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Making Better Pancakes, Like Dad Used to Serve Up

Scratch Pancakes. Illustrates PANCAKES (category d), by Nevin Martell, special to The Washington Post. Moved Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey)

Scratch Pancakes. Illustrates PANCAKES (category d), by Nevin Martell, special to The Washington Post. Moved Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey)

“Pancakes or waffles?” That’s what my father asked me almost every Saturday morning of my childhood.

I usually voted for the pancakes. They weren’t fancy: Dad simply added water, and sometimes an egg, to a few cups of Hansmann’s Mills buckwheat mix. If he was feeling particularly inspired, he would dot the griddled rounds with fresh blueberries or slivered strawberries. But I didn’t care what he put in or on them. His pancakes were just an excuse for me to drown my plate in maple syrup (the real deal, not the fake stuff in the aunt-shaped bottle).

It’s been a long time since my father manned the stove and cooked me breakfast. The spatula has been passed, and I’m now cooking for my 1-year-old son, Zephyr. I wanted to share my family’s pancake tradition with him, but I didn’t want my flapjacks to come out of a box.

I’m not the first cook with such an impulse, of course, but I also didn’t want just any from-scratch pancake. I wanted a jacked-up version of the pancakes I had as a kid. So I looked at recipes to get a general idea of ingredients and ratios (flour plus baking powder plus eggs, milk, a little sugar and some vanilla) and then set to work playing around with types of flour. All-purpose didn’t give deep enough flavor. Buckwheat and whole-wheat created pancakes with a rustic texture perfect for Little House on the Prairie, but not for my house. I even experimented with coconut flour, and the flapjacks had a nice natural sweetness — and the texture of lead.

Ultimately, whole-wheat pastry flour came out on top of the stack by creating fluffy pancakes with a slight touch of grainy richness. I filled them out with diced fruit, chopped nuts or chocolate chips, but to avoid pockets of uncooked goo I sprinkled them on top of the batter after it went onto the griddle and settled.

When it comes to the drizzling options, there will always be a jug of maple syrup in our fridge, plus a few fancier possibilities, accented with whiskey, and Noble’s vanilla-chamomile infused number. But I wanted to take my pancakes to the next level with some house-made toppings.

The first of those was inspired by a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, where I tasted piloncillo, unrefined dark cane sugar that’s sold in hardened cones and boasts a deep caramel flavor with hints of stone fruits. I cooked it with water to make syrup and infused it with cinnamon, cloves and star anise. For the second, I wanted the taste of coffee, and after some experimentation with whole beans (barely discernible flavor) and finely ground espresso (gritty goop), I settled on instant coffee, which gave the syrup a jolt as robust as that of my favorite cup. For the third, I wanted something summery, so I lightly reduced golden agave syrup with a bounty of fresh blueberries, then pureed the result with a little vanilla.

It was all too easy, by the way, to over-reduce the syrups, resulting in something too sticky to pour and be absorbed. The age-old lightly-coating-a-spoon indicator works here, and if after cooling your syrup isn’t thick enough, all it needs is a little more time on the burner.

Soon it was time to test the recipes on more than my own palate. I griddled up a few silver-dollar pancakes for my son, drizzling each with only a small spoonful of syrup (so he could get a taste without being wired for the rest of the morning). He gobbled and smashed each of them with equal enthusiasm: A family tradition was reborn.

Martell is co-author of “The Founding Farmers Cookbook” (Andrews McMeel, 2013) and blogs at nevinmartell.com.