From the Stone Age, when humans began noshing on grain-based cakes made on primitive stone griddles, to modern times when weekend lines form around breakfast restaurants, pancakes are a staple of culinary life.Next week marks the advent of Ash Wednesday which signifies the commencement of the Lent season in Christian churches. The day before is known as Fat or Shrove Tuesday, when pancakes are the main course of suppers at churches everywhere.
Despite the deliciously sinful nature of decadent pancakes, Shrove Tuesday is tied to the ancient custom of penitence meant to cleanse the soul. Because Lent is all about abstinence, Shrove Tuesday — Feb. 21 this year — marks the last opportunity to pig out before Ash Wednesday arrives to deprive the faithful of guilty pleasures until Easter. The BBC reports that Shrove Tuesday is now often called "Pancake Day" in homage to the sheer number of pancakes consumed at Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers.
In Naples, however, pancakes take center stage all year. They're a favorite meal, and comes in countless varieties, at local dining spots.
Tucked away near the Naples Dock is bustling headquarters for admired pancakes, the Cove Inn Coffee Shop. Famous as a Naples breakfast spot, this tiny restaurant is often standing-room-only for a reason — its regular, $1-size and stuffed pancakes.
The secret to The Cove Inn Coffee Shop pancakes is in the batter used to create its slender pancakes, which in turn create a specific texture in the mouth. Diners have been known to eat the Cove Inn Coffee Shop dollar pancakes with nothing but butter, folded in half for one succulent bite.
For further adornment, the restaurant offers three kinds of syrup — sugar-free, regular and pure maple syrup, the last for an additional $1.95. But the additional price isn't why regulars forgo the pure stuff for the regular syrup. Owner / operator Lori Greco has done many blind taste tests over the years and every time, their regular syrup wins out.
"We've had the same plain, regular syrup for 30 years," she says. "The pancakes are so good, they really don't need butter or syrup, but with butter and syrup the taste only gets better."
Greco says the secret to her famous pancakes is a matter of balance.
"I tell customers who ask me that all you have to do at home is take your mix and add just a touch of bread yeast, let it rise and break it down and let it rise and break it down. However, we have a commercial grill and it would be very difficult for them to get a home stove to our temperature to achieve these results," she says.
The mixture and griddle are why Greco's pancakes are the opposite of heavy — not at all doughy and just slightly crispy around the edges.
The dollar pancakes are the most popular at The Cove Inn Coffee Shop, something server Yvan Pichevin likes to compare to the coastal landscape in Naples.
"You don't even have to do to the beach to get your sand dollars — we've got plenty right here," he says.
In addition to the adorable miniature pancakes, Greco prepares birthday pancakes with candles brought to the table by singing servers, heart-shaped pancakes for Valentine's Day and special pancakes for children.
"Our Mickey Mouse pancakes are in high demand for kids too, and the servers write "MM" on the order tickets so the cooks will know it's for kids and to make the pancake with mouse ears," says Greco.
Across town at Skillets, most of Owner Ross Edlund's unsuspecting customers have no idea that the pancakes they enjoy were created by a master baker. Edlund developed all the formulas for his pancakes years ago when he was one of the most celebrated bakers in Chicago. He's still a prolific baker who spends every Saturday perfecting French bread that he gives away. In March he'll attend the internationally renowned bread conference "Euro Pain" in Paris.
"I was a baker for more than 20 years and I lived above my bakery, so we would always play around and make pancakes from scratch long before we opened Skillets," says Edlund, who still only orders specialty flours for his restaurant.
"If you open a cookbook, you'll see the recipe will almost always call for all-purpose flour, but one of our secrets is we use a special, low-protein flour and we special order a coarse whole wheat for our whole wheat pancakes."
Some of the flavors Edlund offers at his two Naples locations and another in Bonita Springs include cranberry-raisin-pecan, toasted pecan, apple and apple-raisin among others. Edlund uses two basic batters — buttermilk and whole wheat, both of which he developed over years spent in the bakery business.
Pancakes in general may be on the wrong end of the healthy eating spectrum, but health-conscious diners have many choices.
At Skillets, Edlund prepares a stone-ground, coarse, whole-wheat pancake, adding wheat germ to the batter as the pancake cooks on the griddle.
At Sweet Mama's, gluten-free diners flock to order gluten free pancakes.
"We provide pancakes for our customers who need to eat gluten-free and they can choose from plain, chocolate chip or blueberry," says Sheraz Kahn, a trained nutritionist and chef/owner of Sweet Mama's Island Cuisine in East Naples. "We make them so these customers with special dietary needs don't feel left out and can enjoy pancakes like everyone else."
The sprouted-wheat pancakes at Food & Thought, concocted by crafty organic chef Freedom Teague, feature banana, blueberry or strawberry.
Teague's pancakes taste just like regular pancakes, but a few bites will keep you satisfied for hours without any trace of heaviness.
The body can't digest unsprouted seeds, and because Chef Teague's pancakes are made from sprouted wheat, they take longer to digest and are better for the digestive system and the body overall, he explains.