This Is No Pancake

By | October 01, 2013
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IN MY EARLY TWENTIES, I HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO sample the best of British pub food and drink. My sightseeing included countless visits to village pubs, each vying for its claim to fame as the oldest, highest, or smallest pub in England. Their collective claim to fame, however, was their Ploughman's Lunch: a plate of creamy Stilton, aged cheddar, cold roast beef and ham, pickled onions, chutney, and a wedge of freshly baked bread. Although I wasn't sure at the time who the ploughmen were, I heartily appreciated their choice of midday fare, and its menu name has stayed with me.

Fast-forward a few years (ahem – decades), and I found myself one day craving those same tasty ingredients. Accompanying this craving was a curiosity about its name; why ploughman's lunch? Or for that matter, why Toad in the Hole, and what is Spotted Dick anyway? The British are brilliant with their culinary terms, although they don't have the monopoly. Think of flapjacks, blueberry buckle, or slumgudget (a prairie fry-up of sausage, carrots, onion, and cabbage – well, that's another story). These words are pure fun, and I love to dig a little deeper when a food term scratches at my funny bone.

I wanted to make blueberry flapjacks for a good friend, and an online recipe search led me to the British version: a sweet, chewy oat bar. It's like a granola bar with the addition of golden syrup, a pure cane syrup that lends a luscious buttery flavour. When I asked a British friend about these oat-y treats, she responded with enthusiasm. "Yum! I have many memories of flapjacks, baking (and eating!) with my mum or friends. No person in the UK could possibly not be aware of them. It's one of the first things that children learn to bake (either at home or school, or both) because it's so easy and it's something that kids (and adults) just love to eat!"

The basic recipe uses four ingredients: brown sugar, butter, golden syrup, and rolled oats. The pleasure comes from the baker's embellishments. Try chewy raisins, tart cranberries, quality chocolate, dried apricots, nuts, or coconut. Anything goes, really. So in the spirit of back-to-school, a British-style flapjack makes the perfect lunch box treat, and a mini history/etymology lesson is most apropos.

Flapjacks date back at least to Shakespearean times, as a line in Pericles, Prince of Tyre proves: ". . . we'll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting-days, and moreo'er puddings and flap-jacks, and thou shalt be welcome." Early seventeenth-century flapjacks were thought to be a dessert, a pancake, or a flat tart most likely cooked in a copper or cast iron pot in a hearth kitchen. Tended by the cook and cook's maids, they would have measured ingredients in pecks, pints, and pounds. This flapjack may have accompanied oyster or calf 's-foot pie, as sweet and savoury fare were eaten together.

Over the centuries, a flapjack morphed into an apple flan, of sorts, and a crepelike pancake (coloured with boiled beets). The definition of jack was a flat tart, and flap meant to slap, toss, or turn over – like our current use of the word flip. An eighteenth-century recipe for "flip" is thought to be related to flapjacks due to its similar name and ingredients: a concoction of molasses, beer, and rum poured into a mug, warmed with a red hot poker until foamy, and thickened with rye or corn flour.

The invention of baking powder in the mid-nineteenth century resulted in the fluffy North American pancake version we know today. (The unleavened crepelike variety remains Britain's pancake.) In early twentieth-century Britain, a flapjack was transformed into a bar with the addition of oats. These bars were made with only three ingredients: oats, butter, and sugar. Golden syrup, discovered a century earlier, wasn't added to the recipe until the 1950s, and it most definitely takes credit for "the chew."

In Britain today, flapjacks are sold in bakeries and as pre-packaged treats. So easy to make, over the page is my hazelnut, rosemary, and maple version, inspired by local fare and the hearth and home cooks who led the flapjack's evolution over the centuries.

You can make this more local by substituting honey for the golden syrup, but the bars won't have the chewy texture that makes them so well loved. You'll find golden syrup near the sugar in most large grocery stores.


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