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Whole Grain Pancakes

Far be it from me to attack an icon (and anyway, I’ve eaten my share), but the common pancake is little more than a vehicle for maple syrup. Without that and careful browning in butter, it’s a total bore.
I recognize that the term “whole grain” can be intimidating, conjuring up dense breads and bowls of gruel — not that there’s anything wrong with either of those. But handled correctly, whole grains can also be used to create superlight pastries, the fastest and easiest of which are pancakes.

In bread, it’s difficult to use whole grains exclusively because you usually want the glutens in white flour for stretchiness and toughness. But in pancakes, you’re looking for tenderness. And whole grains, as long as they’re ground, offer not only tenderness but also flavor.
I first learned that in a pancake article in these pages by Craig Claiborne, who made what was essentially polenta, then used it as a basis for cornmeal pancakes. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that you need not fully cook cornmeal before using it in pancakes. A quick steeping softens it enough. After that initial process, it doesn’t take much to turn the cornmeal into little cakes that are naturally sweet and slightly crunchy (I add pine nuts to enhance that). Make these, and you’ll understand why pancakes made from whole grains have a head start compared with those using white flour: they taste good from the start. Ever eat a white-flour pancake plain? You can do that with these.
Whole-wheat flour is a little more challenging than cornmeal because it has an intrinsic bitterness that has to be countered. (Few people are interested in savory breakfast pancakes, at least of this type.) But it begins to taste nuttier when combined with bulgur — cracked and toasted wheat, which has a natural sweetness that has made it popular as a breakfast cereal. Blend them both with a slew of dairy and eggs, some orange zest and sugar, and you have a spectacular breakfast that is made for a weekend morning.
Oatmeal, always underrated, can also be the foundation of a pancake, in both raw and cooked forms. But the ingredient that really makes this recipe shine is the cardamom, a spice that has been treasured in Europe for centuries and has been subtly employed since then in pastries throughout the northern part of the continent. (You’ve probably tasted it dozens of times in Danish and the like, perhaps without realizing it.) These pancakes are incredibly tender, with a little chew from the grain and the dried fruit, but beyond that they’re exotic. Here are flavors and textures that ordinary pancakes could never approach.

Cornmeal Pancakes With Vanilla and Pine Nuts
Time: 30 minutes
1 1/2 cups fine or medium cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk, or more as needed
2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil, plus more for frying
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup pine nuts
Honey, for serving.
1. Heat the oven to 200 degrees. Combine the cornmeal, salt and 1 1/2 cups boiling water in a bowl and let it sit until the cornmeal absorbs the water and softens, 5 to 10 minutes.
2. Stir in the milk, a little at a time, until the batter is spreadable but still thick. Stir in 2 tablespoons oil, the vanilla and the pine nuts.
3. Put a large skillet or griddle over medium heat. When a few drops of water dance on its surface, add a thin film of oil and let it become hot. Spoon out the batter, making any size pancakes you like. Cook until bubbles form on the top and burst and the underside is golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes; turn and cook on the other side until golden. You may have to rotate the cakes to cook them evenly, depending on the heat source and pan. As they finish, transfer them to a plate in the oven while you cook the remaining batter. Serve with honey.
Yield: 4 servings.
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