IN GREAT BRITAIN, SHROVE TUESDAY, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, is Pancake Day. In the Netherlands, every day can be an occasion to eat pancakes.
To the Dutch, pancakes have been a meal (not just breakfast) for centuries. They require few ingredients (flour, eggs, milk and butter) and few implements (a frying or pancake pan, a little knife for loosening the edges, a wooden spoon to stir the batter and a batter jug or bowl). In the seventeenth century, they were fried in the Dutch jambless fireplaces with the pan resting on a hanging or standing trivet over the coals. We see many a pancake baker (usually a female) portrayed in the works of the Dutch Masters, including a famous etching by Rembrandt.
Historically, Dutch pancakes were sturdier than today’s American version (made with baking powder) and could be eaten out of hand. They were fried in butter, which also might have been used as topping. There is no evidence that sugar was sprinkled on top, nor any kind of syrup, although nowadays, Dutch children write their initials or their whole name on their plate-sized pancakes with a slow-flowing stream of thick apple syrup.
The only cookbook that remains from the seventeenth century, De Verstandige Kock (The Sensible Cook), first published in 1667, has three recipes for pancakes: “Common” pancakes that call for flour, milk and three eggs (and the recipe says “some add some sugar to it”); Groninger pancakes (named for the northern province of Groningen), made with flour, three eggs, currants and cinnamon (milk is inadvertently omitted in the recipe but it ends by saying “is good”); and “the best kind of pancakes”—five or six eggs beaten with “running water” then spiced with cloves, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and some salt, as well as flour. These are fried and served sprinkled with sugar. The recipe explains that it is made with water because if milk or cream were used the pancakes would be tough. An identical recipe appears in As Our Ancestors Cooked, a compilation of recipes in nineteenth-century hand-written cookbooks, many Dutch-American, held in the archives of the Huguenot Society in New Paltz.
Evidence that the Dutch brought their pancakes to New Netherland comes from the cookbook of Anne Stevenson van Cortlandt (1774-1821) and her mother, Magdalena Douw (1750-1817). Their recipe for “common pancakes” uses a double quantity of the same ingredients as listed in The Sensible Cook: Instead of a pint of milk and three eggs, they use a quart of milk and six eggs and flavor the pancakes with “a spoonful of fine ginger.” There is also a recipe in their book for “puffert” (Dutch poffert), a thick yeast pancake, or puffed skillet bread, made with or without currants or raisins and, according to Stevenson, flavored with nutmeg and cloves. The same recipe is found in another Van Cortlandt family manuscript cookbook and appears in Maria Lott Lefferts’ (1786–1865) book as well. Poffert is still eaten regionally in the Netherlands today.
In the eighteenth century, Peter Kalm, a Swedish assistant to Linnaeus who came to America to identify the flora and fauna, describes the food customs of the Dutch in Albany. He relates how the English used pumpkins for pies, but the Dutch used them in sweetmeat, porridge and pancakes. He explains that a thick pancake “was made by taking the mashed pumpkin and mixing it with corn-meal after which it was… fried.” He found it “pleasing to my taste.”
Elizabeth Ann Breese, mother of Samuel F.B. Morse, dates her hand-written cookbook April 10, 1805. It is filled with typical Dutch recipes for olecooks (forerunner to our doughnut), crulla, (we now call them crullers), waffles and wafers. Her pancakes are thin (called flensjes in Dutch)—she adds some sack to the batter.
Pancake houses are still everywhere in the Netherlands today. Their menus have an astounding variety—some restaurants serve as many as 40 different kinds, mostly based on fillings of apple and other fruit, cheese, ham and spek (a thick-sliced, fatty bacon). Savory-and-sweet combinations are made with those fillings, including ham and cheese; ham and onions; ham, tomato and mushrooms; bacon and cheese; bacon, cheese and ginger; bacon, onions and banana; cheese and apple; or even cheese and pineapple.
Modern pancake varieties include ethnic flavors, such as Tuscan, Catalan, Greek, India or Indonesian—it is possible to eat chicken curry on top of a pancake, an East-meets-West experience some prefer not to repeat, but the old-fashioned fillings are reason enough for frequent visits to the charming pancake houses, often old farmsteads, ships, or, as in Utrecht, in warehouses under the street alongside the canal (formerly accessible to barges that transported goods). The pancakes are served as a meal—perhaps with a cup of soup—and they also make excellent brunch fare.