To say that I was a chubby kid would be an understatement of gigantic proportions. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that when I was a couple of months old, a famous pediatrician and an old family friend attended a dinner at our house, and upon being introduced to my little round persona, he proclaimed, “This is not a baby, this is a suckling pig!” Given that the suckling pig is the utmost Serbian delicacy and the pinnacle of gastronomic achievement, his words were taken as the greatest of compliments. Decades later, having acquired a certain dose of objectivity, which usually comes with age, having relinquished the strong sense of ego, which usually comes with yoga practice, and having finally embraced the fact that the old gentleman was first and foremost a healthcare professional and then a family friend, I begin to ponder what he really meant to say.
Many things were to be blamed for my chubbiness. Two grandmothers and an army of aunts and grandaunts who had rolling pins surgically attached to their bodies. An Austro-Hungarian pastry shop next door. My parents and their frequent dinner parties. Popcorn and roasted chestnuts in the park across the street. But most of all it was my mom, her lavish weekend lunches and her habit of making the Slipped Pancake Cake every Sunday afternoon.
Slipped Pancakes are magnificent Hungarian dessert, virtually unknown in lands untouched by the great Austro Hungarian Empire. In Serbia we called it the Pancake Cake, or more accurately the Pancake Torte; it was a beloved dessert full of wonderful surprises -- a pancake pretending to be a cake with a soul of the grand Austro-Hungarian torte. The “torte” was a small architectural undertaking constructed out of six or more pancakes made with beaten egg whites, a culinary trick that transformed “ordinary” pancakes into little clouds, ready to be blanketed with a toping of choice and layered into heaven.
Every Sunday after lunch the plate would arrive at the table, looking a little bit like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a little bit like the Gardens of Babylon, a small mountain of overflowing, ever-shifting layers. The torte was a surprise to the mouth too. The first bite always felt like biting into a cloud, the pancakes were barely there, just a mouthful of velvety softness -- it felt like eating ether. My mom always made the torte with walnuts, and thus the second bite was more serious, bringing a new sensation of earthiness, as if you are flying in the air, up there, free of everything, yet grounded, protected and warm. With the third bite, you would discover the raisins and the taste and the texture of the dish would change yet again.
I always assumed that the original Hungarian name The Slipped Pancakes, Csúsztatott Palacsinta, had to do with the architecture of the dessert. The torte always reminded me of old and wobbly buildings, tilting under the load of centuries, their balconies protruding and decorative moldings clutched between the windows, looking like tiny raisins about to pop out. My entire neighborhood in New York city looks like an endless row of Slipped Pancakes, and every now and then a walk around the neighborhood stirs up the memories of our Sunday lunches, and I run back home to flip a pancake or two.
That is until about a couple of days ago... As I was typing in this post, I decided to check some of the Hungarian recipes for Slipped Pancakes and compare them to my mom's version. (Just in case you were wondering, I speak excellent Hungarian, thanks to Google Translate.) About twenty or so recipes later, I mastered every possible variation of slipped pancakes, I acquired some saucy new Hungarian words and alas, I learned the true identity of the cake. An introduction to one of the recipes explained how the name of the dish most likely originated from the process of carefully “slipping” the pancakes from the pan onto the serving plate and on top of the already baked ones, in order to create as perfect tower as possible. And so my Leaning Tower of Pisa and my Gardens of Babylon theory fell crumbling down. But the torte still stands, yummier than ever.
The Slipped Pancake Cake
for the pancakes
* 6 eggs, separated
* 3 tbsp fine sugar
* 4 tbsp semolina
* 3/4 cup milk
* sunflower oil
for the filling
* about 6 oz ground walnuts
* 12 tbsp powder sugar
* a couple of handfuls of raisins
* 8” or 9” frying pan
1. Beat the egg yolks with sugar, add semolina and milk and mix well.
2. Beat the egg whites until hard peaks form. Gently fold the whites into the pancake batter. Mix well until the whites are fully incorporated and the batter is uniform.
3. Heat the pan over medium heat and oil it with about a tablespoon of oil. (You may want to use a tiny bit more oil than what you would use for traditional pancakes.) Ladle about 1/2 cup of batter into the pan and flatten with spatula to form thick pancake. Bake the pancake on one side only, for about four minutes. The pancake is done when the bottom turns golden brown, and the top of the pancake becomes fluffy and custard-like. Keep the heat on medium, or medium low, otherwise the bottoms can burn easily.
4. Carefully slip the pancake onto the serving plate, baked side facing the plate. Sprinkle the unbaked side with about two tablespoons of powdered sugar, about three tablespoons of ground walnuts and a couple of raisins.
5. Proceed to make the next pancake. Before making each new pancake, mix the batter well. Repeat the process. (This recipe should yield 6 pancakes.) The last pancakes is the only one you will place “upside down” – the unbaked side should face down, and the baked side should face up. Sprinkle the pancake with the remaining sugar and walnuts. Keep the cake in the warm oven for about an hour for flavors to combine. Serve warm.
A note on sugar: I like to keep powdered sugar in a tin and add one vanilla bean to it. Makes a whole lot of difference.
A note on the quantities: Most of the time I increase the amounts to make 8-10 pancakes. Sometimes I even double it.
A note on butter: Some of the Hungarian recipes I read call for adding a spoon or two of butter to the batter. I have not tried doing it. Most of the recipes call for frying the pancakes in butter. I am deeply attached to the way my mom makes them, fried in sunflower oil.
A note on the oven: Many recipes call for finishing the cake in the oven. I have not tried that either. But my mom would always make the cake before the lunch and kept it in the warm oven. The cake loves to take it easy for a while and tastes much better after an hour or two.