A good man may be hard to find, but a good pancake is damn near impossible to find. In the 1950s, IHOP and its imitators arrived liked the meteor that erased the dinosaurs; the culture of the breakfast counter was largely wiped out. Our post-apocalyptic pancakes tend to be previously frozen, cakey, rubbery or fatally compromised by whole-wheaty good intentions.
Guglhupf, Durham's bustling German bakery and restaurant, serves what I consider the Triangle's best pancake, with apologies to the Irregardless Café, Oakleaf and Watts Grocery. The secret does not emerge from the mists of German folk craft, unlike much that Guglhupf serves. These pancakes are as Southern as the columned porches of Hillsborough.
"They are a take on Bill Neal's pancakes," said executive chef David Alworth, referring to the legendary founder of Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill. "It's right in the ballpark of his recipe from Crook's. I never got to work with Bill—I was there in the early '90s—but I picked up the idea at Crook's. Of course I've made tweaks over the years."
Alworth notes several keys to success: 1) Mix lightly 2) Use only high-quality whole cultured buttermilk (not lowfat) 3) Use only European-style butter 4) Measure carefully, preferably weighing the flour with a scale. "With such a simple food, you have to be precise," he says. "This goes off the rails real quick with sloppy measurement."
Prepared correctly, these pancakes have a springy but delicate crumb, a tangy buttermilk undernote and a gorgeous golden laciness. They are, to my mind, perfect.
Alworth acknowledges that the pancakes—a pure expression of Southern tradition—are a bit anomalous amid the German delicacies for which Guglhupf is justly famous. "We serve about 350 pancake orders per week. I couldn't mess with this. There would be pitchforks and I'd be run out of here."
He notes that you can "German up" the pancakes by serving them with Lingonberry jam and Guglhupf's house-made weisswurst. I second the Lingonberry jam, which cuts the sweetness of the maple syrup and lends a cranberry-like note (with related happy associations). The jam, sausages and European-style butter are all available in Guglhupf's small grocery section.
Taking a local approach, you can garnish your pancakes with sautéed apples, caramelized bananas or candied pecans. My own apple standby, for tarts and turnovers as well as for pancakes, is a mix of Golden Delicious and Granny Smith wedges caramelized in butter, dark brown sugar, cinnamon and Mountain Ridge honey—finished, of course, with a splash of Calvados.
Makes 12 pancakes, serving 4–6
1/3 cup melted European-style butter, such as Plugrá (note 1)
530 grams (about 4 loosely packed cups) White Lily Self-Rising Flour (note 2)
4 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
4 cups whole cultured buttermilk (note 3)
4 large eggs
Melt the butter over low-medium heat until it just starts to brown and emit a nutty fragrance. Set the butter aside to cool. In a large bowl, whisk the dry ingredients until well combined. In a second large bowl, mix the wet ingredients, again whisking until well combined. In a slow stream, add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Whisk with a light hand until the batter is pourable and remaining lumps are no bigger than cottage-cheese curds. The batter should have the consistency of medium-viscous cake batter; it should pour but not run. Ladle 1/2 cup of the batter onto a lightly buttered, medium-hot griddle (see note 4). Thin and spread the batter to a diameter of 6 1/2 inches. Cook for two minutes. Flip the pancake and cook for another two minutes. Re-butter the griddle before adding each ladleful of batter.
1. Eighty grams of solid Plugrá yield 1/3 cup of melted Plugrá, though I cannot vouch that this ratio holds true for all brands. "European-style" butter has a higher fat content than conventional butter.
2. White Lily Self-Rising Flour is integral to this recipe. The INDY assumes no responsibility for brunch parties ruined by ill-advised experiments involving other flours.
3. Guglhupf swears by the thin, tangy buttermilk produced by Homeland Creamery in Julian, N.C. Unfortunately, the only Triangle-area retailer that regularly carries this buttermilk seems to be the Saxapahaw General Store. Slightly thicker PET-brand buttermilk (available at some Lowes Foods) is an adequate substitute, though Homeland buttermilk, for whatever reason, produces a lighter and more intricately textured pancake. Maple View Farm produces excellent buttermilk, but it's nearly as thick as yogurt. The solution is to replace the prescribed 4 cups of buttermilk with 3 cups of buttermilk and 1 cup of Maple View Farm's whole milk.
4. While producing Guglhupf's pancake batter is straightforward, managing the stove top is not. The trick is finding a stable temperature at which the display sides of the pancakes become golden brown and lacey in about two minutes; the pancakes cook through in about four minutes. The likely pitfalls are burned pancakes, runny pancakes and pancakes with no laciness (Explanation: the initial griddle temperature was too low).
Working with two 12-inch round Anolon non-stick griddles, I learned to set the knobs of my relatively powerful gas range to about 11 o'clock (i.e., just shy of medium temperature). Trial and error will show the way, but not before you've produced a scrapheap of "flopped jacks."
5. Unused batter can be covered and stored in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours. Chef Alworth suggests that leftover batter produces slightly diminished pancakes, but I discern no loss of quality.