Sunday, October 7, 2012

Got a feeling inside (can't explain)

For a long while, every time I made pancakes (and subsequently photographed them), I couldn't help but think:  damn, I make the best pancakes in the world (or at least the most photogenic).  Then someone showed me this blog and I realized that at least half of that statement is untrue.  I just do not have the patience, nor the steadiness of hand, to construct a scale model of the Millenium Falcon out of pancakes.  I do not make the most photogenic pancakes in the world.

So forget that.  Here's a picture of me on the John Muir Trail, which is almost as photogenic as pancakes.  Ian's taking a picture of me just about a mile below Forester Pass, the highest point reached on the trail before starting the climb over Mount Whitney.  The other side of the pass was even more striking, a valley miles and miles wide, bare as the surface of the moon, with just a single path carved out, running down to treeline, and then onward to the highest point in the continental United States, which is always looming on the horizon.  Even now, two months later, when people ask me to describe my experience hiking the John Muir Trail, I don't really know what to say. "It was unbelievable; I'm still processing it."  Why is it so hard to explain?

In the photo above, I'm a tiny Where's Waldo speck against the vast canvas of the Sierra Nevada.  The thing is--it's not an atypical photo from the hike.  We spent the entire three-week trip among wilderness like this, and it only got larger and larger, the canyons wider, the cascades wilder the further south we went.  I could post a dozen pictures of rock ridges and domes reflected in still alpine lakes, of twisted pines and startled deer.  What's amazing is not the nature captured in any of these pictures, but the fact that we were immersed in it, passing a new cascade or a new lake every hour.  And then I came back to San Francisco, and the tallest skyscraper I could see on this 7x7 hunk of rock would be absolutely dwarfed by just one of those canyons, which, as you can see, stretch out to infinity in every direction.  How can I explain the scale of the world I just experienced in terms of the one I'm interacting with now?

Similarly, pancakes on the John Muir Trail exist at a scale beyond comprehension in San Francisco.  For reference, the single pancake in this photograph is sitting next to a normal-sized plate holding three eggs and half a dozen slices of bacon.  They really know how to take care of hungry hikers at the Whitney Portal Store, offering a single pancake for $5, and the breakfast combo above for just about $9 or so.  And after three weeks of lentils, rehydrated chicken, and couscous, punctuated by a single cheeseburger, I can say without exaggeration that this was probably the best pancake I've ever eaten.  I can't believe I ate the whole thing; more to the point, I can't believe that eating the whole thing seemed like a reasonable decision at the time.

So maybe I don't make the best pancakes in the world, or the most beautiful, and certainly not the biggest.  But I think that I do make a satisfying breakfast on a Sunday morning, rich and hearty whole-wheat batter fried until puffy, doused in syrup, and lit up by little electric pinpricks of citrus and salt.  Maybe I can't quite explain the John Muir Trail yet, but I do know how to explain pancakes.  Here we go.


Antepenultimate pancakes
serves 3-4

your favorite pancake recipe (here's mine)
1/2 cup cooked grain (brown rice, quinoa, millet)
a few tbsp butter, for cooking the pancakes

3/4 cup maple syrup
1-2 tbsp citrus zest (I like bergamot, meyer lemon, or lime)
6 tbsp butter, soft
coarse-grained salt (sea salt, or gray finishing salt)

Make the batter for your favorite pancakes, leaving out a quarter cup of flour.  Don't overmix!  You want to beat the dry and wet ingredients together just until all of the flour has dissolved.  Fold in the cooked grain.  For extra flavor, you can also toast the flour in a 350-degree oven until it smells nutty before adding it to the pancake mix.

Combine the maple syrup and citrus zest in a pan and warm them up over low heat.

Cook the pancakes in butter over medium heat.  Here are a few tips.  Cook only one pancake at a time, otherwise they won't cook evenly (you can use two pans).  You can keep them warm in a low oven while you're making the rest.  Don't let the butter burn.  Make the pancakes big, though not quite as big as the Mt. Whitney Portal Store.  Flip courageously, and if they splat a little, don't be afraid to reshape them with your spatula.  Cook for just a minute on the second side, so that the middle stays fluffy.

Once you've cooked all your pancakes, assemble them into stacks, with half a tablespoon of butter and a pinch of salt in between each pancake.  Top with another tablespoon of butter, a sprinkle of salt, and pour over the maple syrup.  I hope you made coffee.

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