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Serious Eats digs into pancakes around the world.
World, I'd like to introduce you to a pancake. A pancake that is also a pasta. In an era of food mashups that make headlines as often as the Kardashians, you may be thinking, Oh great, this bozo's gone and put tomato sauce on his pancakes, and now he thinks he's somethin' special. If so, you'd be wrong on all counts. Because I've actually put pesto on my pancakes, and I don't think I'm a genius at all since it wasn't my idea: This is a real-deal Italian dish, and it's called testaroli.
Here's the traditional recipe in a nutshell: You make a very simple batter of just flour, water, and salt and cook it into thin, crêpe-like pancakes. Then you cut them up, set them in boiling water off the heat for a few minutes, drain, toss with pesto (or a pesto-like mix of grated cheese, basil leaves, and olive oil), and serve. If you like soaking sauce up with your bread, this dish is the ultimate version of that. The concept is so simple, in fact, that I thought it would take no time at all to whip it up into a recipe. On that count, I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
People often say that simple food is the hardest to make. It's often true, and this recipe is a great example of why. See, in the northern Tuscan area of Lungiana where testaroli come from, they're cooked in massive cast iron vessels with huge domed lids, which have been heated over a live wood fire until blazing hot. The batter is poured into the vessel off the heat, then covered with the hot lid. There's enough residual heat in the vessel and lid to cook the pancake throughout—it's never flipped or set back over the heat. When it's ready, what comes out is a thin pancake that's crispy on one side and slightly spongy on the other. Here's a nice video of the traditional method that will help you see what it's all about.
I figured that adapting the recipe for a home kitchen would be as simple as substituting a very hot cast iron skillet for the original vessel and covering it with some kind of lid. But in test after test, my results were terrible. It took me forever just to zero in on a ratio of flour to water for the batter that seemed to work, but even then, the pancakes came out too glutinous and chewy. Eventually I did what we here at Serious Eats do best: I abandoned any attempt to adhere to tradition and looked for methods that would get me closer to the spirit of the dish, if not the letter.
First, I added a small amount of baking powder to the batter to give it just a bit of spring. Second, I let go of the idea that I shouldn't flip the pancakes: I needed all the heat I could get on both sides to cook them through properly. And third, I broke with the tradition of soaking the pancakes in boiling-hot water off the heat for roughly three minutes, which was causing my pancakes to become overly bloated, soggy, and fragile; instead, I give mine just a quick dip in that hot water to moisten them.
Take away the wood-fire heat and the original cooking vessel, and use a different flour (all-purpose, which is what most of us have, versus whatever flour they're using in Lunigiana), and the recipe is completely undone. I could try to be a slave to tradition, but if my results are terrible, what's the point?
Here's how to break all the rules of testaroli at home so that they taste traditional, even if they're not made by the old method.
I start by gradually mixing water into flour, baking powder, and salt with a whisk—it's important not to add all the water at once, since that will form lumps that will be very difficult to remove. The batter should be on the thin side.
Then I let the batter rest for about twenty minutes, enough time to fully hydrate the flour and relax any gluten that formed during whisking. While it rests, I preheat a well-seasoned cast iron skillet in a 550°F oven. Once preheated, I take the skillet out and rub it with a thin layer of oil.
Then I add some of the batter...
...and swirl it around to coat the bottom of the skillet.
I set the skillet over high heat; the batter will steam and form some very tiny air bubbles on its surface. I let the pancake cook until it's browned and crispy on the bottom, about three minutes.
When the pancake looks mostly dry on top and is browned on the bottom, it's time to flip.
If your skillet is seasoned well, it should be easy to lift the pancake with a thin metal spatula.
Cook it on the other side until browned in spots, which just takes a minute or so. The pancake should be thin, browned, and crispy on the surface while still moist inside. It's good to let it rest for several minutes on a wire rack or clean paper towel. Meanwhile, continue making more pancakes until you've used all the batter.
It's best to rest all the pancakes without stacking, since you want them to dry more, not steam.
The next step is to cut the pancakes into little pieces; diamonds are the traditional shape, but you can do whatever you feel like.
Helpful tip: A pizza cutter makes cutting even easier.
Before serving, drop the pancake pieces into salted water that has just been brought to a boil and taken off the heat. Immediately drain them.
Gently toss the testaroli with either pesto or a mixture of extra virgin olive oil, torn basil leaves, and grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese.
And that is how pancake pasta is made.
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