Pannenkoeken (pun-nĕ-koo-ken) are a traditional Dutch meal. They are large and flat pancakes with the thinness of crepes. In my family, we enjoy them for dinner on special occasions such as birthdays and holidays. I collected this piece from my father, who emigrated to the US from the Netherlands as an adult and grew up in the town of Delft. I asked him to show me how to make the recipe one night at our home in San Francisco.
NS: “Alright first you start by putting on some vegetable soup, I do some bouillon cubes and whatever vegetables you have lying around. Then you start the pannenkoeken by putting flour in a big bowl.
JS: “how much flour do you use?”
NS: “Just some flower, as much as you want. (laughs) and some salt. mix it up a bit to get rid of the clumps… there, perfect! Then crack an egg into it and mix it up, add two eggs or so mixing in between.”
JS: (I add three eggs absentmindedly)
NS: “Haha, perfect, you want to get it nicely mixed… then add some milk gradually. You want to mix it all the while so that it stays smooth.”
(I mix vigorously, adding milk little by little until we have a soupy batter)
NS: “Then we heat up the pan. You want to move the bowl over here near the stove. Rub butter around in the pan and then pour in a spoonful of the batter, and you want to start moving the pan to spread the batter almost as soon as you start pouring.”
(I pour in the batter. the pan is not hot enough, so the batter just sits at the bottom.)
NS: “Ok yeah we tried a little too soon. Just wait until the pan heats up a bit.”
He puts a plate on top of the simmering pot of soup and explains that this is where we will put the finished pannenkoeken to stay hot. I pour more batter once the pan is hotter and then tilt the pan back and forth to spread the runny batter all the way around the pan. This takes some practice, but I eventually work out a way to make nice, even, golden brown pannenkoeken and set them on the plate. My dad shows me how to fill the last few with Gouda cheese and fold them over on top of each other. I heft the pot of soup along with the full plate on top and set it on the dinner table. We eat the soup first and then start on the cheese pancakes, topping them with cumin and nutmeg. They are rich and creamy. We then set ourselves upon the “sweet” pancakes underneath, topping them with maple syrup, brown sugar, walnut pieces, and cinnamon. In the past, we have used berries and Nutella as well. I ask my dad where he learned this recipe and what it means for him.
NS: “My mom used to make them for the family, it was always an exciting treat for the kids. I like them, sometimes I just get the craving.”
JS: “Are there any differences between the way you make them and the way your mom used to make them?”
NS: “No not really. The soup is essentially the same and the batter too. The one thing I changed was folding them over onto the cheese, putting it in the middle. I think my mom put the cheese on top. That was my contribution to the tradition. (laughs)”
Eating pannenkoeken is one of the cherished traditions in my household. It is one of the few Dutch recipes that we continue to perform. A recently naturalized US citizen, this piece of folklore helps my dad to remember his family from the country from which he emigrated, many of whom have since passed away and some of whom he keeps in touch with long-distance. The environment in which he grew up, the small town of Delft, is radically different from the American city of San Francisco, and I think traditions like these help him to maintain his sense of identity as an expatriate. For me, who grew up in San Francisco, this tradition gives me a sense of my dad’s history as well as my own Dutch heritage, a means of holding on to what makes one special in a country of immigrants from all over the world. The task of making the pannenkoeken requires some practice, and while the recipe is simple and often approximated, one must have a feeling for how the batter flows, what temperature the pan should be, how to store the finished cakes so that they stay hot, when to add butter, and how much batter to add per pannekoek. The process is like an elaborate choreography in the kitchen so it feels much more special to make them well since doing so requires practice and instruction. The differences between my dad’s and his mother’s pannenkoeken are dependent on the available ingredients: my dad might make the soup differently, and my grandmother might have used different kinds of cheese and, as my dad mentions, a different technique for making the cheese pancakes The cheese we use at home is imported from Holland.
Food has an intimate relation with memory and identity. What we consume is what we are made up of, and tastes can connect us intimately to a community and way of life. Making pennenkoeken is one way my father retains his identity as a Dutch-American immigrant, and a way in which he transmits this identity to his American-raised children, passing down a memory of warm family dinners.