For me, it was eierkuchen, a 10-inch, crepe-like, eggy German pancake that my mother (and her mother) made occasionally for supper. Close behind was my mother's apple puff pancake, for which she covered sauteed apples with a thin batter and baked until it billowed up.
My comfort food nearly always has German or Scandinavian roots, though much Southern food can also qualify. Like a pair of old sweatpants, it's cozy, not trendy.
Now, another Scandinavian food is vying to be my heart's comfort pancake. It began so innocently, when I went online looking for silicone pastry brushes (which definitely have my heart--dishwasher safe, no disturbingly hair-like bristles left behind for an unsuspecting diner). The Web site I landed on listed everything it carried alphabetically, scrolled down the side of the screen--and there, first up, was an aebleskiver pan.
A Web site like this just screams "sucker" at me: so many gadgets, so little space. The pan, which resembles an egg poacher, has just one function--but I was hooked, and oh, it does its job so well.
From that pan, with seven small depressions, come gorgeous, doughnut-like puffballs. Danish for "apple slice," aebleskiver (say ay-bla-skeever) traditionally contain a spot of apple in the center, though they're more often served plain with jam on the side. Making them is (a-hem) a piece of cake, and somewhat Zen-like, as one stands before the stove gently flipping 75 airballs.
And how many other recipes call for a knitting needle? Sure, you can flip the puffs with a paring knife, but authenticity requires you to borrow Grandma's needle to hook them. This would be fun regardless, but it's a perfect conversation starter for company.
Pancakes might not be your first thought for company food, but given how many people's sole experience with them these days comes from a box, they're sure to please. Great for breakfast, aebleskiver are traditionally a dessert, simply dusted with confectioners' sugar. With so many house designs today featuring the cook as star (in theory, anyway, given that so many showcase kitchens get bought by non-cooks), here's your chance to shine, as you'll want people near enough to watch and eat the puffs hot off the fire.
Aebleskiver show emphatically the value of beaten egg whites in pancakes and waffles. Whole eggs work decently, but they leave you dependent on baking powder for most of the puffery. Whip those whites 'til they're stiff, though, and you have fluffiness even before baking starts. The only other trick is to fold the whites into the batter gently. In these, the whites just help the rise; in waffles, they also ensure crispness (an ideal waffle stays crisp for some moments after coming off the iron, contrary to what those of you who'd rather just eat the batter may think).
One of the nicest qualities of pancakes is their resistance to being gussied up. Short of caviar on a blini, there's not much you can do to pancakes that takes them far from the realm of comfort. With aebleskiver, though you could play with flavor and add citrus zests or cinnamon or go for a fancier yeast batter, there's really no need.
Far more fun, I expect, will be expanding what I do with this pan. As far as I can tell, its only other use is for a savory Vietnamese pancake. But what about making gingerbread puffs, or little zucchini pancakes topped with an herbed sour cream for a supper side, or even tiny angel-hair pasta flans? These would veer dangerously close to precious and the savory ones would fail the anti-gussied test--but they'd make a perfect hors d'oeuvres.
Truth be told, though, I will probably mainly follow Danish tradition and use that pan just to make aebleskiver around a holiday, such as Christmas or Easter. The thrill comes just in knowing that I can, that there's a $10 pan waiting patiently for its day in gadget sun.
Cook's notes: When you make the aebleskiver, you may add a tiny dollop of jam or a sliver of apple just after you fill each hole, but it's easier to serve jam and applesauce on the side. These are delicious with syrup, apple butter or any jam; I've seen one suggestion to serve them with a honey butter, but I find that a bit over the top. (Though for my dad, who would butter a doughnut if he could get away with it, this would be heaven.) You could also flavor the batter with cinnamon, vanilla, a liqueur or a spice such as cardamom, which gets heavy use in Scandinavian baking. These will serve anywhere from eight to 12 people, though it's likely that people will eat however many you're willing to churn out. My cast-iron pan, from Fantes.com, cost $10; be sure to follow the directions to season it. The puffed pancake recipe, from my book Morning Glories, calls for winter savory, an easy-to-grow herb reminiscent of rosemary crossed with thyme. You may leave it out, possibly adding a dash of cinnamon instead. You'll see in some catalogs a special pan just for these pancakes, but even I can resist that. A cast-iron pan works best, but any heavy skillet will do. If the handle of your pan isn't ovenproof, wrap it well with foil for protection.
Apple-Savory German Puffed Pancake
4 to 6 servings
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
2 1/2 teaspoons minced winter savory leaves
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 large eggs
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar or (packed) light brown sugar
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Meanwhile, in a 10-inch skillet with an ovenproof handle (preferably cast iron), melt butter over medium-high heat. Add apples, winter savory leaves and granulated sugar. Cook, stirring frequently, until apples are slightly caramelized and tender but not mushy, about 3 minutes. Stir in lemon juice. Spread apples evenly over pan; remove from heat and set aside.
In a blender or food processor, thoroughly mix eggs, milk, flour, salt and vanilla. Pour over apples; sprinkle with turbinado or brown sugar.
Bake pancake for 25 to 30 minutes, until puffed and golden. Serve immediately.
Makes about 75; can be halved
4 large eggs, separated
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon coarse salt, or 1/2 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or melted butter
2 cups buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups all-purpose flour (for these, I prefer a Southern flour such as White Lily)
several tablespoons unsalted butter for the pan (easier if at room temperature)
confectioners' sugar for dusting
In a blender or by hand, blend egg yolks, sugar, salt, oil, buttermilk, baking soda, baking powder and flour until very smooth; transfer to a bowl. Beat egg whites in a mixer on high speed or by hand until stiff. With a rubber spatula, fold a large dollop of egg whites into batter to lighten the batter, then gently fold in remaining egg whites.
Heat an aebleskiver pan on medium-high heat. With a table knife, scoop up a bit of butter, then scrape a tiny blob of it into each hole in the pan (it should melt immediately but not burn; adjust heat as needed), then fill each about three-quarters full of batter (I use a 2-tablespoon cookie scoop--it looks like a small ice-cream scoop). When bottom is golden brown and edges are set, which happens almost instantly, turn each pancake; I slide a paring knife between the edge of the hole and the pancake, then lightly hook it and turn it over--or try a metal knitting needle.
Cook just until underside is golden, then remove to paper towels and sprinkle with confectioners' sugar (preferably shaken through a small sieve). Repeat, buttering holes each time. Serve immediately.