Ah, pancakes! Those wonderful pan-fried treats! What could be simpler than frying up a nice round batter cake made from flour, eggs, and milk? Three must really be a magic number as the possible permutations from using just these three basic ingredients can sometimes seem to be almost infinite. While eggs are eggs (true, not all eggs are equal so best stick with free range ones), milk can be replaced by cream or buttermilk for even better results. And, of course, your flour could be wheat, buckwheat, spelt, graham, or even something else. You get to choose.
Next decision: will you fry up your pancakes in butter – melting and folding a bit extra into your batter – or will you use some other cooking fat or oil? And what else will you add in – a pinch of salt, some sugar, or perhaps some baking powder or yeast? If your pancakes are going to be sweet, you could even go all out and add some berries or other fruit into your batter. What about including chocolate chips …? Yes, that might be a step too far …. But then there’s that seemingly endless choice of toppings – including jam, maple syrup, sugar, or more butter just to name a few.
You see, the variations are indeed countless – and we’ve only been talking about sweet rather than savory pancakes. And to be honest, we haven’t even left the West to sample Korea’s savory pajeon or Japan’s surprising okonomiyaki or India’s ubiquitous dosa or Ethiopia’s national dish – the injera – which even doubles as a serving dish. Every culture – or subculture – has a version of its own.
Although the Estonian pancake (pannkook) sounds like it’s related to its American counterpart, its much closer to a thin French crêpe or a Russian blin (блин) and so can be either savory or sweet. Soviet Tallinn’s ground-breaking fast-food pioneers Kümme minutit (Ten Minutes) plugged their pannkoogid and offered both variations – a tradition kept alive today by Old Town’s Kompressor which moved in across the street. Yes, you can sometimes encounter thicker Americans-style pancakes here – the Russian olad’ (оладь) for example – but these are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Sadly, pancakes have a very short life span once they come out of the pan. And yet far too many Tallinn cafés still seem to follow that old Soviet tradition of cooking up a whole stack at once and then just letting them sit around until they become as tough as shoe leather. Last weekend I was served pancakes so rubbery that I refused to eat them. Hello!?! Why even bother putting such abominations on your trendy restaurant’s new brunch menu?
Now the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten were at Detinets in Russia’s Veliky Novgorod – a restaurant which no longer exists. These other-worldly bliny were oven-baked and melted in your mouth. While I’ve come close to hacking their recipe relying only my culinary memories, you can get a hint of what this perfection was like if you try T35’s Dutch Baby – the name Americans give to an oven-baked pancake. As it happens, T35 serves breakfast – and pretty much only breakfast – all day. I’m all for that as American pancakes are a breakfast tradition – although we’ll sometimes combine their sweet taste with some crispy slices of savory bacon.
All of this brings me – in my usual roundabout way – to what might be my favorite new brunch “spot” in Tallinn: Minipannkook aka Poffertjes. These Estonian street food vendors make wonderful baby Dutch pancakes the size of American silver dollars. And while you might have spotted them at a food festival around town, these days you should find Minipannkook’s small food truck (well, it’s more of a trailer) out at Telliskivi most weekends. Each one of their fluffy bite-sized yeast pancakes will bring a smile to your face – no matter what topping you choose for your standard set of 15 or 20 perfect morsels. When I’m feeling American, I’ll ask for butter and maple syrup. When I want to go local, I’ll get them with Estonian berry jam. Either way, you’ll get a nice Dutch dusting of powdered sugar added on top. Just be sure to visit them out at Telliskivi soon or without your active support, Minipannkook may take their green trailer and their dimpled-cast-iron-pancake-pan that they’ve named Cuba and move on to greener – or at least warmer – pastures. And then, where would I be without my local pancake fix next weekend?
P.S. Don’t forget to check Minipannkook’s FaceBook page to confirm their current location!
Image: My dimpled-cast-iron-pancake-pan from Thailand designed for making delicious kanom krok or Thai coconut pancakes. As it now seems that I need to come up with a good name for my pancake pan perhaps Krok might work?