Mix a pancake,
Stir a pancake,
Pop it in the pan;
Fry the pancake,
Toss the pancake—
Catch it if you can.  (Christina Rossetti, ‘Mix a pancake’)

Today is Shrove Tuesday, the day of the year on which pancakes are traditionally eaten (hence its more common name of Pancake Day). The name ‘Shrove Tuesday’ dates back more than a thousand years and comes from the verb ‘to shrive’ which means to obtain absolution for one’s sins by confessing and doing penance. Coming the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent (the period of forty days preceding Easter), Shrove Tuesday referred to the fact that Christians were urged to go to church in the days immediately preceding Lent in order to confess their sins. As Abbot Aelfric of Eynsham stated in around 1000 AD in his Ecclesiastical Institutes:

In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do [in the way of penance]. (

Where food is concerned, since it commemorates the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness, Lent is associated with abstinence and the giving up of certain foods. Nowadays, people tend to give up one of their food vices – chocolate, sweets, or crisps – but in the early Church the forbidden foods were many. As I wrote in an earlier post in the Middle Ages it was customary to give up meat, fish and all dairy products in Lent. As a result, the tradition developed of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday as a way of using up the dairy produce in the house before Lent started.

The poem by the Victorian poet, Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), at the beginning of this post, provides a summary for how to make pancakes: the mixing together of the ingredients (flour, milk, butter and eggs) to make a batter, the cooking of them (I’m wary of using Rossetti’s term, ‘fry’, as taken literally that could lead to very crispy pancakes!) and – if you’re feeling brave – the tossing of the pancake when the first side is cooked (or play it safe and use a spatula or fish knife to flip the pancake).

Pancakes make fleeting appearances in other works of English Literature, such as The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith (1766), a sentimental novel which focuses on the trials and tribulations suffered by the Reverend Primrose and his family (redeemed by a happy ending). Early in the novel, the Primrose family move to a new parish following the unexpected loss of their fortune. The Reverend Primrose – who narrates the novel from his naïve perspective – describes the lifestyle of his new parishioners whose customs and practices are shaped by the seasons and holy days of the year:

They kept up the Christmas carol, sent true love-knots on Valentine morning, eat pancakes on Shrove-tide, shewed their wit on the first of April and religiously cracked nuts on Michaelmas eve.’

Pancakes also appear in Anthony Trollope’s political novel, The Prime Minister, published over 100 years later in 1876, and, as with Rossetti’s poem, the reader is given some clear pointers on how to make them. Abel Wharton, a wealthy lawyer, is dining with the young MP, Arthur Fletcher, who is in love with Wharton’s daughter, Emily. The food they are eating comes under discussion:

‘A very good beefsteak indeed,’ said Arthur. ‘I don’t know when I ate a better one. Thank you, no; – I’ll stick to the claret.’ Mr Wharton had offered him Madeira. ‘Claret and brown meat always go well together. Pancake! I don’t object to a pancake. A pancake’s a very good thing. Now would you believe it, sir; they can’t make a pancake at the House.’
‘And yet they sometimes fall very flat too,’ said the lawyer, making a real lawyer’s joke.
‘It’s all in the mixing, sir,’ said Arthur, carrying it on. ‘We’ve mixture enough just at present, but it isn’t of the proper sort; – too much of the flour, and not enough of the egg.’

Whilst Rossetti’s poem and Trollope’s novel give some indications of how to make pancakes, I always like a recipe myself. Whilst probably the most popular way to eat pancakes is as a dessert, with lemon and sugar, I am partial to savoury pancakes and, having some left-over roast chicken in my fridge, I conjured up the recipe below.

Ingredients (makes 6)
For the pancake batter:
120g plain flour
2 eggs
Pinch sea salt
60g melted unsalted butter
200ml milk

For the filling:
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely diced or crushed
1 red pepper, de-seeded and diced
250g cooked chicken, cut into small pieces
100g mushrooms, chopped into small pieces
1 tablespoon flour
400ml stock (chicken or vegetable)
2 tablespoons crème fraiche
Salt and pepper
Grated cheese to top

Begin by making the batter. Place all the batter ingredients into a liquidizer and blend to the consistency of thin cream (add a little more milk if necessary). Let the mixture stand for about 20 minutes.
In the meantime, prepare the filling. Fry the onion in olive oil until translucent, then add the garlic and pepper and continue to cook over a medium heat for a few minutes until the pepper has softened. Then add the chicken and mushroom and cook for a few more minutes.
Stir the flour into the cooked mixture and cook for about one minute. Then add the stock and stir until it turns into a thick sauce. Stir in the crème fraiche, warm through and season to taste. Remove from the heat.
Make the pancakes. Use a small frying pan and grease it lightly – with either oil or butter (if you use too much oil you will end up frying the pancakes which is not what you want). Pour enough of the batter in to the pan to coat it lightly; when it is cooked on one side, turn it and cook the other.
Place the cooked pancake on a plate, cover with a piece of greaseproof paper and continue until you have used up all the batter.
Preheat the oven to 180C (Fan oven 160C, Gas mark 4. Put a couple of tablespoons of the chicken mixture on each pancake and roll up. Place seamside down in a buttered shallow ovenproof dish. Sprinkle with grated cheese and bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes until the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbling. If the cheese is starting to brown too much cover with foil.

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