Monday, May 11, 2009

BOX ELDERS AND PANCAKES

It has been a typical busy Monday here along the riverbank. Mostly sunny, but windy, which makes it feel a lot colder out than its current high of 63 degrees. Pretty, but not a particularly comfortable May day. Which is okay since I had work to complete at the desk and haven’t been able to spend much time outside anyway. For the last few minutes, though, I’ve been sitting on the stone steps which lead down to the water, watching a great blue heron across from me stalking though the shallows along the island’s bank. Three times so far the big bird has speared into the still murky water…and three times it has come up empty-beaked. Even this feathered fisherman has his off days. Whenever the wind gusts, it loosens scads of last autumn’s tannish-gold box elder samaras, which helicopter obliquely down into the big pool in front of the cottage. When the sunlight pours through their translucent membrane as they flutter and fall, they look for all the world like a hatch of mayflies dancing over a northcountry stream. This seed “rain” is, of course, is why there are countless box elders seedlings coming up all over the place along the stream’s banks. Box elders prefer a moist habitat, are fast growing, and thus make a good bank-stabilizing riparian species. Box elders are members of the maple family. In former days, where sugar maples were scarce, box elders were sometimes tapped and the extracted sap boiled down into syrup—though it took a lot more sap and evaporation work to turn the watery juice into a gallon of sweet, thick syrup. Probably tasted great on pancakes, though. Speaking of which…pancakes, not box elder syrup…I’ve spent decades and thousands of miles rattling around the great northwoods on countless fishing, camping, and get-away-from-it-all trips. A great deal of that time has been employed exploring the most remote corners of the Lake Superior country I could find. This is the land of the flapjack, or pancake, that camp kitchen staple of those legendary men whose brute labor felled the vast white pine forests with their double-bitted axes and crosscut saws. You might say I’ve become a connoisseur of pancakes, with the waistline to prove it. You’d also be surprised at how different these saucer-sized rounds of fried batter can taste from one jackpine café to the next. Some are good, most are merely passable, some are awful, and a rare few are simply ambrosial—light, fluffy, melt-in-your mouth delicious. I eventually managed to acquire a recipe which comes the closest yet to approximating the latter in my own kitchen—lacking only the sharp, pine-laden air, the rattle of a tent canvas, and the gurgle of a nearby brook trout stream where the tag alders wave over a tannin-stained riffle and the splash of a rising fish can suddenly distract and cause you to dribble warm maple syrup down your chin. In point of fact, such a pancake recipe is probably not safe in the hands of any admitted pancake aficionado unless he also possesses a preternaturally strong will, which I most decidedly lack. Given this necessary shortcoming, I’ve outsmarted my predilection for yielding to temptation by striking a sort of dietary compromise: I'll try and eat healthy and in moderation as much as possible, and in return, I get to dismiss my conscience from duty for certain days of the year—Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Independence Day, and maybe one or two others…plus my birthday. Yesterday was my birthday. I awoke (a gift in itself!), banished my conscience until the following dawn…and fixed a lumberjack-sized platter of golden pancakes on the griddle for breakfast. And I savored every syrup-dripping, butter-soaked, calorie-laden forkful! Sin without guilt…as good a birthday gift as one can give or receive!

20 comments:

Lynne said...

Happy Birthday Griz!!!
If your day started with buttered pancakes from scratch with maple syrup (and lots of good, strong black coffee) it had to have been a good one.

I'll give you a dollar for that recipe...

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Lynne…

Absolutely—strong coffee, scratch pancakes, maple syrup, real butter. I forgot to get sausage at the grocery earlier in the week. But a great start to a great day.

And I'll GIVE you the recipe. (I'm in the midst of packing for a trip, but I'll copy it later today/tonight…and if I don't, yank my chain again.)

Gail said...

Hi Grizz and

"HAPPY BIRTHDAY" a day after.

I love, love,love pancakes. The one's you savored I know were scrumptious. mmmmmmmmmmmmmm

Again, your photos and written descriptions 'take me away' and I 'thank you'.

We have heron here too that frequent our pond. And it amazes me that my weather here on the East coast of CT can often be described as yours. Huh.

And I never heard the words "Box Elders" until now. You are such a wealth of information. And I truly love the descriptive way you write. And your photos? Pure genius.

Love Gail
peace......

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Gail…

Those pancakes were indeed scrumptious. And a real treat because I allow them to myself so infrequently.

It is odd that our weather is so similar, as ours comes from the west, southwest, and northwest, while I'd think yours is influenced more from the Atlantic.

Lots of folks consider box elder, hackberry and the like at be "trash" trees as they have little commercial value. But they have their place, and like people, if you learn their good points and work around their weaknesses they're often the perfect fit for a given situation.

Thank you for your well wishes and flatteringly kind words.

Take care…

Val said...

Hey Griz,
If there's one thing I am a master at, it's pancakes. Remember our cornbread conversation from a few months back? I can make the best pancakes around as long as I have the right ingredients and my own griddle. I even bring my own griddle when we travel so my kids won't be denied Mama's pancakes.

However...I don't have the will power you have seeing as how I make pancakes at least twice a week here.

From one pancake aficionado to another, would you consider sharing your recipe? I'll hold it in esteem. I promise.

: )

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Val…

Yup, gotta have a well-seasoned, cast-iron griddle, the right stuff, and put it all together correctly.
Understand, this is a real northwoods lumber camp recipe from a real camp cook, basic, using simple ingredients, easy to fix, and can be expanded up for 2–20 or more.

And I have no trouble sharing the recipe, but it may be that it'll be a while before I get back with it as I'm still trying to round up and pack stuff for a trip Wednesday and the recipe is something I want to take time to fill out with instructions. But as I told Lynne, if I don't follow up, remind me. I'm getting a little frantic here and loss of mind is possible.

giggles said...

So you'll share the recipe with all of us??

Jenn Jilks said...

Happy birthday. Thanks for the great post. My favourite critter: the heron. I haven't seen any yet. Thanks for sharing yours.

Re: being grateful to wake...
my friend said he'd been to a lot of funerals lately. It was a good thing. It meant he was still alive!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Giggles…

Indeed I will. Just don't come crying to me when none of your new summer clothes fits, you've been on a maple syrup high for weeks, and the Intervention TV show team is camped on your doorstep.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jenn…

The herons here stick around all winter because there always some open water.

I suppose funerals do reaffirm life. It's certainly better to attend a wake and not be the guest of honor.

But…the iceman cometh.

Meanwhile, SPRING IS HERE!

Amy said...

Dear fellow heron lover~
Happy Birthday!
What a wonderful post! I know box elder (Acer negundo to us plant geeks) well but I NEVER knew you could make maple syrup from it! Very cool!
And finally, I add my voice to the chorus asking for that pancake recipe...
:-)

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Amy…

My blog header photo tells it all regarding my heron feelings…

Yes, syrup was made from several maples besides sugar maples, including box elder and red (swamp) maple, which if memory serves, has the second highest sugar content in its sap. In fact, I think you can make syrup from just about any maple…it's the question of how much evaporating you're willing to do to get your syrup that counts. The less sugar content, the more gallons of sugar water that need to be collected and boiled down.

Re. recipe for pancakes…see below.

P.S. Thank you for the birthday well-wishes.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Okay…you who asked for it, here it is—the PANCAKE RECIPE!

Like I said to Val, it is basic because it came from a real lumber camp cook who had limited ingredients. No foo-foo stuff here. These are pancakes for men who wear flannel and wool, and have beards that dull a sharp axe.

You more delicate females will have to tell me whether or not you like them.
_________________________________

Fox River Camp, Grand Marais, Michigan
Buttermilk Pancake Recipe, circa 1908
(From “Porcupine” Bill Volsted, lumber camp cook, 1887–1924. Given to me by Bill’s son in 1999.)

Basic recipe: (Serves one hungry man sufficiently if accompanied by slab bacon, canned sausage, and a half-dozen fresh eggs. Can be topped with thimbleberry preserves or maple syrup.)

1 cup flour
1 tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 egg
1 c. buttermilk, more if needed to thin out batter
2 tbsp. cream butter, melted
1/2 tsp. good vanilla

Preheat a lightly oiled griddle or fry pan. Sift and measure flour; sift again with sugar, salt and baking soda.

Beat egg in medium bowl. Blend in buttermilk. Add dry ingredients, beating until smooth; blend in melted butter.

Add up to 1/4 cup more buttermilk for thinner cakes. Adjust consistency as required to maintain a pourable pancake batter by adding additional flour or buttermilk.

Cook on lightly oiled griddle or fry pan. Turn pancakes when surface bubbles begin to break.

[Blog readers: from here on are my notes.…]

FLOUR: No self-rising or cake flour. Hard winter wheat flours or softer flours are your choice, depending on taste. I’ve used and liked Hudson Cream, White Lily. Also plain old God Medal all purpose. Lately I’ve switched to King Arthur organic, which is unbleached. The pancakes from this flour are perhaps a bit heavier and chewier, and more yellow—but still excellent. Different flours make different pancakes, that’s all there is to it, so test and find one you like.

SUGAR: Cane rather than beet. Probably doesn’t make a lick of difference.

BAKING SODA: Again, a good organic one, fresh.

EGGS: Fresh, free-range, extra large. Allow them to warm to room temperature before mixing in.

CREAM BUTTER: He meant white, homemade butter, made by churning, which is sweet and creamy, not yellow and salty. I use regular salted butter which I purchase in one pound chunks from Sam’s.

SALT: I use kosher or sea salt, never iodized, for all cooking and baking.

VANILLA: The real stuff. You probably won’t taste it in the pancakes.

BUTTERMILK: Here’s what can make a real difference. Grocery store buttermilk isn’t the real thing, but a sort of processed imitation. If you can’t lay hands on the real thing, buy the store brand and let it sit in the back of the fridge for a few weeks until it thickens somewhat. It still won’t be genuine buttermilk but it will taste closer and more importantly, act more like the real thing in cooking. Also, you’ll almost certainly have to add more buttermilk than the 1-cup per batch listed above, a quarter cup or more.

Be sure to sift all ingredients together. This adds air and separates, resulting in lighter, fluffier pancakes.

The batter shouldn’t be too thick or too thin. Too thick and the centers won’t get done or you’ll over brown the outside; too thin and there just not enough substance to the,. But if you must err, err on the too-thin side. Experience is the best teacher. You’ll have to add a little more buttermilk along to the batter if you’re cooking up a huge batch.

I never make less than a double batch. Any leftovers can be stored in Ziploc bags and zapped in the microwave the next morning. (Which I’ve done maybe, uh, once, leftovers being unheard of around my breakfasting crowd.) They won’t be quite as good, but they’ll still be better than 99 percent of the pancakes you order at a café.

My favorite griddle is a big cast-iron model, well-seasoned, which I grease with a pat of butter as it heats up and wipe off with a paper towel before actually starting my first pancake. I make my pancakes about 6-inches across. This griddle will do 6 pancakes at a time. I cook with it medium hot. Again, experience is the best guide.

When done right, these pancakes are airy, fluffy, a tiny bit chewy, and very, very tasty. You can, of course, add things like pecans, walnuts, hickory nuts, raisins, crasins, apple chunks, etc. Bill’s ghost might or might not come back to haunt you if you do. I wouldn’t put it past him.

Bernie said...

Why when I read your blog I keep thinking of the DVD "Alone in the Wilderness" a documentary I have watched and enjoyed several times. Thank you for the pancake recipe, am going to try them on my birthday.....:-) Bernie

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Bernie…

I can assure you, my riverbank is far from wilderness. If only it were…

I'll have find a copy of that DVD and give it a look.

Let me know how the pancakes turn out for you.

Sydney said...

An excellent way to celebrate, and you described it so well I almost feel like I joined you!

It' sounded dreamy sitting on the rocks of the bank... and I liked learning about the box Elders. Never knew.

So.... whereya going?

Sydney said...

Did I send that without adding HAPPY BIRTHDAY????!!!!

HAppy BIrthday!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Sydney…

Dreamy, perhaps—though I'm the habitual dreamer, imaginer, contemplative. Give me a comfortable seat and running water and I can sit and stare for an insufferable amount of time, attaining a state of useless laziness seldom seen anymore in this fast-paced world.

And I be off to Florida, Purgatory-In-the-Palms.

Thanks you for the birthday wishes.

giggles said...

Thanks for the recipe!! (Such a purist! WHo knew??!!)

Have fun in FLA??

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Giggles…

Purist? Stickler, certainly. My philosophy re. cooking and food is that I prefer simple dishes—peasant fare, often hearty, though sometimes light and summery—using the best ingredients, well prepared. The mastery is always in the details. There's no secret, no magic.

My mother made biscuits every morning of her life from the time she was 5-6 years old until in her late-80s. She grew up in a family of biscuit makers—sisters who all made biscuits, sisters-in-law, cousins, nieces, her own mother who taught her in the first place. Yet among them all, she was considered the best biscuit maker in the family…and the truth was, you COULD tell the difference. Even though almost all the others also made excellent biscuits. And, of course, they all used more or less the same ingredients and recipe. Yet Mom had the "touch." Which taught me that recipe and ingredients were important, but not more important than the cook employing them. It's like any other art, say…music: you can have a fine piano, and a great piece of music, but that doesn't mean that any piano player who sits at the bench will be able to extract the very zenith of both in his performance.