Christmas to us, as a married couple, has always meant a big church service, our kids dressing up in new clothes bought just for the occasion, a fine meal and the company of friends and family. Although the years I spent working for hotels or retirement communities meant working on those big holidays we still found the time for that big celebration. With that in mind one of our big pre-move questions was how will we celebrate Christmas? And our answer was we would decide when the time came.
My position was all those Christmas day appearances had earned the good graces of our savior and he would surely allow us a casual sandy Christmas full of sun and sand. And on December 25th Ambergris Caye had their coldest day of the year.
Cold in Central America isn’t the same cold we have in Greenville County. However, 67 degrees in Belize is cold, especially when there’s heavy grey clouds and the winds are gusting to 20 mph. The night of the 24th, Diana, our innkeeper, had to root around her closets for blankets.
“Let’s see, the last time we needed blankets I would’ve put them…hhhmmm?”
With one sheet, one thin “Peanuts” dog blanket, two furry foot warmers and one Mennonite blanket in place we shivered through our Caribbean Christmas morning. As a joke my bride played Leon Redbone’s Christmas Island:
“How’dja like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?
How’dja like to hang a stocking on a great big coconut tree?”
After which she surprised me with a 12-ounce bottle of maple syrup and a long sleeve shirt. Yes, a bottle of Vermont maple syrup. Because that happens to be one of my favorite flavors in the world, and two weeks earlier I’d made a sourdough starter. I’d guess that was her way of asking for sourdough pancakes for Christmas breakfast. I was happy to oblige and we happened to be enjoying our community kitchen with two Canadians and wouldn’t that be special if their Christmas Island breakfast was the possibly the best iteration of that northern tradition? Yeah, I set the pancake bar rather high.
Coconut Pancake Recipe
Two cups all-purpose flour
One teaspoon salt
One teaspoon baking soda
One teaspoon cinnamon
One teaspoon vanilla extract
Two Mennonite Eggs
Half of one stick of butter
One cup coconut milk
One cup Belizian sourdough starter
Two tablespoons (Mennonite) honey
Water to thin batter to desired texture
Those packaged boxes of pancake mix are an enormous waste of time. Why? Because the basic ingredients of pancake batter are likely already in your kitchen so let’s not waste time and money driving to the store for a box of cobbled together ingredients and chemical preservatives. So, let’s make pancakes. For your first attempt let’s start the night before, and to understand why, may we talk about gluten without everyone going into a panic attack? Gluten is nothing more than protein strands, and protein can be found in egg whites, beef steak, cheese, ice cream, beans, bacon, etc. However, in order to make fluffy pancakes it’s best to understand the behavior of gluten with respect to basics of baking.
Imagine holding a slinky in your hands. It’s pliable, that long spring easily moves from one hand to another. That’s a good approximation of how a raw protein strand behaves. Now imagine a bowl of plain flour, full of tiny Slinkys. Once we stir a simple batter, or knead a dough, those Slinkys start to stretch. Let’s go back to that one life-size Slinky in your hands. Now imagine a friend holding one end of your Slinky while you walk across the kitchen holding the other end. Now that previously pliable spring is stiff and elongated. That’s what happens when a wet flour mixture, such as a batter or dough, is mixed, either by hand or with a mixer. The more that dough/batter is mixed, the more those little Slinkys stiffen and elongate. That’s what makes a French baguette crunchy. And knowing how to control that bowl of Slinkys, when and how to mix, when to allow the dough/batter to relax, can be the difference between a silky chocolate cake and a disaster.
For great pancakes, making our batter the night before takes out a lot of that guess work and allows our bowl of Slinkys to slowly relax and return to a level of pliability which creates soft, luscious pancakes. Before we embark on this recipe we’re going to need two bowls with one rather large, big enough to hold a small frozen turkey and the other one big enough to hold a frozen chicken. And let’s have the chicken sized bowl be microwave safe, perhaps it’s glass or corning ware. Into the chicken bowl place that half stick of butter (or a quarter stick if you’ve got heart disease) cover it with a paper towel or plastic wrap, and pop it in the microwave for thirty or forty-five seconds. We just want it melted and the paper towel will prevent it from popping and covering the inside of your mike with melted butter. Once it’s melted place it on the counter and let’s go to the turkey bowl. Do you have a sifter or hand-held strainer? Good. Start with the sifter, place it over the bowl, put the dry ingredients in it, then sift into that bowl. Why? We don’t want lumps of baking soda and salt to end up in John’s pancake, that’s why. Those dry ingredients are the two cups of flour, salt, cinnamon, and baking soda.
Now back to the chicken bowl of melted butter. You’ll need a whisk first. Or a hand-held mixer and make sure before you turn it on, it’s on THE LOWEST SPEED. Now into that chicken bowl let’s add the coconut milk, honey (yeah honey is hard to measure, just pour in what looks like a shot’s worth) the two eggs and the vanilla extract. Using the mixer or whisk, mix this together. Do it quickly so the butter doesn’t congeal, you want a nice cohesive mixture of this stuff. Now add in the sourdough starter and mix again. Don’t expect this to turn into a smooth paste, just get close. And if you’re afraid of getting messy, place this bowl (before you start mixing) into an empty sink. That way any messy bits will land in the sink. Once that’s mixed into a gloppy mess, remove the bowl from the sink and place your turkey bowl into the sink. You’re going to need a large rubber spatula for this. Add the wet stuff into the dry stuff and either mix with the spatula or the whisk or a wooden spoon or the mixer. You want the consistency of apple sauce and you want it reasonably mixed. If it’s the texture of pudding, thin it with a bit of cold water until it reaches your pancake batter texture.
You’re done. Now cover this with film and place it in the refrigerator. Hey, let’s make sure the bottom of the bowl isn’t full of goo first. Clean up the mess and while the batter sits in the fridge overnight, all those little Slinkys have about eight to twelve hours to relax back to their normal state. That means we’ll have a nice smooth batter that’s also soft, and soft means fluffy pancakes.
Now let’s jump to morning and make some pancakes, or waffles. The batter is flexible that way. If you want to make waffles, just read the directions on your waffle iron and leave it at that. If it’s pancakes, we’ll need a large cast iron skillet. Don’t have one? Go buy one and get back to me.
Wipe the skillet with a paper towel dampened with cooking oil then place it on LOW heat on your range. Now do you have a thin metal spatula? Good. Thinner is better. A flabby plastic or wooden one will definitely not work.
Place the bowl of batter to the left of the skillet, if you’re left-handed, do the opposite. On the right of the skillet, place a large plate for the cakes. Next to that plate goes the soft butter and warm maple syrup. You cannot make a huge stack of pancakes then go wake the kids and tell them there’s fresh cakes because they’ll be a big nasty mess. It’s best to make a couple at a time and let your crew help themselves as they come off the skillet.
Now splash a bit of water on your skillet, just enough to look for a sizzle. If it doesn’t sizzle then wait. When you have sizzle, pour a teaspoon of oil (not butter) on the pan. Here in Belize where coconut oil is cheap, that’s what we’re using.
Now rub that oil around with a wadded paper towel and if you burn yourself, suck it up and keep going. Now did you notice how the skillet is shiny when it has a thin coat of oil on it? That’s what you want every time you pour batter on the skillet. You’ll need that large spoon now. Take a dip of batter, about two tablespoons worth. Now pour it into your warm skillet, make two cakes worth. They are not ready to flip until you see lots of little bubbles in the batter. That’s steam rising up from the batter and if there’s no bubbles then your Slinkys won’t be stiff and the pancake will turn into a mess when you try to flip it. Let’s wait until we see at least one bubble in every dime sized space. Now flip. If your skillet has the proper amount of heat one cake should take roughly two to three minutes total. Once it’s been flipped the cake probably needs about thirty seconds to finish cooking. When it’s done it should look like this, without all the fancy accoutrement:
If it’s blonde in the middle and crispy and shiny on the perimeter, your skillet is too hot and you’ve got too much oil. When that happens, the perimeter is absorbing the oil as it expands outward. That gives you an oily perimeter and if there’s no oil in the middle of the cake, then it’s not going to brown properly.
After flipping that first cake have you noticed how the wall of the skillet crowd the metal arm of the spatula? If so, consider purchasing a large skillet with sides that are only a half-inch tall.
I topped ours with slices of little bananas, powdered sugar and a sprinkle of toasted coconut. And of course, we topped them off with that bottle of warm maple syrup.
Prior to all this pancake activity, Amy made banana muffins and peppermint chocolates, made about eight goodie bags and addressed them with handwritten tags. We delivered those to some folks on the island that have gone out of their way to help us feel at home. Diego, one of the servers at Ramon’s Village Resort is one of those. He was quite flattered as were the others. And that’s what we believe Christmas should be, a calling beyond church, an attitude to carry with you daily. Now go do something kind for someone special in your life. And we wish our readers a (happy/cautious/fingerscrossed/betterthan2020) New Year
~ John & Amy
You’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, (former) tent campers, and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here.