your Middle English – this is the language of Chaucer – but with a good glossary and some persistence, you will tune in.

The Forme of Cury begins thus:

The Forme of Cury was compiled of the chef maister cooks of kyng Richard the Secunde king of Englond aftir the Conquest.

Richard II, the Dandy King, was flamboyant and ostentatious; he lived in grandeur and was considered to be a narcissistic, effeminate fop by many. Everything was done on a grand scale. His court and household were huge: 200 personal guards, 13 bishops, barons, knights, esquires plus many servants and other workers. In all, around 10 000 people worked under him.

Richard’s feasting and partying were also elaborate – one feast in 1383 cost 57 000 pounds plus an extra 10 000 pounds for napery and spices! If he were alive he’d be called a foodie for sure, his other gift to gastronomy aside from this book, being the napkin, prior to that the tablecloth doubled as one.

Richard was also obsessed with record-keeping, and because of this he commissioned this manuscript, and history is all the much richer for it.

richard II Richard II

Who wrote it?

The master cooks will not have written the recipes down themselves, it’s very likely that they were illerate, but they will have been dictated to by a scribe who sat behind the master cook taking notes. The cook himself sat in a raised chair in the centre of the huge kitchen, filled with industrious workers such as the bakers, the sauce cook, the spit-roaster, and the mincer; there was even a person in charge of salad! From his chair he was lord of all he surveyed, checking every dish before it was ‘served forth’.

The manuscripts

There are ten incomplete copies of the Forme of Cury in existence today, but the original 1390 document seems to be forever lost. The most complete copy is a six-metre long scroll of vellum parchment which is housed in the British Museum. No extant copy matches up exactly and all appear to contain errors or omissions (and in some cases additions). These differences are mainly due to human error by copying – some scribes were better than others it seems – but some are purposeful, new recipes unique to the commissioning household could be added, and some removed if disliked.

FC scrollThe Forme of Cury scroll (British Museum)

These manuscripts were transcribed and published as printed documents several centuries later many containing further errors, but they are invaluable because the text is easier to read, and many were written before some of the original copies degenerated, becoming unreadable. Some errors were mistranslations, for example ‘cast’ being swapped for ‘yeast’ (which was then spelt ȝast); other mistakes were made because non-cooks were doing the translating. In one case one transcriber recommends pouring boiling hot water over an intricately constructed pastry castle – not a good idea!

The recipes

Modern editions of the book start with a list of recipes, and such a breadth of dishes is represented. Some are homely, many are ostentatious, others mysterious. There are some familiar names and ingredients: blancmange, custard tart, soups and stews, gruel and frumenty and hippocras (spiced wine), all of which would go down well at a dinner party today. However, I’m not sure if porpoise in frumenty or piglets in sage sauce would be well-received.

20180810_115613 Excerpt from a modern transcription of the Forme of Cury

On feast days there was a type of dish called a sotielty (subtlety) which was not eaten, just looked at. Examples include the aforementioned pastry castle; the cokagrys, a half-pig, half-cock creation, and animals on pilgrimage, dressed in clothes and holding lamprey staffs.

The food that was eaten, however, was similarly painstaking to produce. To show of Richard’s great wealth there would be liberal use of spices and sugar (which was then considered a spice) as well as dried fruits such as currants, which had to have their seeds individually removed before they could be used – there was no such thing as seedless grapes in the 14th Century!

There were more fast days then feast days however, so there are many vegetarian and vegan dishes as well as recipes using freshwater fish and almonds or almond milk.

Some recipes are familiar and are delicious (they made great custard tarts), there are early recipes for rice pudding, bread sauce and meatballs. They even made pasta, which was most often rolled out thinly, cut into diamonds and dried. The pasta would be layered up with cooked mincemeat and a cheese sauce: in other words, a mediaeval English lasagne!

Food from The Forme of Cury has appeared on the blog before (see the Tartlettes post) and I made eel pie and hippocras for Alice Roberts on Channel 4’s Britain’s Most Historic Towns. I’ve waffled on a bit so I’ll post some original recipes as well as my interpretations of them in the next few days.

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Pease Pancakes

Hello there readers, sorry I’ve been a bit tardy with posts but I’ve gotten somewhat bogged with a post on the history of vegetarianism that currently looks to be about four posts long! I’m ignoring the writers’ block by writing this little easy post instead…

I was having a sort out of the kitchen cupboards and happened upon the bag of pea flour I had bought to write a post on peasebread a while ago. Researching for the post, I found that in the very north of Scotland, people ate a lot of peasemeal until recently, because very little in the way of cereals could be grown up there. These Scottish islanders would make pease pancakes amongst other things, so I thought I might have a go at them myself. Having no recipe, I just adapted my own recipe for American pancakes. They turned out pretty good – much better than the peasebread – and were delicious with some fried mushrooms and black pudding. They had a distinctive fresh pea and roast peanut flavour to them, and were slightly rubbery, but not in an unpleasant way.

Makes 10 to 12 pancakes:

½ cup pea flour

½ cup self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

2 tbs sunflower oil or 25 g melted butter

1 beaten egg

¾ cup milk, or half-milk half-water

sunflower oil for frying

 

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, make a well in the centre and add the oil or butter, egg and around half of the milk. Beat in with a wire whisk until the thick batter is lump-free, then carefully mix in the rest of the liquid.

Put a griddlepan or non-stick pan on a medium heat and allow it to get hot. Add a little oil and spoon in small ladles into the pan. You should be able to fit 3 or 4 pancakes in each pan.

Allow to fry for a couple of minutes before checking that they are golden brown. Once they are, flip and fry the other side.

Pile up and keep warm in a very cool oven. Add a little more oil to the pan if needed and continue to fry in batches.

Serve with typical breakfast things: bacon, sausage, poached egg, mushrooms etc.

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