08 March 2011

Laissez les bons crepes rouler

 Today is Shrove Tuesday. In the medieval period this would have fallen within Shrovetide, the week preceding Lent in which one was expected to confess one's sins in preparation for the Lenten season of penitence. As the day before Lent, Shrove Tuesday would have been a day of feasting prior to next month of fasting. More commonly known as Fat Tuesday in English-speaking countries, it is now less about confession and more about overindulgence in those items which one is giving up for Lent. (For those who don't celebrate Lent/don't give up anything, it means just overindulging).

In the US, we have Mardi Gras, which means this: (Note: I know some of you are still recovering from the crazy runner photo, so I opted to keep this one PG):
Yes, such outfits are obligatory. (Unfortunately, I left mine at home. How sad!) What does Mardi Gras entail? Extreme consumption of alcoholic beverages (especially in the form of Hurricanes and Hand Grenades), above-waist female nudity, the (mostly unfortunate) emergence of 'hot pants' on individuals who have no business wearing them, and the seemingly disappearance of all modesty and/or common sense.

Today I discovered whilst on assignment that England has its own thoroughly English version of Mardi Gras. It is called 'Pancake Day' and involves the consumption of copious amounts of pancakes, the wearing of bowler hats and over-usage of the word 'chap', and a strange phenomenon known as the pancake race. The consumption of pancakes in the UK is traditional since in the medieval period they would have been made to use up any remaining stores of milk, eggs, sugar, and other non-fasting appropriate items. It is important to note that when I refer to pancakes in the UK that they are not the ones we think of in America.

In the US, pancakes are light and fluffy due to containing a rising agent such as baking power or buttermilk. Although toppings vary according to personal preference, American pancakes are most often consumed with a slab of butter and maple syrup. They are considered an appropriate breakfast meal item although can make an appearance at dinner time in the form of the wonderful phenomenon of 'breakfast for dinner'. (At St. Mary's College of Maryland, they also make an appearance from 9pm-12am during the exam period's midnight breakfast event.)

British (and, more generally, European) pancakes are more similar to crepes. They do not contain a rising agent and so are very thin and flat. They are generally considered a dessert item and, although toppings once again vary according to personal preference, the traditional dressing includes lemon juice and sugar, or golden syrup (which is NOT maple syrup).

American pancakes:

European pancakes:
 The arrival of Pancake Day in the UK sees the holding of pancake races across the country. Apparently the tradition derives from the story of a woman from Olney (England) who was making pancakes when she heard the bells of the church ringing calling parishioners to service. She ran to church still holding the skillet with pancake intact. So in true English spirit, races are held every year on this day. The most famous in London is the Parliamentary Pancake Race where MPs (Members of Parliament), Lords, and members of the press compete against each other. Since this event was held at 10:30am and I had to report to work, I chose to attend the Inter-Livery Pancake Race held at the City of London Guildhall. The first thing I noted upon arrival was the presence of an ambulance.
London takes pancake racing seriously
Clearly this pancake race was no joke. I was still about half an hour early for the noon event, but already competitors and throngs of spectators were gathering. A vendor was selling pancakes which people were sprinkling them with lemon juice and powdered sugar before rolling to consume. This custom puzzled me until I read the Wikipedia article necessary to write the above pancake comparison. :) (For the most part the US and UK are very similar, but it is always the small differences in mannerisms (such as pancake consumption customs) that intrigue me.)

I assumed my position along the race course, camera at the ready, and watched as the various livery companies began to mentally and physically prepare for the upcoming race. Dressed in the required attire of gown, tall paper hat, gloves, knee-length skirt (for the women), and apron, some competitors conducted group stretching exercises to warm up and walked the course to practice technique/decide upon race strategy.
Others opted for a more leisurely approach, no doubt to psyche out their competitors by a seeming lack of preparation.

At noon, the proceedings began with a brief history of the event (it was started in 2004 by the Worshipful Company of Poulters) and a reading of the rules. In addition to the required attire (which competitors both had to start and finish with), runners had to run to a designated flipping zone, making sure that their feet were entirely inside the box, flip the pancake once, and then run to a cone at the end of the course. After rounding the cone, they had to once again enter the flipping zone, flip the pancake, and run to the finish line. 3-second penalties were awarded to runners who broke any of the rules. After this note, the Reverend read the 'Prayer of the Pancake' and a cannon was shot off to mark the beginning of the first heat.
'Oh Mighty God, thank you for these pancakes!'
The first segment of races were amongst the Masters of the various companies.

Then it was the Liverymen's turn. These men were generally younger and it was during these races that we saw more penalties awarded and the first accidents (runners falling, pancakes being hurtled at spectators as runners rounded the cones).

This was followed by the Women's, Novelty, and Unaffiliated (for those companies who had been unsuccessful in drawing a place in the main race) competitions. 

The Novelty Fancy Dress competition
  A final heat was held between the winners of each individual race, with the Novelty competitor winning. The event closed with acknowledgement of the work performed by various company, City, and Guildhall employees, and a performance of the 'Pancake Day Anthem' by the Worshipful Company of Musicians.
Performance of the Pancake Day Anthem. I told you this was not a joke.

Alex, John, Karen, Elysa, Brad, Kara, Ingrahammer: I challenge you to a pancake race when I come back. No excuses. It is on!

I was so inspired by the events of pancake day that I returned home to bake...cupcakes? Actually, I had planned on baking cupcakes several weeks ago in preparation of tomorrow's relay (and final KCL XC team) race. I was unaware that my baking session would fall on Pancake Day, hence the somewhat inappropriate choice. I had thought about making mini king cakes to celebrate Mardi Gras, but, having only tasted king cake once in the distant past, decided that it was too risky of a choice. And so I chose black bottom cupcakes, which I made this past summer for my fellow Consulate staff in celebration of my 22nd birthday.

Now, those of you who know me will be aware that I am not a cook. I am horribly inpatient and so my average dinner consists of stir-fries and other things that take less than 20 minutes to prepare. Making elaborate meals seems somewhat worthless when I am cooking for just myself. But I do like to cook for others and so this past year I have used the excuse of races to bake for my cross country team.
Batter preparation. Note: indulging in Diet Coke is my way of celebrating Fat Tuesday prior to the Lenten fast
I used a chocolate cupcake recipe from Georgetown Cupcake, omitting the recipe for the ganache. For the cream cheese topping, I combined 10 oz cream cheese, 8 oz chocolate chips, 1/2 c. sugar, 1 egg and 1 egg. Let me tell you: it was hard work stirring everything together. Cream cheese and butter are not naturally in consistencies that could be described as 'light, whipped, and fluffy'. And without the aid of an electric mixer, it takes a surprisingly long time for them to get to such a state. I will never take my Mum's KitchenAid stand mixer for granted ever again! By the end of the baking process, I was quite frazzled.
This is me, frazzled.
But the wonderful smell of cooking cupcakes was enough to make the hard work worth it.
After 25 minutes, I pulled them out to find....

Success! (Note: I made more cupcakes than just these.) They don't look like much, but these are absolutely delicious. I tried one to make sure that they were edible and, as of 8:23PM, have not died, so I am pretty sure that they are safe to serve to my teammates tomorrow. Thank goodness!

On a much sadder note, today is my last day with Diet Coke. I briefly (as in for a period of two seconds) considered going cold turkey, but decided that I am already cruel enough to my body without subjecting it to such a traumatic experience. And so I have been weaning myself off of 'da juice'.  Tomorrow will be interesting and I may collapse during the race from sheer Diet Coke withdrawal. Ah well. At least I can celebrate with copious amounts of Katy Cider!!!! (Katy Cider = motivation).

Happy Pancake Day readers!


  1. I like crepes: more emphasis on the toppings, less on the fluffy, bready stuff.

    You might consider substituting Scotch for your diet coke, but I don't think that's the sort of sacrifice Lent was cut-out for.

  2. I just found your blog! And in reference to the pancake challenge, you're going down Rebecca!