A pancake is a thin, flat cake prepared from a batter and cooked on a hot griddle or frying pan. Most pancakes are quick breads; some use a yeast-raised or fermented batter. Most pancakes are cooked one side on a griddle and flipped partway through to cook the other side. Depending on the region, pancakes may be served at any time, with a variety of toppings or fillings including jam, fruit, syrup or meat.
Archaeological evidence suggests that varieties of pancakes are probably the earliest and most widespread types of cereal food eaten in prehistoric societies whereby dry carbohydrate-rich seed flours mixed with the available protein-rich liquids, usually milk and eggs, were baked on hot stones or in shallow earthenware pots over an open fire to form a nutritious and highly palatable foodstuff.
In the medieval and modern Christian period, especially in Britain, pancakes were made to use up store items prior to the period of Lent fasting beginning on Shrovetide.
The pancake’s shape and structure varies worldwide. There are numerous variations of them throughout Europe. A crêpe is a French variety of thin pancake cooked on one or both sides in a special crepe pan to achieve a network of fine bubbles often compared to lace – a savory variety made from buckwheat is usually known as a galette. In Germany, pancakes can be made from potatoes. In Italy they can be fried and stuffed with ricotta and chocolate into what is known as a cannoli.
American or Canadian pancakes (sometimes called hotcakes, griddlecakes, or flapjacks in the U.S.) are pancakes which contain a raising agent such as baking powder; proportions of eggs, flour, and milk or buttermilk create a thick batter. Many recipes remind the reader that the ingredients should be mixed until they are just combined, even if lumps remain, as the lumps will smoothen out during the cooking process. Sugar and spices such as cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg are added. The pancakes can be made sweet or savory by adding ingredients such as blueberries, strawberries, cheese, bacon, bananas, apples or chocolate chips to the batter. This batter is ladled or poured onto a hot surface, and spreads to form a circle about ¼ or ⅓ inch (1 cm) thick. The raising agent causes bubbles to rise to the uncooked side, before the pancake is flipped. These pancakes, very light in texture, are usually served at breakfast topped with maple syrup, butter, peanut butter, jelly, jam, fruit and/or honey. In the Southern United States, cane syrup and molasses have also been common toppings. Some pancake recipes call for yogurt to give the pancakes a semi-thick, relatively moist consistency.
Jonnycake (also spelled “johnnycake,” johnny cake, and “journey cake“) or Johnny Bread is a cornmeal flatbread that was an early American staple food, and is still eaten in the West Indies and Bermuda. The modern johnnycake is stereotypically identified with today’s Rhode Island foods, though jonnycakes are a cultural staple in all of the northern US. A modern jonnycake is fried cornmeal gruel, which is made from yellow or white cornmealmixed with salt and hot water or milk, and frequently lightly sweetened.
Yaniqueques or yanikeke are a Dominican Republic version of the jonnycake. They are a fried bread rather than a pancake and are a popular beach food.
Sourdough was used by prospectors and pioneers to make sourdough pancakes without having to buy yeast. Prospectors would carry a pot of sourdough to make pancakes and bread as it could last indefinitely, needing only flour and water to replenish it. Sourdough pancakes are now a particular speciality in Alaska.
A flapjack is a thick small pancake, generally around 10 cm in diameter. Flapjacks are often served in a stack with syrup and butter, which can be accompanied by bacon. The terms pancake and flapjack are often confused and today in the US are nearly synonymous. The Oxford English Dictionary records the word flapjack as being used as early as the beginning of the 17th century, referring to a flat tart or pan-cake. Shakespeare refers to pancakes in All’s Well That Ends Well and to flap-jacks in Pericles, Prince of Tyre:
- “Come, thou shant go home, and we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting-days, and moreo’er puddings and flap-jacks, and thou shalt be welcome.”
- Act II Scene I
The word elements: flap- meaning a tossed mixture and jack, an uncertain word suggesting a variety, imply any ingredients could be called a flapjack.
A silver dollar pancake refers to a pancake about two to three inches (5 to 7 cm) in diameter, or just a bit bigger than the pre-1979 silver dollar coins in the United States, for which they are named. It is usually made by frying a small spoonful of the same batter as any other pancake. One serving is usually five to ten silver dollar pancakes.
German Pancakes or Dutch baby pancakes served in American pancake houses are bowl-shaped. They are eaten with lemons and powdered sugar, jam, or caramelized apples, as well as fritters.
Mexican hotcakes are similar to US pancakes. Hotcakes are often made with cornmeal — as well as, or instead of wheat flour. Hotcakes are popular breakfast items at restaurants throughout the country, and are often sold by street vendors in cities and during the local celebrations of towns through the day; the vendors sell a single hotcake topped with different sauces such as condensed milk, fruit jam or a sweet goat milk spread called “cajeta”.