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Pancakes are a form of flatbread made by mixing up a runny batter and ladling the batter onto a hot, greased surface. The batter is allowed to cook until browned on one side before being flipped so that the other side can be cooked, and it can then be served in a variety of ways. Many people think specifically of a thick, sweet variety of flatbread when they hear the word “pancake,” although in fact, they come in quite an array of styles, shapes, and sizes.
Some pancakes are quick breads, with rising agents like baking soda that allow the batter to fluff up as it is cooked. Others use yeast or a slow fermentation process, developing a more complex, intense flavor. Injera, a form of Ethiopian flatbread, is one example of a slow-fermented pancake, which develops distinctive bubbly holes as it ferments, creating a spongy texture when it is cooked.
Pancakes are probably among the oldest of flatbreads known to man, since they are quite easy to make, and they can be quite varied. Many cultures make them with unique regional grains like buckwheat, cornmeal, and teff, and they can also be made with plain flour or a blend of grains. Multi-grain pancakes, for example, are very popular in some parts of the United States.
While pancakes can be eaten plain, they are commonly served with toppings. When eaten as a breakfast food, pancakes may be served with fresh fruit and syrup, and they can also be dusted in confectioner's sugar, sprinkled with lemon juice, or glazed with chocolate syrup. Compotes and jams also go well with pancakes, and in regions where more savory varieties are preferred, they can be served with all sorts of things, from scrambled eggs to chutney.
You may also hear pancakes referred to as griddlecakes, flapjacks, and hotcakes. Depending on how they are cooked, they vary in size, from large thin French crepes to American silver dollar pancakes, miniature versions of breakfast pancakes which are typically served in a tall stack.
Cooking pancakes can be a bit tricky. The batter must be thin enough to spread easily, but not so thin that it simply flows across the entire cooking surface and burns. The heat used must be hot enough to brown them, without being so hot that the pancakes end up raw in the middle. An optimal level of grease ensures that the pancakes don't stick, but doesn't leave them feeling greasy. Flipping them is also an art form, with show-off cooks jerking the pan to lift and flip the pancakes, while others prefer to use a spatula.