It’s pancake weather in Johannesburg today: except we won’t be having pancakes, since I painted the central island in my kitchen this morning. It’s still sticky to the touch, so I may not even be able to tonight cook the steak I bought this afternoon. The gas stove is set into the island and the unavoidable splutterings and splatters of oil and fat will not do before the paint had dried.
To be honest, we probably would not have had pancakes in any case, since I am not a keen pancake baker/frier/cook. But there is a certain nostalgia for me in the remembered sizzle of that first perfect pancake, and the school fête smell of hot oil and cinnamon and sugar releasing its fragrance from the stacks of finished pancakes, ready to be rolled and dished out in wax paper cones.
My mom was on the ladies committee at my high school. This group of moms would, at athletics meets and school fêtes, organise the food: curry and rice, savoury mince and baked potatoes, boerewors rolls with lashings of sweet mustard and tomato sauce, mince jaffles (remember those?) as well as banana and caramel ones. And pancakes. On longish collapsible steel camping tables, a row of gas cookers would be burning their bluish flames, the gas hissing and the pancakes sizzling, and if it was drizzling like today, we would huddle around the pancake stall in our damp school uniforms, the blazers always starting to smell like the dry cleaners they were cleaned at once a season and sometimes like old sweat, if it’d been a while. The ladies would bring big buckets with snug lids full of pancake batter which they had probably mixed early on the mornings of the event, and ladle it out as fast as they could into smoking, blackened pans. We waited impatiently, having parted with our pink and green and blue strips of blotting paper thickness coupons, anticipating the crunch of cinnamon sugar rolled up in the pancake.
When I do sometimes cook pancakes, my first one invariably has to be tossed out: too thick, too stuck to the pan: the result of a not hot enough pan and my heavy-handedness with the batter. But then it all comes back, like steering straight after a wobble or two getting back onto a bicycle after years: the half forgotten heft of a ladle filled just right. And I could even toss and catch them expertly, much to the amusement of my young sons all those years ago.
My one triumph has been the mastery of that other kind of pancake, Crêpes Suzette. I remember the first time I made them, in the mess(the camp kitchen which sometimes was rather messy too!) of a geological camp I stayed in with my first husband. The thrill of it: folding over the paper-thin crêpe in it’s orange sauce and flambé-ing the brandy at the table and delivering it with a flourish onto the plate of a guest. I felt very sophisticated, cooking a first french recipe ever.
I have not made those for a while. But if this weather continues until my next dinner party, I may just be tempted to make this very retro, but still quite impressive version of that good old, very comforting pancake I grew up eating a lot of!