Pfannkuchen: German Pancake

| November 10, 2008 | 2 Comments
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pfannkuchen - german pancake with apples

The cookbook with the most stains in my collection is also the first one I ever bought: a copy of the 45th printing of the 1975 Joy of Cooking. It helped me survive my teen years, and then it helped me graduate from college with a bit more meat on my bones. I never did upgrade, and that white bible of the American kitchen (complete with its two silky red ribbons) is still my go-to tome for pancakes, muffins, cakes, pies, dinner rolls, dressings, and quick breads.

I’m still discovering new foods in its pages. A recent addition to our family favorites is a Tran variation on a Rombauer adaptation of a Davidis classic: German pancake with apples.

pfannkuchen apples cooking

A minister’s daughter who became a teacher and housemistress for wealthy German families, Henriette Davidis wrote an important and influential cookbook that was essential for “Die Hausfrau” of the mid-nineteenth century. She later adapted her Old World dishes for German American immigrants who missed the foods of their homeland. Her recipes were translated into English and Dutch for hungry, ingredient-challenged settlers throughout the Midwest and Great Plains.

pfannkuchen batter being poured into pan

If you read German, you can learn about her life and work at the website of the Henriette Davidis Museum in Wetter-Wengern. If you’re expanding your digital library of German classics, you can obtain a careful scan of her original book through the Projekt Gutenberg-DE.

Fortunately for the rest of us, the University of Wisconsin reissued her American cookbook in an English-language paperback: Pickled Herring and Pumpkin Pie: A Nineteenth-Century Cookbook for German Immigrants to America.

pfannkuchen cooking in the skillet

Pfannkuchen refers to a specialty of Southern Germany, not the similarly named doughnut of Berlin. There are lots of recipes for German pancakes, also known as Dutch babies for the Pennsylvania Dutch cooks who helped popularize German food in the United States. I’m not sure how many Germans really eat giant, eggy pancakes for breakfast — we always had to chase down dense, dark bread and good cheese for our German visitors — but this dish is now entrenched in the culinary lore of American immigration and adaptation.

pfannkuchen browing in skillet

I’ve seen versions that use beer and others that call for milk or water or both. Some require sliced apples tossed with cinnamon; others simply call for a sprinkle of sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice at the table. Some recipes recommend sturdy flour, while some have not a spoonful of the stuff. Many require the use of a hot oven; a few take the easier but less fluffy route on the stovetop.

For those expecting the cakiness of an IHOP stack or the undulations of a sweetened Yorkshire pudding, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by this riff on Henriette Davidis’ recipe.

As someone who grew up halfway between Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, I learned to love German-influenced dishes. My own version has zigged and zagged through all my family’s likes and dislikes. We settled on soufflé, not too sweet, cooked with fresh apples in the fall and topped with berry jam the rest of the year. Used to cakes bound with starches from corn, potato or water chestnut, I didn’t look askance at the flourless version.

pfannkuchen with berry jam

Below is my own immigrant pancake, by way of Henriette and Irma, Germany and Vietnam, Missouri and California.

Pfannkuchen

For a simpler yet equally delicious version, omit the apples and top with good quality strawberry or raspberry jam. To obtain a more cake-like rather than custardy texture, fold in 1/2 cup sifted flour in place of the cornstarch.

Makes: 4 servings

Ingredients:
1 apple, peeled, cored and cut into thin wedges
Fresh lemon juice
4 eggs, separated
1/2 cup milk (preferably at room temp)
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Fresh lemon juice and confectioners’ sugar

Preparation:
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F, positioning the rack in the middle. Toss the apple slices with lemon juice.
2. Beat egg whites to soft peaks.
3. Whisk together egg yolks, milk, cornstarch, sugar, salt and lemon zest. Gently fold in the egg whites.
4. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Melt butter, and as soon as the bubbles subside, add the apples. Arrange the apples in a single layer, and then pour in the batter. Cover partially and cook for 10 minutes.
5. Uncover and transfer the skillet to the oven. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown on the bottom and set in the middle.
6. Sprinkle with lemon juice and confectioners’ sugar, and serve immediately. The pancake may collapse, but it will still taste good.

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Category: baking and bakeries, cookbooks, recipes

About the Author ()

Thy Tran writes literary nonfiction about food, the rituals of the kitchen, and the many ways eating and cooking both connect and separate communities around the world. She co-authored the award-winning guide, Kitchen Companion, and her work has appeared in numerous other books, including Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide and Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. A recipient of a literary grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Thy is currently working on a collection of essays about how food changes in families across time and place. Though trained as a professional chef, she works on cookbooks by day, then creates literary chapbooks by night. An old letterpress and two cabinets of wood and lead type occupy a corner of her writing studio, for she is as committed to the art and craft of bookmaking as she is to the power of words themselves. In addition to writing, editing, teaching and printing, Thy remains active in local food justice and global food sovereignty movements. Visit her website, wanderingspoon.com, to learn more about her culinary adventures.
  • http://www.ambrosiaquest.com Paula Maack

    Thank you so much for this!!! I am thrilled by this post!

    I have always wanted to know how to make these, but I never even knew what they were called.

    You did a great job. They look delish! I can’t wait to make them!

    Cheers,

    ~ Paula
    (from Ambrosia Quest)

  • ChrisO

    This looks yummy. Reminds me of a clafouti, one of my favorite easy desserts. Now I will have to try it for breakfast!