Teaching pancakes was a lesson firmly on my school calendar – the date changed along with the Easter holidays but we knew it was coming when Jiff lemons appeared in the shops.
As a child on Shrove Tuesday, my mother would stand by the gas stove and make pancakes just for me. She only stopped when I had enough and this could mean cooking and tossing up to ten crisp pancakes which were folded, sprinkled with fine caster sugar and squeezed with half a fresh lemon. No Jiff lemon for us – she never believed in processed food! By the time I’d finished eating one, the next was tossed and frying in the pan. I had my own cooking servant, and a very good tosser.
My mother promised we’d go to the Olney Pancake race outside Northampton. I’d read about the Olney ladies dressed up in their aprons and hats who run through the streets tossing pancakes in their frying pans, but we never went.
So, like a juggler with a three ball juggling trick, I’m going to share this impressive skill with my class. Tossing pancakes is a risky business and the class gets noisy with excitement.
I tell them how pancakes are made on Shrove Tuesday so that the last of the fatty and rich foods could be used up before Lent, when people restrict some of the foods that they eat. And eggs and milk were once considered rich foods for many people.
Now my class is ready for our pancake making session. We’ve made the batter from eggs, milk and flour. My old school frying pans are non stick after years of wear, so the pancakes should slide out when cooked.
‘Melt a knob of lard until the fat has a smoky blue haze, and pour in a thin layer of batter.’
Why are the boys laughing again – oh, its knobs. But what else do you call it?
‘Class – you’ll find your first pancake never works. It sticks to the pan and cooks into a gluey glob. So scrape it in the bin and start again.’
I hope even the hungriest boy is not tempted to eat it, as this uncooked dough is not easy to digest. Somehow the frying pans remember their task. The lard melts and smokes, the batter sizzles, and the thin pancake crispens, bubbling with little craters , ready for turning.
I challenge the group.
‘You need to toss your pancakes into the air and they must land in the middle of the pan cooked side on top.
So who is a good tosser? If you don’t think you can do it, turn with a palate knife.’
The boys give each other a knowing glance.
What have I done now? Is this challenge too great?
I learn later that tosser is a vulgar word, but what else do you call someone who tosses a pancake? Miss has been doing more rude cooking again.
Boys really love this lesson. Tossing a pancake appeals to their competitiveness and there’s a round of applause if their pancake lands in the pan after it has somersaulted through the air. Some do a double flip and take a bow, but I do wonder if the pancakes that drop on the floor are a deliberate tactic to enhance the game and increase the laughter. The girls are more reticent and safely flip their pancakes with a palette knife.
We keep our pancakes in a hot oven until we’re all ready to sit round the tables for eating. Quickly. No time to take our aprons off or throw on the seersucker table cloth or get out the doyleys. Our pancakes must be eaten now.
I serve them like my mother did and with a sprinkle of sugar a squeeze of lemon and then roll them up. Only we can’t afford fresh lemons. Our lemon juice comes from the bright yellow, plastic Jiffy lemons which corner shops display in large wire baskets as Pancake day approaches. Jif lemons are better than the real thing with no pips or bother.
The TV jingles out its advert. ‘Don’t forget the pancakes on Jif Lemon day’ .
I wonder if we will lose the plot on what food is real or not.
‘Eat the pancakes with your hands.’
The boys push in mouthfuls and charge out to their next class.