This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on January 30, 2015. It was the last original piece run on that website.
Cooking has become a major hobby for me since starting grad school. With homework and departmental service hours to complete, I have much less time for hobbies, clubs, and general procrastination than I did as an undergraduate. Due to this realignment of my life, cooking serves as a great release: I can put the books down for a while, do something creative, and (best of all) eat when I’m done!
I got a Crockpot® as a Christmas gift this year, and this has added a new possibility to my chef’s arsenal – cooking over the longue durée, without having to be hands-on in the kitchen. Hello, chicken tacos, pastas, and roasts that practically make themselves.
Still, when the Pot first arrived in my kitchen, I was a bit stymied about what to actually do with it. There’s always a gap between thinking about tasks in the abstract and carrying them out in reality. At a recent grad student meeting, I shared my nervousness about taking the Pot on a shakedown cruise. One of my colleagues laughed, assuring me that one can make anything in a Crockpot. “Really?” I asked, skeptical. “Can you make pancakes in a Crockpot?”
“Probably. I’m sure there’s a way somewhere online,” she replied.
After a moment’s pause, one sentence popped into my head: Challenge accepted. Since I had nothing else to do that Friday evening, I was going to make pancakes – or, rather, one gigantic pancake – using a Crockpot.
I used a Crockpot pancake recipe by Ms. Elizabeth Crocker and that eternal standby, Bisquick, as the foundation of my experiment. I mixed the batter, threw in a healthy amount of cinnamon to make swirls in the cake, poured the batter into the Pot, turned on the machine, and stepped away, trusting that this whole hands-off cooking device would work like any old oven and not, you know, burn the house down while my back was turned. More realistically, I couldn’t believe that somehow one giant yet entirely cooked-through pancake was going to form in the Pot, so I found myself checking the cake’s progress almost neurotically. Or religiously: Walking to the Pot and peering in at the gooey monstrosity within felt like some strange ritual, meant to be repeated ad infinitum.
Below, you can see the Pot-Cake after about fifteen minutes. Note that the batter in the upper right quadrant has begun to rise, but the batter remains in a mostly liquid state.
Exhibit 2 shows the batter roughly forty minutes into the cooking process, when the batter has risen significantly. The batter has much air inside it (note the two pronounced air bubbles in the upper half of the cake), so that the batter basically resembling an inflated balloon. If you look closely, though, you can see an indirect sign that the batter is being cooked thoroughly: The streaks of batter on the sides of the Pot are turning light brown.
Exhibit 3, taken after one hour, shows significant browning of the cake crust, as well as the solidifcation of the cake’s superstructure and a pronounced domed form, despite the absence of air bubbles. When I stuck a fork into the cake, some mushy batter came away, so I left the cake in the machine.
I forgot to turn off the Pot after the recommended ninety minutes, so the finished product was probably more singed than it should have been. To my utter amazement (and delight), the Pot-Cake actually existed – solid, cooked-through, and smelling gloriously of cinnamon. What became quickly apparent, however, was that I’d forgotten to spray the Pot with non-stick cooking oil before I began the process. This meant that, as I tried to pry the enormous single pancake from the Pot, the cake ripped into several large chunks and a mound of crumbs. Exhibit 4 documents the partial disintegration.
The next morning, I ate as much of the rapidly disintegrating cake as I could stomach. It’s not that the Pot-Cake tasted bad; rather, it sat heavily on the stomach. The cake, which under its crust looked more like a loaf of bread than a traditional pancake, had taken on the consistency of cornbread. I’m not sure if this cornbread-like texture had something to do with the recipe, air bubbles in the dough, or the fact that the cake sat in the fridge overnight with only a piece of plastic foil to keep air out. Still, the mealy taste wasn’t exactly stellar. I also had no syrup to enhance the flavor (or offset the surprisingly overpowering cinnamon).
Overall, I learned that, yes, you really can make anything in a Crockpot; pancakes always need syrup, especially if they have the mealy texture of cornbread; cinnamon works best in small doses; and no-stick spray is essential if you want your Pot-Cake to remain intact. On a meta level, this study revealed that, when you’re stuck in the gap between conceptualization and turning an idea into a reality, the best thing to do is to start experimenting and see what happens. The only way to break a mental logjam, whether with a Crockpot or something else, is to choose a course of action and just begin.
All photographs by Dan Gorman.