Sourdough Buckwheats

By | Friday, July 24, 2020 Leave a Comment

For many years, my mother was a huge fan of the cooking newsletter, Simple Cooking written and produced by John Thorne and his wife Matt. My mom had almost all the issues from #2-94 (1981-2012), missing just a few at the beginning, neatly stored in two 3-ring binders. When she was moving out of her house of 45 years, she gave them to me. I have been reading through them, enjoying them tremendously. Thorne has a very engaging style writing about interesting topics in cooking; usually 1 or 2 subjects per issue, along with book reviews, adorned with period drawings and illustrations.

A recent issue (i.e. an old issue that I read recently), included a pancake which, apparently, Mainers call “buckwheats.” Also known as "ploys", they are sourdough buckwheat pancakes. The story was fun, and the recipe intriguing. I like pancakes, sourdough and buckwheat, so a sourdough buckwheat pancake is a beguiling idea. Such a pancake with an interesting history is even more attractive. But, it is a pancake for which you need to plan the morning before you want to eat them. So, I didn’t get around to trying a batch for quite some time; after all, how often do I know I want pancakes tomorrow, and how good could a sourdough buckwheat pancake really be? How good? How good? How good, you ask? Unbelievable.

The sourdough plays off the buckwheat in an indescribable way. And the smell – oh the smell. Magic. Buckwheat and molasses with a hint of ferment. Adding butter and maple syrup (as Thorne suggests) takes it to a whole other level. You must try these pancakes. They are that good. I don’t care if you want pancakes tomorrow or not, you have to make them (and, as I discovered, you can make the starter a couple days ahead and hold it in the refrigerator if necessary.)

Side Note: As it happens, when I first made these I was out of buckwheat flour, and due to COVID-19, specialty flours were hard to come by. But I did have buckwheat groats and a flour grinder. Subsequently I used high-quality commercial buckwheat flower. Using store-bought still made and excellent pancake, but that freshly ground buckwheat flour made these pancakes even more special. Note that unground grains keep better than flour, so I have taken to keeping products like buckwheat, Kamut, and the like, whole, grinding as needed.

Side Note 2: These pancakes don't include eggs, milk, or butter. They are, in fact, vegetarian (and if you accept yeast, then they are vegan.) This is unusual for a pancake. A search online finds versions of buckwheat pancakes made with eggs, milk, buttermilk and/or butter. However, all recipes for "ploys" are void of any of these products. Perhaps Thorne was unaware of the appellation, "ploy", and its sparse ingredients, when he wrote that issue of Simple Cooking. It is also worth noting that in the original, Thorne suggests greasing the griddle with bacon fat. I have not tried that, and have left it out of these instructions.

I have since tried adding egg and/or dairy to the batter. As far as I am concerned, it didn't improve them at all, and doing so meant that any leftover batter would spoil. Without animal products, leftover batter can be saved an reused.

So, without further ado, here is my annotated version of John Thorne’s Sourdough Buckwheats:

Total time: ~24 hours. Active time ~30 mins.
Makes 24 3” pancakes.

The morning before you will be enjoying your buckwheats, make the starter as follows:
  • 6 Tbsp (3 oz) warm water (about 110°F)
  • 3 Tbsp unbleached white all-purpose flour
  • 3 Tbsp buckwheat flour
  • a generous pinch active dry yeast
[Note: yes, technically this is not a sourdough, because it uses commercial yeast and a chemical leavener (baking soda - see below). Technically this is just a pancake with a preferment. According to Thorne, Mainers would have had buckwheats every morning for breakfast, and would have kept their starter going indefinitely. Using yeast and baking soda is a cheat.]

Mix the ingredients in a small bowl. Cover loosely with dish towel or plastic wrap and place in a warm, draft free location. Signs of bubbling should occur within a few hours. Check and stir occasionally. Note: if you should discover that you aren’t going to be able to enjoy pancakes the next day, simply put the bowl of starter in the fridge. Remove the evening before you plan to cook.

The night before making your pancakes, make the batter:
  • ¾ cup unbleached white all-purpose flour
  • ¾ cup buckwheat flour
  • 1 ½ cups warm water (about 110°F)
  • the starter (preferment)
Before going to bed, sieve the flours together in a large mixing bowl. Whisk in the water gradually to make a smooth batter. (Note: You really need to do this. Just stir in the flours tolerably well. It will all absorb water and be easy to thoroughly mix with a spatula in the morning.) Stir in the starter. Cover and place in a warm draft free location overnight to ferment.

In the morning (can't you just taste them already?):
  • fermented batter
  • 1 ½ Tbsp unsalted molasses
  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • ½ tsp baking soda dissolved in a little water
The batter should be bubbling and fragrant. If it’s not, don’t bother. Something went wrong. Try, try again. Stir in the molasses, salt, and baking soda. The first time I did this, at this point I was heartbroken. The batter had been beautiful and fragrant, but, after adding the molasses, it was brown and just smelled like molasses. Fear not! It comes out great. Let the batter sit for a few minutes. I found that leaving it for 10 or 15 minutes produced really beautiful large bubbly holes in the pancakes. If you want fewer, smaller holes, let it sit a shorter time, or not at all. Heat a griddle and grease it well. Use a 1/8 cup measure to scoop out batter for each pancake. Turn each as soon the batter is set.

Beautiful buckwheats on the griddle. For this
batch the batter had only sat a couple minutes

A second batch from batter that sat while waiting for me to eat the first batch.
Check out them bubbles!

Serve with butter and maple syrup. Enjoy!

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