Breakfast for dessert or dessert for breakfast, pancakes are edging sweeter, and chefs are conjuring up imaginative contemporary adaptations of this ancient culinary staple. They range from Stephanie Izard’s clever multi-layer Pancake Cake to Jessica Koslow’s buckwheat-cactus flour pancake topped with cacao nib pudding, toasted coconut, and fresh fruit, to LadyM’s delicate mille crepe cakes and other Asian-inspired griddle fare.
On a whim, Izard, Beard award winning chef-owner of five Chicago restaurants, mixed equal parts of sourdough and buttermilk batter and came up with the perfect formula for the pancakes on the menu at her diner-style Little Goat. Then, at Izard’s sweet shop-bakery, Sugargoat, she blended the Little Goat batter with cake batter, to produce a playful layer cake with maple buttercream filling and crumbly oat streusel topping that is sold nationally on Goldbelly.
At Squirl in Los Angeles, star chef-owner Jessica Koslow recalls a visit to a Mexican restaurant that inspired her to use the cactus flour that she adds to her buckwheat cakes for a softer finish. She starts the pancakes in a skillet and then pops them in the oven until they are puffy, about ten minutes. Koslow is one of many pancake aficionados blending wholesome grains, from buckwheat to oatmeal to purple barley, into their batters. Even uber IHOP is promoting a new lineup of protein pancakes made with whole grain rolled oats, barley, rye, chia and flax.
Roxana Jullapat, pastry chef-baker at East Hollywood California café Friends & Family, and author of the recent cookbook Mother Grains (W.W. Norton & Company, 2021) is also a buckwheat enthusiast. She starts her oversize pancake, served with blueberry compote at the restaurant, in a cast iron pan on the stove for a crispy edge and finishes it in a hot oven, where, Jullapat writes, “it becomes more cakey and has a nice moisture, the best of both worlds.” Her recipe in Mother Grains includes a suggestion for a lighter cornmeal variation she prefers for summer.
Corn is a natural at Panxa Cocina in Long Beach, California, where a blue corn pinon pancake, topped with pine nuts and piloncillo syrup, dovetails neatly with the restaurant’s Southwestern theme. In the Northwest, at The Lake House in Bellevue, Washington, Beard award winning chef-owner Jason Wilson’s Cocoa Pancake Stack is made with cascara (coffee flour) and served with vanilla scented Greek yogurt, blueberry compote and chocolate maple syrup. Wilson is a product developer for coffee flour which is made from discarded husks, and considered a potential global superfood.
Oatmeal griddle cakes are the signature best seller for chef Chris Phelps, a nostalgic nod to the pancakes his mother made for him weekly while growing up, Now, the thin, dark brown, crisp, yet creamy pancakes star at the three Los Angeles, California, locations of his Breakfast by Salt’s Cure (a name chosen for the chef’s original meat-centric concept), and his Manhattan outpost which opened to media acclaim last fall. The recipe is top secret, but Phelps explains that the pancakes are presweetened, so he does not serve them with syrup; however, there is a choice of embellishments including Pink Lady apple, banana with toasted walnuts, blueberry with flax seed crumble,and chocolate chip made with 60.5 % TCHO dark couverture.
Phelps, one of a cohort of chefs merchandising their specialties, sells a tee-shirt with the logo “No Syrup” and the restaurant’s Oatmeal Griddle Cake Mix which comes with a separate packet of cinnamon spice blend. Bubby’s, a Manhattan mecca for American food for over 30 years, where pancakes adapted from a James Beard recipe are prime, also offers a mix, but reveals the recipe’s secret on the box: sour cream. At Pagu in Cambridge, Massachusetts, chef-owner Tracy Chang offers Japanese tapas fare, and the adjunct Pagu Market spotlights the current appeal of Asian flavors with three house-made mixes: black sesame, bright green matcha, and purple, made with dehydrated taro root powder. High end or grocery aisle, photogenic purple hues still reign, from Hayden Mills Heritage Tibetan Purple Barley Pancake Mix, to Trader Joe’s phenomenally popular Ube Mochi pancake mix, prominently featured in displays and subject to limits per customer in some stores.
Trend conscious Trader Joe’s also carries another Asian import, Sweet Cinnamon Filled Korean Pancakes, a traditional street food called hotteok. But hotteok has been elevated to dessert status as the finale of chef Hoyoung Kim’s seven course tasting menu at Manhattan’s Michelin starred Jua, a far cry from the TJ version. At Jua, the dough is made with all-purpose flour, glutinous rice flour, tapioca powder, yeast, milk ,and sugar. A sweet filling with candied pecans and cashews, muscovado sugar and cinnamon is placed in the center of the dough ball which is sealed, flattened, and fried in oil in a non-stick skillet, and flipped over to cook evenly. The pancakes are eaten hot, the filling oozing and sticky. After praise for Jua’s hottoek appeared in reviews in both The New Yorker and The New York Times last winter, the Times followed up with an article about the pancakes by Priya Krishna with a recipe adapted from chef Judy Joo’s Korean Soul Food (Frances Lincoln 2019).
Hotteok is heading mainstream, and three pancakes from Japan have already captivated American palates. Hotteok is served hot off the griddle, while Dorayaki, a favorite snack in Japan associated with the revered anime character Doraemon, is eaten at room temperature. The dough, made with honey and mirin, is soft and most, almost resembling sponge cake, and is traditionally filled with red bean paste, though chestnuts or matcha cream are common substitutes.
A totally different genre, fluffy, jiggly, Japanese souffle pancakes have generated lines-round- the-block success at cafes and tea houses, where the cloudlike discs are a base for a variety of toppings. In Pasadena, California, Motto Tea Café enrobes the pancakes with mango, chestnut puree, boba milk tea or creme brûlée. Motto also offers the third and most widely acclaimed Japanese pancake, the photogenic mille crêpe cake that is flourishing coast to coast with flavors like young coconut pandan at U:Dessert in Berkeley, California and green tea at Prince Tea Houses with a dozen branches stretching from New York to Virginia.
But the gold standard for crêpe cakes is Lady M. The company’s 20 layer confection was invented in 1985 by Emi Wada, a French-trained Japanese pastry chef who married French technique and Japanese aesthetic to create the gossamer, not too sweet, pastry cream filled crêpes that became a sensation at her Paper Moon boutique bakeries in Japan. Wada brought the cakes to New York in 2001, selling to hotels, restaurants and high-end markets, and success led to the opening of the first Lady M boutique in 2004 on Manhattan’s upper east side. Wada eventually returned to Japan to concentrate on her business, and with CEO Ken Romaniszyn at the helm, Lady M has prospered, currently operating 50 boutiques and counting. Romaniszyn, a business school graduate who also studied pastry at the International Culinary Center and is fluent in Japanese, has combined his entrepreneurial and culinary skills to expand the concept in several countries in Asia. The brand is so popular in China that 2000 people lined up for opening day at the first Shanghai outlet, reminiscent of Cronut frenzy in New York. In the United States, Lady M is collaborating with a variety of organizations. This season’s Peach Cobbler, filled with peach-infused blond chocolate pastry cream, is a nod to Georgia native Sutton Stracke, with ten percent of profits donated to one of her causes. The company has also partnered with high-end crystal company Baccarat on a new venture, the LadyMxBaccarat Luxury Cake Truck. Outfitted with sparkling chandeliers, 3D art by Kurt Wenner, and take-out windows flanked by sconces, the truck has been touring California this spring for pop-up parties. From elegant paper-thin crêpe cakes to Stephanie Izard’s inventive take on an American classic, the pancake rolls on as a template for creativity.