January has been hard this year. January is always hard, I suppose. But this year felt more brutal, more raw than previous ones. Perhaps that is always the case. But now January is over. And I am celebrating with scotch pancakes.
January is hard for the most clichéd of reasons. Because it’s cold, because it’s dark, because it’s a lifetime away from summer holidays. Because it often includes self-restraint, either dietary or financial; because it almost certainly contains failure on these fronts.
It has none of the hope of spring, none of the joy of summer, none of the leaf-kicking, stationery buying exuberance of autumn, none of the excited fizz of winter proper. Always winter but (almost) never Christmas. It frankly has nothing to recommend it.
Everyone’s sad in January. There is something particularly galling about being sad and that sadness being so completely unoriginal. As a friend of mine said recently, Eliot was wrong: it is January that is the cruellest month.
But this long month is over, and with it, the introspection and self-involved existential despair that goes with it. (I hope.)
February will be better. February feels more promising, more resolute, ironically, than January. It is a short month, a bitesize month. I am going to give February my best shot: I am determined to actively seek out happiness and bright spots. I’m abandoning all former resolutions scribbled frantically into the note section of my phone, in favour of simply this: to do my best.
These pancakes are my best.
There is something terribly cheering about scotch pancakes, which I just don’t believe you get with normal pancakes. Even the best normal pancakes are a bit floppy, a bit (whisper it) flabby. They give the cook the choice of eating them one by one as they cook, or resigning themself to the reality of a mostly tepid, slightly clammy pile. Scotch pancakes are not like this.
So let’s get this straight: what are they? A scotch pancake, sometimes known by its other name, a drop scone, is a leavened and griddled pancake. It is far thicker and smaller than its unscotched sister, and although on the face of it bears a strong a resemblance to its American sibling, it’s really rather different.
There’s more flour, for one thing, which means scotch pancakes have more substance than the fluffier American type and that they cook with a very slight crust. Both of these factors give rise to the nicest, most comforting, joyful feature of the scotch pancake: it can, and indeed traditionally should be, buttered like a slice of toast. They are also slightly sweeter than the American-style, which means they are designed for salty half-melted butter. Scotch pancakes should be eaten, hot and crisp, with butter dripping down your wrist. Delightfully, the robust mixture means that if you are a person who can exercise some level of perverse willpower when faced with a heap of these golden discs, they are just as delicious briefly toasted at a later time.
I was introduced to scotch pancakes by my Brown Owl in a small church hall in Sunderland in 1995. ‘These,’ our Brown Owl told us, flipping the small pancakes with a deftness I thought achingly competent, ‘will be the staple of your university lives. They are perfect student food.’ And they are: so easy, so delicious, made with staple store cupboard ingredients, and don’t require resting like the traditional pancake batter, so can satisfy an immediate craving. They need only a pan and a hob, and some kind of mixing bowl. The ingredients are cheap, and the end product is hot and filling and terribly comforting.
Many of my grown up imaginings were informed by this introduction: mostly revolving around being a student, free from the shackles of my kind and loving family, living, I imagined, in something resembling Sara Crewe’s attic room in a little princess. Only with more scotch pancakes, thrown together with adult nonchalance. Probably for handsome but courteous gentlemen callers.
As I got a little bit older, I moved away from this idea of young adulthood, assuming that instead university life, if I experienced it, would be spent in dimly lit cocktail bars, chrome student bedrooms, and messaging people on internet forums. I’d probably be wearing some kind of two-tone jumpsuit, and eating pop tarts. This was the late nineties, after all.
But then I found myself actually at college, in a tiny, garret attic room, in a very old courtyard. Prime location for scotch pancakes. But we didn’t have hobs, or pans, or fires. My childhood dream of pancake-based domesticity was, you might say, scotched. So I lived on bourbons, and microwaved cheese toasties, and some questionable scrambled eggs. We bought parmesan and ate chunks of it in the kitchen and thought we were sophisticated. I spent my money on college rosé (half red wine, half white wine), intellectual looking books which I didn’t (still haven’t) read and overpriced bike baskets. And the less said about my gentlemen callers, the better.
But now, aged 28, I have a hob and a pan, and I know that sometimes what I need to do my best, what I need to help me through the month after the cruellest month, are pancakes. So these are something I turn to when I’m inexplicably sad, or a day seems unreasonably hard. I think my 8 year old self would approve. She might even think I was, if not competent, at least grown up. My 12 year old self would probably be sad that I don’t wear capri pants with high heels sufficiently often.
A lot has changed in the guiding community in the last 20 years. Even the promise that Brownies take when they join has changed. It has lost its reference to God; it changes service from country to community, and it has the frankly brilliant commitment ‘to be true to myself and develop my beliefs’. How marvellous is that? The only bit that remains unchanged is this: ‘I promise that I will do my best’.
Perhaps that should ring slightly hollow twenty years later. But the thing is, it doesn’t. It is a promise and a battle cry. It is hopeful and resilient. It is competent and terribly grown up. So January is over, and February is here, and I’m going to do my best.
And I’m going to eat scotch pancakes.
It goes like this:
Do Your Best Scotch Pancakes
Makes: 8 squat pancakes
Takes: 2 minutes
Bakes: 10 minutes on the hob
150g self raising flour
90 g caster sugar
5 g salt
60-80 ml milk
20 g butter (for greasing the pan)
1. Place the flour, sugar, salt and eggs into a large mixing bowl. Gently whisk together until you have a thick, firm batter, almost like a loose ball of dough. Add the milk bit by bit until the dough smooths out into a thick but pliable batter. You may not need absolutely all of the milk. It should fall off the whisk reluctantly and quite slowly. If you go too far, add a little more flour in to even it out. This isn’t a terribly precise art.
2. Heat a frying pan over a medium heat. Drop about a quarter of the butter into the pan and swirl it around a little as it melts.
3. Spoon a heaped tablespoon of batter into the pan (the pancakes should be about the size of a take-way coffee lid). Allow the pancake to cook (no prodding) until you see tiny air bubbles appear on the uncooked surface of the pancake. The pancakes are ready to flip when a gentle shove causes them to skitter slightly across the pan. Flipping is stress free here: it demands a spatula and a gentle turn. No skill required. Flip! Remove from the pan when this second side also responds to a gentle shove. Repeat with new batter. Flip!
4. At some point the butter will visibly darken. Carefully wipe the pan with kitchen roll, thick enough so that you don’t burn yourself, and add a new knob of the butter, and start again. Keep going until you’ve used up all the batter.
5. Ta Dah!
Icing on the cake
We started off eating these in the traditional way, with butter and jam, but both abandoned the jam after a while. I smeared nutella all over mine and, my God was it good, whereas Sam prefers them with nothing but butter. Which, all things considered, is quite a good way to approach life generally.