As Shrove Tuesday approaches, Helen Peacocke gives us her pancake tips

It wasn’t until the 19th century that pancakes began to be enjoyed by both rich and poor. Indeed, they were served all over the world by then. Even Queen Victoria’s chef cooked them regularly for both the queen and the young nursery residents at the palace.

Pancakes were seen as the quintessential comfort food suitable for the nursery, celebrations, portable street food and as hot hearty fillers for the working classes. They were even starting to find their place on the dessert course at the end of a society dinner.

Grated nutmeg, chopped lemon peel and other spices were often added to those early pancake batters which were sprinkled with sugar once cooked on both sides. The earliest pancake recipe is thought to have appeared in Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchen in 1588. It is an extraordinarily rich mix which calls for four or five egg yolks, two or three spoonfuls of ale, cinnamon, ginger and flour, which when mixed together are ladled into a hot frying pan to which a little butter has been added.

Shrove Tuesday (March 4) is the day pancakes really come into their own. Being rich in eggs and butter, they were seen as the perfect dish for using up these ingredients and any other rich foods before the Lenten fast began. Recipes for Shrove Tuesday are often made with extra eggs just to keep up this tradition. Pancakes differ from other flat breads as they are made from a pouring batter rather than a dough, and although they are usually cooked in a frying pan, they can also be cooked on hot stones or a griddle.

Whilst some pancake recipes call for a raising agent, most are wafer thin, indeed flour and water can be enough for basic pancakes as the range of ingredients plays no part in the essential definition of a pancake. They can be made with buckwheat, barley, rice and even chestnut, acorn or soya flour. Pancakes that are stuffed with savoury fillings are usually created from wholemeal flour or buckwheat, whilst the traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake calls for plain white flour.

Flipping the pancake is great fun and quite easy to do if you make sure that the first side is really cooked well before you attempt to flip or it may stick. Just lift the pan away from the stove, and jerk it upwards. It should flip in the air enabling you to catch it in the pan as it falls back to earth. Whilst this is a fun thing to do it is not really necessary unless you want to turn the whole thing into a theatrical performance. Pancakes turned over gently in the pan with a spatula taste just as good. One particularly flamboyant way to serve them is to follow the great 19th-century French chef, restaurateur and cookery writer August Escoffier’s idea and flame very thin pancakes in a cocktail of orange juice, Cointreau and Benedictine. He named them crêpes Suzette and served them in the restaurant of the Ritz Hotel where he worked. This is a costly dish that is frequently prepared at the guest’s table by the waiter and flamed before serving — not something that should be prepared in a domestic kitchen!

The flamboyant 19th-century chef Alexis Soyer, who joined the British troops in the Crimea war, pioneering a mobile field stove that enabled him to cook on site, prided himself on making a little go a long way. He created very thin pancakes by mixing four eggs with four tablespoons of flour and 235ml of milk, and a teaspoon of baking soda.

Pancake parties are now becoming popular and can certainly be turned into an enjoyable community event.

A typical pancake party calls for half the guests to prepare pancakes which can be held in stacks and kept warm. The rest of the guests can make their contribution by bringing a filling. As pancakes can be served sweet or savoury they act as a great base for both a main course or pudding. They taste particularly good when filled with fish, then covered with a cream cheese sauce and baked until golden. Fill them with a chilli mince or chicken pieces in a basil and tomato sauce and they taste great.

As pancakes can be stacked one on top of the other, separated by greaseproof paper, wrapped in clingfilm and then frozen, they can be made in advance without losing their shape or taste, then just thawed out gently as needed.

Ironically, although there are hundreds of fancy fillings you can use, most people agree that if sprinkled with caster sugar and a little lemon juice while warm they taste best of all.

That is to do with the simplicity of these complementary flavours.