Look beyond the IHOP menu to a world of sourdough riffs, alternate grains, and vegetable add-ins.
There’s something deeply poignant about Liza Treyger’s joke about ordering pancakes for the table. During her stand-up set for Late Night with Seth Meyers in 2016, she describes the act as a “power move.” With one deft menu choice, she penetrates the souls of her dining compatriots, knowing what they all want without speaking it into existence.
They want pancakes. They all want pancakes. But nobody at that table was going to order them for themselves.
Pancakes are the immutable presence on every child’s dream breakfast plate—an easy go-to for many parents looking to feed their kids without much complaint: the combination of flour, buttermilk, and sugar produces something pillowy and recognizable, easy to eat and the perfect vessel for sweet syrups, nut butters, pieces of chocolate, and fruity toppings. But as we get older, our taste buds crave more. That bacon smells good, doesn’t it? Our seeking out of savory items and willingness to be more adventurous means that some childhood foods get left behind, including the pancakes. Or do they? As I found in conversations about short and tall stacks around the country, the pancake is a vessel whose nostalgic familiarity allows for inventive and creative interpretations.
For many chefs serving a breakfast menu, pancakes present a challenge: to hearken to a sense memory of childhood while giving the dish a spin that represents grown-up palates. Sometimes, all that requires is looking around the kitchen. “We use the discard from our sourdough mothers to make our griddle cakes,” says Bunny Bottoms, chef and owner of Cafe Marie-Jeanne in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. “The baker comes in, feeds all the mothers, and sets the discard aside for the cooks. You’d get these incredibly fluffy pancakes since the batter would have yeast from the discard and then would be leavened with baking powder.”
The resulting pancakes are voluminous—nothing like the flat, plate-size cakes pedaled at diner chains, although Bottoms admits to being influenced by the diner culture of their youth. “I was one of those teens who’d hang at Denny’s or IHOP until midnight and eat pancakes and French fries and a million cups of coffee.”
Sourdough discard isn’t the only leftover that can dress up these pancakes for adults. “I was doing these porridge pop-ups, and I’d always have leftovers,” says Kristen Rasmussen, a culinary nutrition consultant in Portland, Oregon. “But I didn’t want to throw anything away, so I’d make buckwheat pancakes using the cold porridge instead of buckwheat flour. The texture is different, but it’s still really tasty.”
Rasmussen sees a lot of potential for pancakes as a vessel for whole grains and other ingredients that home cooks might not be as familiar with. “I’ve taught cooking classes on whole grains before, and people get so worked up about how much time and water each grain needs. But that’s what’s great about pancakes: no matter how you cook the grain, you can just throw in an egg, get some spices, and cook.”
Others have played with different combinations of whole or alternative grains in their pancakes, including ready-made batters from AXE, in which owner Joanna Moore took the now-closed Venice, California, restaurant’s popular multigrain pancake recipe, with brown rice, whole wheat flour, millet, and oats, and adapted it for at-home cooking with a mix sold at local farmers’ markets. There’s Ethos in Richland, Washington, who mill their own flour and whose pancake mix includes Yellow Breton flour (commonly used for crepes) and Sonoran Gold flour. And Santa Fe Culinaria’s blue corn mix, used to make blue corn piñon pancakes, a staple in Southwestern cuisine.
For many, pancakes help bridge the gap between the new and familiar. “I make Korean food that’s not often seen in the United States,” says Michelle Back, who runs Banana Phone, an occasional Korean pop-up and ice cream maker in Chicago. “Hotteok is a really popular Korean street food. My mom would have them after school, but here, most people only have them frozen.”
Hotteok is a sweet and well-spiced filled pancake, traditionally stuffed with sugar and chopped nuts that Back likens to “a McGriddles,” but she riffs on the fillings with savory additions influenced by her own culinary memories. “I lived in Philly from ages 17 to 24, so the Philly cheesesteak hotteok made sense,” she jokes. Why did she decide on this pairing? “I combined the two because it’s fun.”
Initially, one might relegate the pancake to the breakfast menu, but the batter’s neutral canvas means savory flavors are in play as well, like Melissa Clark’s riff on a Dutch baby with parmesan and lemon; dinner pancakes made with black-eyed peas and garlic at Cadence in New York City, which was named one of New York Times’ 50 best restaurants of 2021; or kimchi pancakes from Maangchi, whose popular YouTube channel Back recommended for folks who want to make hotteok at home.
Regardless of the endless riffs and variations we’ve seen on pancakes, it can be hard to create a new version of a dish so ingrained as a whipped-cream-and-maple-syrup-topped morning item in people’s childhood memories. “I’ve probably made a pancake at every single restaurant I’ve worked at,” says chef Eduardo Sandoval of Top Quality in New York’s Long Island City. “Pancakes are one of those items where people have a very specific way they want to enjoy them. It’s a pretty challenging task, from a chef’s perspective.”
Sandoval developed a sweet potato pancake that meshed with the other dishes on Top Quality’s menu. “I didn’t want to do banana or zucchini pancakes,” he says. “But sweet potatoes are a popular vegetable in Mexico, and the spices that complement sweet potatoes, like warming spices—cinnamon, star anise, clove—show up in salsas and savory items.” Sandoval lets the sweet potatoes do most of the work, adding agave to enhance their sweetness and topping the pancakes with a blueberry jam he pairs with dried Morita, Meco, guajillo, and ancho chiles.
Pancakes offer a way to have two feet firmly in different places. Back recalls a particular customer for whom hotteok was a staple of his youth. “There’s this one person who’s been coming to every single pop-up. He’s Korean, and he said, ‘No one makes this. I’ve never had fresh hotteok before.’ And I told him, that’s why I’m doing this.” It’s almost like time-hopping, in a way—a food that finds familiarity by connecting to our younger selves, and creativity and new life by being an agent for any combination of flavors, textures, and sensations. You’re both young and whimsical, old and adventurous, as you eat.