It’s pancake day! We all know that pancakes are made on Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent, to use up eggs, milk and butter that are fasted until Easter. But the tradition isn’t quite as straightforward as that. Pancakes are also associated with a pagan festival of the start of spring, their round shape representing the sun, which battles with the forces of winter, and triumphs when spring arrives. It’s also a very long time since fasting from dairy was commonplace in Britain. Starting with the dissolution of the monasteries and the creation of the Church of England in the 16th century (Wolf Hall fans take note!), the customs of the Roman Catholic church started to recede. According to Clarissa Dickson-Wright’s ‘A History of English Food’, the rules against the consumption of dairy during Lent were abolished in 1541, and by the time of Pepys, very few Lenten traditions were being observed at all.
Pancake Day must have been a very popular festival to have survived so long without the religious motivation. Dorothy Hartley in ‘Food in England’ distinguishes the English pancake tradition from the European one:
“Abroad pancakes are usually open and piled up together. In England, our pancakes are symbols of our insular detachment, for each is rolled up by itself, aloof, with its own small slice of lemon.”
But what to make if you’re not really in the mood for British pancake tossing? There are lots of other traditional bakes from around the world that celebrate the start of lent, and the last days before the fast starts before Easter. They all have similar ingredients, but in different proportions: butter, milk, eggs, flour – and in many cases, yeast too.
- Scandinavia, particularly Finland and Sweden, have semlor – Scandinavian cardamom buns, filled with vanilla whipped cream and marzipan. Signe Johansen has a great recipe in Scandilicious, or try Edd Kimber’s.
- King cake, a sweetened yeast bread, with a cinnamon swirl, and covered in coloured sugar is made for New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Joy the Baker, now living in New Orleans, has a king cake recipe, complete with plastic baby jesus (yes, really).
- Malasada – yeasted doughnuts traditionally eaten in Portugal, and also made in Hawaii. Not sure where to find a good Portuguese recipe, but you could always just go for Justin Gellatly’s ‘custard-bomb’ doughnuts instead 😉