(scroll to bottom for recipe)
One of the more significant limitations Elena and I face in terms of cooking hinges on an otherwise benign, if enigmatic staple: buckwheat. As a flour it is most commonly consumed – I would guess – in the form of soba noodles, a Japanese pasta made from buckwheat flour. However, it’s more commonly known as “kasha” the roasted version of buckwheat groats used heavily in Eastern European Jewish cooking. Small, chewy, and distinctive, these little groats (as they are technically not “grains” per se, but hulled archenes) are fairly healthy, and loaded with obscure minerals like Manganese, Copper, Phosphorous, and Zinc. I’ve always been intrigued by the shape–like two pyramids fused at their respective bases.
Kasha varnishkes, that ubiquitous staple of Eastern European Jewish Cuisine, employs buckwheat as its primary ingredient. Coated with egg, pan-fried, and paired with onions, bowtie noodles, mushrooms, and sour cream, kasha varnishkes is a spectacularly simple, and surprisingly delicious dish. I love it; and Elena absolutely reviles it. (For the record, one of my brothers has the same reaction to Buckwheat groats, so maybe its one of those love-hate foods like cauliflower or cilantro.)
So much for deep-seeded religious and cultural traditions. Elena comes from Ashkenazi stock, and I have predominantly German Catholic roots, so common sense would lead one to surmise the opposite. Nevertheless, I’m the one with the kasha-fixation. The months following this discovery were spattered with intermittent efforts on my part to find a new method for cooking buckwheat groats that Elena would like. I tried a few different versions of kasha varnishkes; I even tried an vaguely Italian variation with vermicelli, fall vegetables, and leeks (recipe available here, third from the top). Nothing seemed to work–until Sunday.
My father was always the breakfast cook growing up. Alongside the familiar feeling of the cold metal chains of playground swings and the strong scent of dry straw bales wafting out of flung-open barn doors, few associations are as strong and childlike for me as my father, in his well-worn grey robe, making breakfast. One of his specialties was buckwheat pancakes. I always remembered their delicious and distinctive nutty flavors, but I hadn’t attempted to make them on my own before this weekend.
I spotted a baker at the Union Square Greenmarket on Saturday that was selling fresh milled flour and cornmeal. I bought cornmeal (which I had been out of for some time), buckwheat flour, and a pumpkin “whoopie pie”. The whoopie pie, as delicious as it sounds, was consumed that afternoon with a bottle of Dogfish Head’s Burton Baton over a half-game of scrabble. The buckwheat, by contrast, sat peacefully on the shelf until Sunday morning.
On Sunday morning, I slayed two demons that had been nagging at me for some time: buckwheat flour and yeast. Anyone who’s a from-scratch pancake maker–and this should be everyone, quite frankly–knows that there are two methods of making pancake batter. One, the more simple and expedient method, calls for baking powder. Satisfyingly fast, these flapjacks are ready to go instantly; just mix the liquids into the solids (or vice versa), and you’re ready to go. However, baking powder comes with a slight aftertaste, and is a chemical product. So if you’re looking for the all-natural, “real deal” pancake, baking powder probably isn’t for you.
The second method uses yeast as a leavening agent. This method involves letting the batter sit for an hour, but honestly after having tried this method I can assure you that it’s well worth the wait. When you’re done you end up with a light, fluffy batter and the cooked pancakes have an consistency and lightness and depth of flavor that will amaze you! The buckwheat flour, too, did not disappoint. When used to make pancakes, the flour gives the batter a blue-grey color, with beautiful dark specks: almost like a variation on a robin’s egg. The flour must have been freshly milled as the flavors were intense and delicate. They hardly needed maple syrup; just a little butter would have done the trick.
And the best news of all: Elena liked them! Mission Accomplished!
Adapted, slightly, from an out of print and slightly odd 1970’s version of the New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook:
2 cups lukewarm water
1 tablespoon dry active yeast
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 cups buckwheat flour
1 cup unbleached white flour
1 cup lukewarm milk
1 teaspoon sea salt
Mix yeast and brown sugar into warm water in a large mixing bowl and stir until dissolved. Add the milk to the yeast mixture, and then the flours and salt (sifted together if you’re feeling ambitious). Beat this mixture by hand until smooth.
Cover and set aside in a warm place to rise for about an hour. The mixture should be light and fluffy at this point. Stir well and bake on a lightly oiled medium-hot griddle (or cast iron frying pan, if you’ve got one), until browned on both sides.
This is a pretty big recipe, so if you’re cooking breakfast for two, I’d recommend halving the recipe.
Note: in my experience, the first pancake always ends up less than spectacular; its always too oily, or you’re griddle was too hot and it burned a bit. Don’t worry about it, just treat the first pancake as calibration. Adjust your temperature and move on to the next one. Also, you shouldn’t need to oil the griddle/pan after the first pancake.