Rifling through some old notebooks, last week, I found this:
"What the edible elite don't understand is that, for the rest of us, homemade is infinitely inferior to boxes and tins. That our own efforts, big productions though they may be, are uniformly overcooked, under-seasoned, and often rejected by family, in favor of something else. That the huge budgets behind Kraft and P&G go not only into advertising, but into huge teams of cooks, chemists, testers, tweakers, all laboring to perfect the flavors of our food. That for us, this industrial food is not just cheap, easy, and convenient, but GOOD. They have mixed and measured, reduced and seasoned, grilled and garnished, to a T. It's Thomas Keller in a can."
It was dated May 23, 2006.
That was nearly nine years ago.
I'm not sure my opinions have changed much. (Well, that Keller bit might've been a stretch.)
Here's the thing: There's this common truth, this accepted wisdom, so widespread it approaches gospel, that homemade is better. Automatically. Inherently. Michael Pollan says it. Michael Ruhlman does, too. Mark Bittman, also. I admire Mark and the Michaels, greatly. They're level-headed voices of reason in this crazy polarized weird food world we inhabit. They carve out sane principles, and cry foul over the corporate blather that convinces us roast chicken's beyond reach, and generally strip away all the silly, to bring cooking back to its basic beginnings. I like this. I agree with this. Still, they lie.
Or at least, obfuscate. Or maybe they just don't know me well enough. Because they routinely gloss over this tiny, glaring, tremendously awkward truth: home cooking can be appalling. Just, bad. Really bad. Beyond awful, and not infrequently.
Because cooking, while not at all hard, is not exactly easy, either. Especially at home. Super especially with children. The day is long. You're tired. There's math. And spelling. And scales that still need practicing. And a sink, somehow full for the fifth time, of dishes. And knots to unravel; and arguments, also; and thermoses with gunk glued to their insides. A fine time to be playing with fire.
You have a staff of one. Your supply chain is lacking. You're seriously under-capitalized. Your equipment is out of date, or incomplete, or in a state of collapse. Or all of the above. You have a "team" which, measured against industry-standard performance metrics, would not make it past their first review cycle. Actually, their first probation period. Don't get me started on how they clean they keep their station.
There are a thousand ways to fail. I've tried them all. Most of them, many times. The broth is bland. The eggs, rubber. The pie, scorched. The sauce, all lumps. The stew, too salty. The chicken, still pink. The crêpes, crisp. The dinner, #fail. The path to success? Can you see it? So slender? Remember that old saw about camels, sucking it up to squeeze through needle eyes? Like that. Possible. If not likely.
Of course, I cook anyway. I do it because there are countless reasons to cook, beyond end results. I cook because so much of what I love to eat, isn't sold in aisle 6. Stir-fry doesn't fare well in Tetra Paks. Smoked tofu and celery apparently have a narrow reach. Salad bar salads are mostly just sad. Grocery store frosting. Enough said.
I cook because I'm wildly independent. Possibly stubborn. Definitely obstinate. I hate the idea of depending on others. Tyson and Nabisco, included.
I cook because I want my kids to know that a carrot's a root and grows in the ground and comes with a wild green leafy 'do. I want them to know cake starts with flour and butter and eggs and an extraordinary mess. I want them to know from yellow pointy things (#11, but don't stop there...)
I cook because it busies my hands, and my hands are the sort that need busying. Maybe it's a genetic thing; I have two kids who have busy hands, too. Every time I turn around, there are pan pipes being made out of straws, and dulcimers out of boxes and rubber bands, and fantastic orange cats being colored, and paper by the ream being folded into airplanes, and bulbs and seeds and succulents being planted. Some hands are as hungry for making as some stomachs, for eating. This is why I knit. This is why I cook. Feeds the beast. Twice over, in cooking's case.
I cook because I can pronounce the ingredients. I cook because I can double the cardamom. I cook because cooking's a skill, and all skills improve over time, and with practice. I cook because I'm too lazy to buy boxed somethings for every.single.meal. Too cheap, too. I like lentils, and leftovers, and the challenge of working yesterday's braised pork into today's spaghetti and sauce. Even if Stouffer's does it better.
I cook because, for all the fails, it's really, really hard to beat fresh, warm, homemade bread.
It's also hard to beat boxed pancake mix.
We make pancakes all the time, once a week, most weeks. For years, I've alternated between oatmeal pancakes and these ricotta cloud cakes. They are each distinct, and wonderful, and I've practiced enough to not fail too completely. (Though, as my kids will quickly tell you, I specialize in Cajun pancakes: blackened exterior, raw interior, nobody's bright idea of breakfast. Eggos would be so much simpler. See: stubborn, above.)
What I never make, or very rarely, anyway, is straight-up, ordinary buttermilk pancakes. From scratch, I should clarify. When we're on vacation, once or twice a year, we buy pancake mix, not wanting to clutter a rental kitchen. These are always excellent pancakes. Bisquick. Kodiak. Krusteaz. Whatever. They all blow my buttermilk pancakes out of the water.
Because I have, of course, made buttermilk pancakes. A dozen times. Three dozen. More? Countless recipes. Countless stove settings. Countless approaches. And they're mostly fine. Not terrible, not great. Big circles of batter, cooked. Pleasant. Nice. Nothing that seems worth the work. Nothing half as good as the boxed mix.
This is slightly discouraging. (Though of course, not at all unexpected.)
Was, rather. The camel's come through. Buttermilk pancakes are no longer a twice-a-year treat.
Several months ago, I stumbled upon The Buttermilk Pancake To Beat All, in—get this—My Father's Daughter. I know, I know; don't go. This was before Gwyenth's everything-free phase. This wasn't, even then, her house pancake, which dutifully includes soy milk and seeds and other Proper Things. What this is is her father's recipe, and I quote, "Bruce Paltrow's World-Famous Pancakes". Humble? No. Accurate? Absolutely.
There are a thousand ways to make a buttermilk pancake, but as a rule, most recipes are strikingly similar, a standard formula of 1:1:1—one cup of flour, one cup of buttermilk, one egg. Easy peasy. Leavening varies, sugar Tablespoons fluctuate, fat types and sorts are subject to change. But by and large, this ratio rules. It's a good ratio. A nice ratio. I've used it three dozen times. Maybe more. Like I said: not bad.
Paltrow's pancakes almost follow suit, almost. But in two crucial ways, they vary at the margins, and as we know, those margins are everything. To his three cups of flour and three cups of buttermilk, Paltrow adds six eggs. Six eggs make magic things happen. Six eggs make for a flapjack that's delicate, and light, and unequivocally tender. Never doughy, or bready, or heavy, as I find most (from-scratch, non-mix) buttermilk pancakes to be. Six eggs provide body and structure and a togetherness in the skillet I can only call poise. Poise in a pancake is a fine thing. Six eggs suggest custard, but in lower case type, a softness and creaminess that so suits pancakes. Six eggs make a batter, and pancake, as handsome as handsome can be, golden, sunny, happy.
What makes me happy is Paltrow's second small tweak: the mixing up of the batter the night before. All of it. Wet; dry; baking powder, even. This wigged me out, the first several times, as I was sure the baking powder would deflate. Probably, it does. Definitely, it doesn't matter. I've made these some 16 times now, and counting. They've never failed. They're always wonderful. The overnight rest likely does all sorts of important chemistry-ish things, like letting the gluten relax, and the flour hydrate, and yada yada... More importantly? It allows the batter to sour, ever so slightly. Poise: meet personality.
Most importantly? With all the prep done the night prior, I can stumble downstairs, bleary-eyed, caffeine-hangry, and ta da!, start flipping flapjacks as I brew. Flapjacks that cook up as fragrant and deckle-edged and faintly tart and subtly sweet and reliably swoony as any I've ever made. From scratch, for sure. From a mix, even. From me? High praise, indeed.
Bruce Paltrow's World-Famous Pancakes
adapted from My Father's Daughter, by Gwyneth Paltrow
yield: about a billion (or at least 3 dozen)
I've rounded a few ingredients up + down ever so slightly, to be less fussy, as is my way, and love them just like this. As is also my way, I've inverted and consolidated the mixing down to one bowl; two big dirty bowls have no place before breakfast. Feel free to mix the dry ingredients properly, separately. Additionally, Paltrow has you leave the batter out, apparently on the counter, overnight. I don't do broken and beaten eggs at room temp, all night. I refrigerate.
The yield on this recipe is vast, enough to feed an office. (The tall stack, above? Not quite half the recipe.) I usually make this as written, and run through half on a school morning. The remainder, I cook off, cool, and freeze, for snacks and future breakfasts. Pancakes reheat brilliantly. That said, this recipe halves easily.
6 extra-large eggs
3 cups buttermilk (whole, if possible)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp. kosher salt
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tbs + 1 tsp baking powder
6 Tbs. salted butter + more for cooking
++ additional milk and/or flour, to thin or thicken
The night prior: crack eggs into a large mixing bowl, then whisk well, to break apart. Add well-shaken buttermilk, and whisk, to combine. Add sugar and salt, and whisk well. Finally, add flour, with baking powder sprinkled over, and whisk or fold gently, until batter is mostly homogenous and just combined. Cover with a clean dish towel or plastic wrap, and refrigerate until the next morning.
In the morning, in a large skillet suitable for flapjacks, melt the 6 Tbs. of butter. Add butter to batter, and whisk to combine. Return skillet to burner, turn heat to medium-low, add a good knob of butter, and once melted, deposit batter in 1/4 cup portions. (I can manage 3 pancakes at a time in my 12" skillet.) When pancakes are drying at the edges, and bubbles are appearing throughout, 3-4 minutes, flip one to test. If the bottom is golden and rimmed with lovely, flip the remaining flapjacks, and cook another 2 minutes, or until just cooked through. Remove, and either serve immediately, or hold in a 200 degree oven, as you work through the batter.
Continue until all batter has been used, adjusting heat so as not to burn, and adding an additional slosh of milk or spoonful of flour, to adjust heft to suit. We love these on the thin side, typically exactly as written, though now and again, we'll add an extra Tablespoon or two of flour, for loft. Experiment. Play. Enjoy. And above all, top with butter. (Maple syrup optional, but excellent.)