In the lovely, small medieval town of Kamnik, nestled at the foot of the Julian Alps, which rise precipitously above the red-tiled roofs, there stands a new bistro that is about to offer the notoriously cautious and xenophobic Slovene eaters a menu option that few, if any, will have tried before. It is neither bizarre nor exotic, but the 20-something owners of Ekstaza Bistro wonder if any of their customers will order it. For this summer, American-style pancakes will be offered to the hungry citizens of Kamnik. Slovenes love their pancakes (called palačinke), but by this they mean European crȇpes. They are smaller and less fancy than the French version, made in a normal skillet with low sides and filled with apricot marmalade or Nutella, then rolled into a tube to be eaten by hand. The French fill theirs with ingredients savory (crème fraiche, lardons, gruyere) or sweet (powdered sugar and Grand Marnier), and have a specially-made flat, round hotplate onto which batter is poured, then smoothed across the hot surface with an offset spatula.
These European “pancakes” originated in Brittany, in the north of France. When made with wheat flour they are called crȇpes, and galettes when made with buckwheat flour. Europeans have made thin, flat pancakes of various sorts for millennia, with a reference to “frying pan cakes” found in the work of 5th century BC Greek poets. The earliest pancakes were made with spelt flour. “Pancake” first appears in a 15th century English document, while the word crȇpes comes from the Latin crispus, meaning “curled.” Historians date galettes to the 12th century, when buckwheat was first introduced to Europe and planted in the rocky soil of Brittany, where it was called “blé noir” or “black wheat.” The word galette means “pebble” and refers to the original cooking method, with batter poured over a large round heated stone. Crȇpes made with white flour only prospered in the 20th century, since until then white flour was prohibitively expensive as an ingredient.
European crȇpes, from Slovene palačinke to Swedish pancakes to Dutch pannenkoeken to Austrian Palatschinken, this basic recipe is among the most popular desserts in the world today. The biggest difference between crȇpes and palačinke is that crȇpe batter should be left to sit for at least several hours before use, whereas palačinke batter is used immediately. Although it may now have unappetizing connotations, the etymology of palačinke comes from the Latin word for flat cake, placenta. American pancakes include the same basic ingredients (flour, eggs, milk, butter), but also have a rising ingredient, usually baking soda or powder. They are, quite literally, cakes that you make in a pan, rather than the oven. Also called hotcakes, flapjacks, and griddle cakes, they have more of a texture, whereas crȇpes are completely flat and largely a conduit for their filling.
American pancakes are often served in stacks, with butter and maple syrup—an ingredient that is difficult to find in Europe, despite the reasonable number of maple trees that grow there. The thickness of pancakes allows additions to be mixed into the batter, from bananas, blueberries, or chocolate chips to bacon. The rising agent in the batter causes bubbles to form on the uncooked side as the dough heats, a sign that the pancake is ready to be flipped. American-style pancakes likely began in the form of Johnnycakes, a savory flatbread made with cornmeal. Flapjacks, usually around 10 cm in diameter, are at least five-hundred years old, as they are referenced in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That End’s Well.
Etymology, history, and similarities aside, your average Slovene will not have encountered the fluffy, American incarnation of their beloved palačinke. Jure Bartol and Domen Meglič, the young entrepreneurs behind Ekstaza, are less than optimistic about the willingness of Slovenes to order things that they’ve never tried before. Perhaps in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, things are different—the city boasts a popular Nepali restaurant, among its culinary wonders. But rural Slovenes tend to be resistant to new foods. This is understandable—before Slovenia’s independence from Yugoslavia, in 1991, the shelves of grocery stores carried limited offerings. Folks ate what they or their neighbors cultivated themselves, and shops stocked a narrow array of goods, almost all of which was produced within Yugoslavia. The exotic simply was not available. Today, supermarkets in Slovenia stock everything from kim chee to sri racha hot sauce, but the tastes of the locals have been slow to develop. When the first Chinese restaurant set up shop in Ljubljana, the initial reaction was confusion and dismissal. A few years on, and Chinese restaurants thrive. Could the same thing happen with the introduction of far less exotic American pancakes? When summer rolls around, and Ameriške palačinke appear on the menu at Ekstaza, it will be interesting to find out. But if Slovenes are slow to come around, it is likely only a matter of time. Whether European or American, there is little better than a good pancake.