Tall sides and substantial center
Crispy rim and custardy middle
A fruit component
The German pancake, sometimes called a Dutch baby, is a study in contrasts: The edge of the skillet-size breakfast specialty puffs dramatically to form a tall, crispy rim with a texture similar to that of a popover while the base remains flat, custardy, and tender, like a thick crêpe. Luckily, this entertaining treat is far easier to prepare than its pomp and circumstance would suggest. A stir-together batter of flour, egg, and milk is simply poured into a skillet and baked. Sometimes sautéed apples are incorporated into the batter. The pancake may also be served with a fruit topping, drizzled with syrup, or sprinkled with sugar and lemon juice.
A German Pancake or a Dutch Baby?
German pancakes and Dutch babies are essentially the same thing, but the dish is said to have originated in Germany, not the Netherlands. The term “Dutch baby” was coined by an American restaurateur whose use of “Dutch” was a corruption of the word “Deutsch” (“German” in German). “Baby” referred to the fact that the restaurant served miniature versions.
After auditioning a number of recipes, I settled on a routine: Caramelize sliced apples with sugar in a skillet (using nonstick ensures an easy release), pour in the batter, and place the filled skillet in a 375-degree oven (the highest temperature most nonstick skillets are rated to withstand). After 20 minutes, the rim of this pancake browned and puffed while the base remained flat, with a custardy texture. However, the rim wasn’t particularly tall—it had risen only 1 inch.
That said, it was interesting that it had puffed at all, since I hadn’t added any leavener or incorporated air into the eggs. Rather than relying on a chemical reaction or the expansion of an egg foam to provide lift (as in a soufflé), a German pancake inflates more like a balloon (or a popover): Heat begins to set the gluten and egg proteins on the surface of the batter, forming a flexible shell. Meanwhile, water inside this shell turns to steam; the trapped steam causes the pancake “balloon” to inflate. Since popovers are made in small, cup-shaped tins, the batter is in close contact with the sides of the tins and the heat of the oven and thus inflates uniformly. A German pancake, on the other hand, bakes in a wide, shallow vessel and cooks more quickly at the edges, which are in contact with the hot sides of the skillet. This results in a distinct rim and base.
I wondered if the apple filling was weighing things down and preventing the rim from fully expanding. If so, it would be easy enough to turn it into a topping. Testing my theory, I whisked together another batch of my basic mix: five eggs and 1½ cups each of flour and milk, along with salt, vanilla, lemon zest, and a pinch of nutmeg (all standard flavorings). I melted a couple of pats of butter in a skillet, added the batter, and transferred it to the oven.
Heating Butter Until Foaming Subsides?
Butter starts to melt at about 85 degrees and is completely liquefied at 94 degrees; when it reaches 190 degrees, it starts to foam. This is an indication that its water is evaporating and the milk proteins are forming a froth. At 212 degrees, the bubbling becomes more vigorous and the foaming subsides. While many recipes call for heating butter to this point to ensure that it’s very hot, we don’t typically use this direction. That’s because we don’t often use butter in applications that would require a really high temperature (such as frying or sautéing). In the case of German pancakes, we need only to melt the butter before pouring in the batter since it will continue to heat in the oven.
Sure enough, the rim of this no-fruit pancake rose much higher, about 3 inches. But the rim verged on dry, and the section of pancake alongside the rim was overly thick and dense. Meanwhile, the very center was paper-thin. It was as if the batter had moved like an ocean wave toward the edges of the pan during baking, crested, and stayed that way.
I added an extra egg to push the texture in the direction I wanted. One more egg made the base more custardy, but it didn’t add substance to the very center. The additional moisture and fat also mitigated some of the dryness at the edge. But there was a limit to the benefits since yet another egg made the pancake taste too eggy. Could I make the very center of the pancake more substantial by adding more flour? An additional ¼ cup did create a bit more depth, but any more than that made the pancake too dry.
At this point, I needed to better understand the mechanics of the dish in order to make more progress toward my goals. So I peered through the oven door during baking. When I put the skillet into the oven, the batter was an even 1 inch deep. As the batter at the edges started to rise up out of the pan—at about the 20-minute mark—the batter in the center of the pan was still fluid. Over time, as the edges started to creep northward and the rim inflated, the rim pulled more and more of the batter into itself; as that happened, the level at the center of the pan dropped. Eventually, even the center of the pancake began to set, and it began to puff there as well. But there was so little batter left at that point that it was still paper-thin.
How Low Could I Go?
I needed the batter at the very center to set before too much of it had migrated toward the edges. But the pancake was cooking from the outer edges inward. Would lowering the oven temperature even things out? I whipped up another batch of batter and reduced the temperature to 350 degrees. It helped, but only a little. When I went down to 325 degrees, my pancake was substantially thicker at the center, but the edges no longer rose as dramatically. Clearly the pancake needed to be above a certain temperature to ensure sufficient lift. But I was on the right track, since slowing the rate at which the pancake puffed gave the center time to set before the batter rose up the side of the rim. How about starting low and finishing high? For my next test, I started the pancake in a 250-degree oven and increased the temperature to 375 degrees after 10 minutes. Better but still not quite right. That’s when I went for broke: I put the skillet into a cold oven and then set the oven to 375 degrees.
This approach worked like a charm, allowing the heat to build up slowly enough that the center of the pancake could start to set before the oven reached the temperature necessary to give maximum lift to the rim (which took about 30 minutes). Now the pancake formed a near-perfect bowl shape, with a beautifully tall, crispy rim and a moist, custardy, evenly thick base. I devised a brown sugar–based topping with apples, but the pancake was a treat even with nothing more than a drizzle of maple syrup or a squeeze of lemon juice and dusting of sugar.