The writer has been making pancakes for her family on Shrove Tuesday (aka Pancake Day) for over 40 years—and eating them for much longer.
A Race With Frying Pans and Pancakes
Whilst other countries celebrate Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, with extravagant and exotic parades, here in England people race around towns and villages wielding frying pans that hold pancakes. The objective is to be the first to reach the finishing line after fulfilling the rule about tossing the pancakes several times. 'Why?' you may wonder. Read on...
What and When Is Shrove Tuesday, aka Pancake Day?
- Shrove Tuesday is a movable feast in the Christian liturgical calendar. It is the day preceding Ash Wednesday, the start of the 40 days of Lent. Pancake Day 2020 falls on the 25th February.
- Lent marks the period when, according to the New Testament, Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days and nights to fast, be tempted by the Devil, and contemplate his fate.
- England is nowadays a predominantly secular society, but rewind several hundred years to when the land was Roman Catholic and deeply religious. This was a time when England devoutly observed all Christian Holy Days.
- In observance of Lent, the people fasted on a simple diet for the 40-day period before Easter.
- Before the fast began, everyone used up all of the rich foods in their store cupboards—including eggs and fats (presumably to avoid temptation). Along with flour, eggs and fat are the essential ingredients of pancakes. Voila!
- Replete with pancakes, people throughout England attended church to be ‘shrived’; i.e., forgiven for their sins. After which they went on an en masse diet for 40 days.
The Very First Pancake Day Race
Legend has it that on a Shrove Tuesday in the 14th century, a housewife in the village of Olney, in the county of Buckinghamshire, was in the process for frying pancakes when she heard the toll of the church bell summoning the congregation. Anxious not to miss the service, she ran down the street, frying pan in hand and tossing her pancake to prevent it from burning. To this day, the Olney Pancake Day race is run by local housewives. It is the most famous Pancake Day race of the many held throughout England.
The Rules of Pancake Day Races
The strict rules of Pancake Day races require contestants to wear a scarf and an apron and to toss the pancake at the start and end of the race.
International Pancake Day
A Shrove Tuesday competition began February 21, 1950, between people in Liberal, Kansas, and Olney, Buckinghamshire, England, creating International Pancake Day. Each year the communities hold a 415-yard race to determine the fastest runner who can also flip a pancake. Typically the fastest runner completes the course in just under one minute.
When Is Pancake Day? Shrove Tuesday Calendar
How to Make English-Style Pancakes
The pancakes usually eaten in England on Pancake Day are quite thin and often crispy around the edge—more like a crepe than the thicker pancakes often eaten in the United States and Canada.
The secrets of a good pancake are to let the batter stand for at least half an hour before cooking and to get the pan smoking hot with a thin coating of fat. Butter is commonly used nowadays, but my mother always used lard.
Bear in mind that the quality of flour varies, and the quantity of milk may therefore need to be adjusted. The batter should lightly coat the back of a spoon.
These quantities make six or seven pancakes in a small crepe or omelette pan (if you are making pancakes for a Shrove Tuesday race you will need to use a large regulation size pan).
- 100g plain flour
- 2 medium eggs
- 150 ml milk
- A very small quantity of fat of choice for greasing the pan
The results get better after the first pancake has been cooked, as the pan has been seasoned. Stack them in a warm oven if you must—I serve them straight from the pan to the family waiting eagerly at the kitchen table!
- Whisk the flour and eggs until smooth.
- Whisk in the milk.
- The batter should be a consistency that coats the back of a spoon. If it is too thick, whisk in a little more milk (some people use vegetable oil—not me!).
- Leave to stand for at least half an hour - which will soften the gluten and make lighter pancakes.
- Lightly grease a frying pan or crepe pan with your chosen fat and heat on a hob until smoking hot.
- Pour in a thin layer of pancake batter and swirl it around (there should be just enough to coat the pan) and cook until the batter forms bubbles on the top and is lightly browned underneath (shouldn't take more than 1 minute).
- Adjust the heat to moderate
- Flip (or toss!) the pancake. (This was the fun part when I was a child—watching my mother attempting to toss the pancake!) Cook the other side until lightly browned.
- Continue to fry pancakes until all of the batter is used. If necessary, add a little more fat to the pan before pouring in the batter.
Step-by-Step Photo Guide
The toppings for pancakes become more inventive year by year. I still veer towards the simplicity of traditional lemon juice or orange juice with a sprinkling of caster sugar. But caramalized apples or bananas, sweetened and flavoured with cinnamon, served with a dollop of creme fraiche, yoghurt or ice cream come a close second. Some people just spread with jam.
How to Freeze the Pancakes
You can, should you wish, layer them between baking parchment and when cold wrap in clingfilm and store the stack in the freezer for up to two months. But why would you?
© 2019 Glen Rix
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 21, 2019:
That is an interesting history you related regarding tossing pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. I had never heard of that tradition. It is also interesting that the typical pancakes you eat are more like crepes instead of the thicker versions we eat in the U.S. I enjoyed reading this. Thanks!