Pittsburgh’s Finest Diner Pancakes: hail to the chef!

This is a story of the 2008 Presidential campaign, a diner in Pittsburgh, Google images, and a profound love of pancakes.

And if that doesn’t pique your interest – you’re just not the foodie I thought you were.

Back in 2008, when then-candidate Barack Obama was hitting the campaign trail hard and making all the requisite “meet and greet” visits – manufacturing plants, senior citizen homes, truck stops – he paid a visit to Pamela’s P&G Diner in Pittsburgh, where he enjoyed the specialty of the house: pancakes.

But these weren’t just any diner pancakes. Pamela’s pancakes have an almost cult-like following among foodies. Described as light and fluffy, but with a crackly-crisp crust around the edges, these pancakes have spawned blogs, attempted clones, and lots and lots of online photos from folks who’ve actually visited the “shrine” to enjoy the pancakes in person.

Including President Obama. While he didn’t pull out his Blackberry and snap a pancake picture to share on his Facebook page, the President did have this comment (courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette): “…’These really were maybe the best pancakes I’ve tasted in a very long time. Get some take-out,’ he directed the reporters. ‘You don’t even need syrup on them. They’ve got [these] crispy edges. Yea, they are really good.’ ”

Diner owners Pam Cohen and Gail Klingensmith were later invited to the White House to cook a Memorial Day pancake breakfast for the President, First Lady, and 80 military veterans – and their culinary star continued to rise.

More buzz online. More Yelp reviews. More Urbanspoon.

And, thankfully for me, lots of Google images.

I’m a pancake apprecianado (sic). Love pancakes; always have. So when Pamela’s pancakes appeared on my radar, I knew I had to clone them.

Unfortunately, the recipe is a closely held secret. This single quote from Pam herself (again, in the Post-Gazette): “…a secret process that included leavening and spices. You let the batter rise and sit for a couple hours, then you beat it down, let it rise again and beat it down” – is all I had to go on.

That, and Google images, which offers many, MANY shot-in-the-diner photos of these famous cakes.

So, between Pam’s quote; the review descriptions on Yelp and Urbanspoon; and the photos on Google, I pieced together a recipe that, if not absolutely true to the original, produces pancakes that are truly excellent: crisp edges; soft, tender centers; and marvelous buttery flavor.

If you’re picky about pancakes, Pamela’s are (apparently) pure bliss. And even if the cakes below don’t match Pamela’s exactly – Pittsburgh readers, let me know what needs to change – these Pamela’s wannabes are pretty darned good.

Click anywhere on this block of pictures to enlarge them to full size – this will work for any of the photos you see in this blog post.

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk together the following:

1 cup lukewarm milk
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3/4 cup (3 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
3/8 teaspoon salt (or a heaping 1/4 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast

Stir until fairly smooth; a few small lumps can remain.

Tent the bowl lightly with plastic, and allow it to rest at room temperature for 3 hours; it’ll start to bubble just a bit (photo, upper right).

Refrigerate the batter overnight.

Next day, when you’re ready to cook pancakes, stir 1 large egg into the batter.

Heat a 9″ or 10″ skillet over medium heat; or heat a 9″ or 10″ electric skillet to 300°F; or heat a griddle that’s at least 9″ to 10″ wide, and easy to pick up and handle.

Place 1 teaspoon vegetable oil and 1 teaspoon butter into the skillet, swirling them around until the butter melts. Yes, use 1 teaspoon each; this is what will give the pancakes their signature crisp edges.

Pour a scant 1/2 cup batter into the pan, tilting the pan until the batter forms a circle about 8″ in diameter. It’s important that you do this quickly, before the pancake has a chance to set; the thin edges that result from tilting the pan to distribute the batter become wonderfully crispy.

Cook the pancake for about 2 to 2 1/2 minutes, or until its underside is golden brown. Flip it over, and cook about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes more, until golden.

See how the edges are sizzling and becoming crisp?

Transfer the pancake to a plate (or lightly greased baking sheet, if you want to keep the pancake warm in the oven while you cook the remainder). Repeat with the remaining batter; this amount of batter will make 4 large pancakes.

Want to double the recipe? Go for it; double all the ingredients except the yeast, which can remain at 1/2 teaspoon.

“Do I really have to use 2 teaspoons fat for each pancake,” you say?

Here’s what happens when you use the full amount of butter and oil for the first cake, then don’t re-grease the pan for the second.

And here’s what happens with 1/2 teaspoon each butter and oil; not a pretty picture. Or pancake.

I understand the need to cut calories and fat grams, but frankly, this isn’t the place to do it. Accept that these pancakes are an occasional treat, and enjoy them.

Serve the pancakes with syrup; they don’t actually need butter, as they’re already so buttery.

Or, do what they do at Pamela’s: stuff ’em.

Pamela’s menu options include sour cream, brown sugar, and strawberries (or blueberries); bananas and walnuts, or bananas and chocolate chips. All come topped with whipped cream.

I’ve opted for low-fat vanilla yogurt and strawberries; no whipped cream.

Hey, just because I’m going whole hog with these cakes doesn’t mean I have to go WHOLE hog; discretion is still the better part of caloric valor.

Serve warm. And, unless you’re a Pittsburgh resident and Pamela’s regular, thank the magic of the Internet for introducing you to these pancakes!

Read, make, and review (please) our recipe for Pittsburgh’s Finest Diner Pancakes.

Print just the recipe.

Postscript: Pamela’s “hint” includes the use of spice, but I was uncertain what spice that might be… Cinnamon seems a natural choice, but cinnamon also inhibits yeast, so I was loathe to use it. My fellow baker and former restaurant chef Susan Reid says allspice is a fairly common choice for pancakes… Pamela’s habitués, any clue what the secret spice might be?

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Amanda

    I just made the batter last night and made the crepe style pancakes this morning. The perfect pancakes were the ones that I only used about 3/4 of a 1/4 cup full of batter. This gave the perfect amount of batter for the middle to be soft and pancake-y and the edges to be crispy and crepe-y! I also added vanilla… and they’re perfection! Love these pancakes and so glad you shared the recipe!

    Reply

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