Dropping pancakes with Philip Harben

We were without breakfast in our house this morning - too many sunny days and not enough basic food shopping, so, with two eggs left in the basket, flour in the cupboard and milk and Maple Syrup in the fridge, I thought pancakes might be the order of the day - fat ones, American ones (or are they Scots/Scotch/Drop ones?) the thick round ones anyway. I can keep the recipe for thin batter in my head but, somehow, the proportions for what my mother called ‘drop scones’ won’t stick there - I require the safety net of a recipe.

Baking, unlike other branches of cooking, is more science than art. The proportions of flour to milk to egg to baking powder for these pancakes are really important. Last time I made these, I turned to Skye Gyngell. How I Cook had just been given to me, and there she waxed lyrical about summer pancakes and her daughter Evie’s recipe. The thing about Skye though, beautiful as her books are, I just don’t believe that she tests the recipes and often they seem doomed to failure before we even start. One look at the 250g flour to 500ml (half a litre!) of milk, 3 eggs and 75g butter(!) and I knew that these would be a disaster - the proportions don’t even look right on paper.

Moving onward to Dan Lepard and Short & Sweet, normally so reliable, he was a bit of a let down too. He has asked Betsy for a recipe (350g flour to 225ml milk, a 'little’ butter, and a third egg to Skye’s two) - but the instruction is lacking - “only add the last of the milk if need be” - what does that mean exactly Dan? I need context. I need to know how the batter should look and behave, I need a description of it if I am to know if the last of the milk is 'needed’ - I know it’s a small detail, but it matters - and while Skye’s half litre of milk looked like overkill without enough flour to absorb it, that 225ml, even with the extra egg, is not particularly generous given all that flour. I trusted you last time Dan, but these turned out a little stodgy. I wondered if this recipe can only work if you are Betsy and living with the degree of year round humidity that the Black Isle has to offer - might we in fact need to add more milk rather than holding back those last few drops?.

Clutching at straws with this previous experience behind me, I remembered listening to the very sweet Jo Wheatley on Womans hour last week and that her recipe seemed detailed: wrong again, 1 mug flour to 1 mug milk and three, specifically, large eggs. Now, personally, I have a problem with cup measures and these are exact even if they do add the degree of uncertainty that volume brings with it, but mugs? I have at least three different sizes of mug in my cupboard so this recipe, while appropriately 'homely’ sounding to fit the current zeitgeist, is of no use to anyone who doesn’t know for sure what size mugs Jo’s are, not unless she gives the rest of her ingredients in terms of their relation to the size of a mug anyway.

Beginning to lose hope, I go back to my roots. The first time I ever made these I referred to my mother’s Philip Harben (Cooking - a Penguin handbook). He outlined magic ratios for batter and wrote beautiful prose defining and instructing. Here is what Mr Harben has to say about batter:

“BATTER is made of flour and eggs beaten together with enough liquid to form a pourable creamy fluid (French battre to beat). It can be fried as a thin film (pancakes), baked (batter puddings), or cooked in direct contact with hot greased metal (waffles, drop scones). Or it can be used as a coating for pieces of food to be fried (fritters). Its consistency can vary from very thick, only just pourable, to very thin, almost milky, according to which of the manifold purposes it is to be put.”

Who would put it better or more succinctly today? Unfortunately, I remember well my first attempt using Philip’s proportions. I was very young, it may even have been my maiden voyage in the kitchen, I can still see the two pancakes (yes, just two) that I made from a full quantity of his batter (6oz/170g flour to 5floz/150ml milk and 1 small egg); they were, as you might imagine, rather large. The first was the shape of Africa and almost an inch thick. I had never seen a drop scone before, God alone only knows why I was trying to make them and they were a huge disappointment. Consequently I don’t trust Philip’s proportions even today - he had promised me half a dozen would drop neatly from my spoon.

Finally, I look to Nigella and How to Eat, written before she became a symbol for all that is fast loose and above all glamorous, and I hope for salvation. There it is - ingredients written as proportions variable according the type of batter required and better still they look like they will work - you kind of know it from the start; it sounds right. If you really want to perfect them, Jo’s tip about whipping up the egg whites separately from the yolks and folding them into the batter at the last minute, will fluff these pancakes up a notch as will the Penguin method of:

“beating eggs and sugar until thick and light and then mixing in the other ingredients.”

For my own sake, if not for yours, I am going to record here Nigella’s proportions (amended slightly for sugar and butter by Bee Nilson in The Penguin Cookery Book) and a Philip Harben worded method (again, slightly amended to incorporate additional ingredients) so that next time at least I have a reference point if, once again, I have forgotten what the proportions should be and how the prose for a recipe once sounded. Serve these as you will, with jam, maple syrup, butter - however the mood takes you. Philip makes his recommendations at the end of the recipe and Nigella suggests bacon shards as a potential foil for Maple syrup; I also like them with a little fresh fruit or some that has been gently cooked with a little sugar



250g plain flour,
2 tablespoons sugar,
4 teaspoons baking powder*
2 eggs,
300ml milk,
2 tablespoons melted butter,
a little butter, to grease the pan/hotplate

*1 tsp bicarbonate of soda + 2½ tsps cream of tartar ≈ 4 tsps baking powder


  • sieve the flour into a bowl, stir in the sugar and the baking-powder and make a 'well’ in the middle of it.
  • break your eggs into this hollow space and on to it pour a little of the milk.
  • beat these three liquid things together with a small wire whisk or a fork. Try to disturb the surrounding flour as little as possible as you do this; but even so, a certain amount will creep in.
  • continue adding more milk little by little, beating well all the time, and gradually allowing the surrounding wall of dry flour to drop into the egg-milk pool in the middle and get beaten in.
  • when all the flour is in and you have a thick creamy mixture, give it a jolly good beating to make sure there are no lumps of unmixed flour. It is at this stage that you can do this most effectively: later, when the mixture is much runnier, the lumps can run away from your whip. Whip in the cooled melted butter.
  • work in the rest of the milk gradually, whipping the liquid all the time. The consistency of the batter should be such that when a ladelful of it is poured on to the hot greased metal, it does not flow out very far but remains as a fairly thick pool.
  • heat the hot plate moderately. Grease the hotplate by rubbing it with greasy paper and on to it drop good tablespoonfuls of batter in neat round pools - as many as the plate will accommodate.
  • after 2 or 3 minutes cooking the pancake will be golden brown on the underside and well risen. If it is burnt underneath the plate is too hot. If it is too pale underneath the hotplate is too cool
  • flip the pancakes over with a spatula or slice and cook the other sides likewise.
  • scotch pancakes should be put between the folds of a clean dry cloth as soon as they are done: that keeps them nice and soft.
  • they can be served either toasted, or just as they are still warm, liberally buttered

“A pancake has been defined* as a pool of batter fried on both sides.
*By me”
~ Philip Harben, “Cooking”, Penguin (1960)

Erica x