There’s a retirement home in Seattle overlooking Puget Sound, where western-facing residents watch the sun set over the Olympic Mountains in one of the best views the city has to offer. Scandinavians founded the community in the middle of the 20th century, and walking into the beige midcentury building today you’ll still feel like you’re entering an expansive version of your Norwegian relatives’ living room. My grandma Agny lived there for a while after my grandfather died, and she would occasionally have my parents, husband, and me join her for a Scandinavian pancake brunch.
Scandinavian pancakes–why not Swedish or Norwegian? Most other places around Seattle served what they called Swedish pancakes and back then my family didn’t know the distinction. I only knew they were warm and comforting, the sort of eggy yet carb-filled food that tasted like dessert but for some reason counted as a real meal. I’ve since learned quite a bit about them, and I had the opportunity to share the enthusiasm and knowledge in a pannekaker cooking class at the Nordic Heritage Museum this winter.
“Mama gets to make pancakes for work,” I told my toddler son as I prepared for the class, researching and analyzing recipes as I developed my own version with the right balance of delicacy and toothsome bite, and with plenty of flavor. We ate plenty of pancakes the week of the class, and I can imagine few better jobs to have during a chilly Seattle winter.
If you have Nordic roots or at least live in a place like Seattle with a rich Scandinavian background, chances are you’re familiar with the pancakes I’m talking about. Much thinner than the ones Americans typically eat for brunch, slathered with pats of melting butter in a pool of maple syrup, pannekaker–Norwegian pancakes–are much thinner, more like a crepe. As for the Swedish distinction? Pannekaker are a little thicker and eggier than pannkakor, but they’re really quite similar. Oh, and about that mention of brunch–you wouldn’t typically serve these in the morning hours. Instead, they’re about the most indulgent dinner I can think of. (Yes, dinner.)
The Scandinavians have a tradition of eating the pancakes with soup–sometimes a yellow pea soup, other times a version studded with little pieces of meat and vegetables. While the idea of eating pancakes with pea soup originated in Sweden, many Norwegians have adopted the tradition, making the combination comfort food to people in both countries.
In the (sold out!) class, I taught about 20 students how to make pannekaker and yellow pea soup. Since the pancakes are really quite simple but rely heavily on practice and technique, I wanted everyone to have a chance to make as many as possible. While I can’t replicate that experience in a blog post, I do want to share the recipe with you today along with detailed instructions and a number of tips to help you successfully make pannekaker for your family.
First of all, be aware that practice makes perfect. As I told my students, don’t be afraid to just start cooking–the first ones will be imperfect and might even tear while you’re flipping or rolling them. That’s okay–it’s part of the process, and each one will turn out better than the next as you get the technique down and adjust the heat of your pan to the right temperature. Also, I like to take a cue from cookbook author and food writer Signe Johansen who starts the process with a mini test pancake to check the flavoring of the batter and then adjusts accordingly.
Finally, when it comes to serving, lingonberry preserves are a popular condiment, and some people like to top their pannekaker with both fruit jam and sour cream. Butter and sugar is a classic combination, and whipped cream or honey are also options. Sunny over at Arctic Grub loves to eat them with bacon and blueberry jam.
I hope you’ll give these a try. They’re really quite easy to make, and once you’ve prepared a batch or two, you’ll feel confident enough to work these into your weeknight dinner repertoire.
When developing this recipe, I noticed a lot of similarities between the ingredients in other ones. Basically, if you have flour, salt, sugar, eggs, milk, and butter, you can make pancakes. The differences come from the flavorings–which can include cardamom, lemon zest, and vanilla–and the ratios. Through analysis and testing I came up with my ideal ratio, which turned out similar to some others, and it results in a texture that’s just right, in my opinion. Of course, feel free to tweak it if you’re trying to replicate ones you remember eating–perhaps an extra egg or less flour? More liquid will result in a thinner pancake. I also added Scandinavian vanilla sugar, which lends a touch more sweetness and a pleasant vanilla flavor to the batter. You can find this at Scandinavian speciality stores, or you can use a little more sugar and some vanilla extract instead, although I have yet to exactly mimic the results of the Scandinavian vanilla sugar through substitutions.
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon Scandinavian vanilla sugar*
1 1/2 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus more for pan
Mix all ingredients except butter in a medium-sized bowl using a whisk or fork until the batter is smooth and you have no lumps. Stir in butter. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to let the batter rest.
Meanwhile, warm a pan over medium heat. I prefer a well-seasoned cast-iron pan, which minimizes the need for additional butter to keep the pancakes from sticking. Melt a little butter in the pan and make a small test pancake like Signe Johansen recommends–this will help you gauge the heat and adjust the flavors if necessary–giving it a minute or so on each side to cook.
To get started on your first pancake, pour in enough batter to thinly coat the bottom of the pan–I find that a 1/3-cup measure is just right for my 10-inch pan. Twirl the pan around to coat the bottom, and when the top starts to set and the edges begin to color slightly, carefully but confidently and swiftly slide a heat-safe silicone spatula under the pancake, jiggling it slightly as you do, and flip the pancake. It will probably need about 2 minutes on the first side and a minute or so on the second. When done, use the spatula to roll the pancake in the pan and transfer to a plate.
Repeat until you’ve used up all the batter, adding a little butter to the pan between pancakes if necessary. Cover the pancakes with a tent of foil paper as you go to keep them warm. You may even wish to place them, covered, in a warm oven, but I find that if I’m going to serve them as soon as they’re ready, they retain heat well enough that keeping them tented near the ambient heat of the stove keeps them hot enough.