Sun-filled droplets of melting snow are falling from the roof, casting shadows on my kitchen counter. A sweet potato is steaming on the stove. When it’s soft I’ll mash it up and spoon it into pancake batter, along with a sprinkling of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. As I sift flour Robert Bathurst’s voice, reading one of Louise Penny’s murder mysteries, fills the room. I couldn’t be more comfortable.
The books take place in the fictional village of Three Pines in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, where a few homes, a bookshop, a bed & breakfast, a bistro and three tall pines form the centre of the village. In the wintertime the eccentric villagers are always gathering around a fire, usually in the bistro, solving the problems of the world as they sip wine, eat beef bourguignon, or if it’s before noon, savour a café au lait and a stack of pancakes doused in maple syrup. Louise Penny once said in an interview that food is a tool she uses to pull people into a scene. Readers may have never been to Quebec, but chances are they’ve experienced the ingredients she writes about. The technique works. My kitchen is the bistro. I can hear the crackling fire and smell the woodsmoke. I can see hands wrapped around bowls of milky coffee, and I can taste those pancakes. Suddenly I’m a kid, it’s Saturday morning, and my sisters and I are taking a break from our cartoon-watching marathon. It’s time to eat pancakes. It’s what we do, and did, every Saturday morning of our childhood.
I’ve been thinking about comfort foods a lot lately. Earlier this week I was interviewed for a podcast where we discussed what we crave during the winter months. The conversation began with the usuals: melted cheese, simmering soup and of course pancakes. But then it twisted and turned, exploring how and why we reach for comfort: Nostalgia. Ritual. Grief. Boredom. Warmth. Distraction. Now that I’m standing here in the kitchen with pancakes on the go, I’d add the word Knowing to the list: knowing what I’ll be eating, knowing pancakes came on Saturdays, knowing I can eat them whenever I want, knowing what’s to come. That’s comfort for me.
The recipe called for pumpkin purée. I stood on a stool, searching the cupboards for a can, to no avail. Instead, I peeled a sweet potato and put it in the steamer. Comfort for me is also using what I have, staying in this moment, frying a pancake until the edges are crispy and filling my kitchen with a story.
Sweet Potato Pancakes
Or you use pumpkin purée. Use what you have. This recipes makes 6-8 pancakes.
1 1/2 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1 cup (250ml) milk (I used coconut milk)
1 cup (240g) pumpkin purée or steamed and mashed sweet potato*
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
butter or coconut oil for the frying pan
garnish with a dollop of chilled coconut milk or cream and, of course, maple syrup
I also added a sprinkling of granola
Sift dry ingredients together in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk milk, sweet potato purée, sugar, eggs and vanilla. Gently combine the wet with the dry, stirring just until combined.
Melt a teaspoon of butter, oil or coconut oil in a frying pan. Spoon batter onto the pan, about 1/3 cup for each pancake, and fry for 3 minutes per side. If pancakes aren’t quite cooked in the centre, turn down the heat, cover and leave to cook for a few minutes more.
Serve pancakes with maple syrup and perhaps a dollop of coconut cream and a sprinkling of your favourite granola for crunch.
*to steam a sweet potato, peel, chop and place in a steamer over simmering water. When tender, remove from steamer and mash with a fork until smooth. My sweet potato, raw, was 500g or 3 1/2 cups. It yielded more than 1 cup (240g) of purée – save the rest for a frittata!
A closing thought – If there are 52 Saturdays in a year and I ate on average 4 pancakes every Saturday for at least 12 years, that’s 2,496 pancakes. That’s a lot of comfort.