Years ago I was introduced to aebleskiver, a Danish holiday breakfast food that’s best described as a spherical pancake. (Aebleskiver is Danish for Apple…uh… Skiver.) The little balls are made using a special cast-iron pan with half-spherical hollows, called an Aebleskiver pan or sometimes called a monk’s pan. Dough is put into a hot hollow, and soon forms a crusty half-ball with still uncooked dough in the middle. Then the ball is flipped over using a knitting needle (traditional) or wooden skewer (my style) and the remaining dough flows into the hollow and forms the other half of the ball.
Last year I picked up an aebleskiver pan and tried making some aebleskiver for Thanksgiving breakfast, following the recipe that came with the pan. They were awful — the outsides were charred and the insides were rubbery. I take it as a sign that my family truly loves me that they ate any at all. So I went to the Net and downloaded some different recipes, and tried again at Christmas. (One advantage of having to split your holidays among parts of the family is you can repeat experiments like this on an unsuspecting audience.) This one was better, but the rubbery after-texture remained.
So then I got serious. Being a scientist at heart, I solicited aebleskiver recipes from anyone who knew someone with a Danish grandmother, downloaded more off the Net, and picked a set of five that fairly well spanned the space. Like most folk recipes, they varied widely — some called for low heat and some for high, some for lightly mixing the ingredients and some for thoroughly mixed, some for baking powder, some for buttermilk, some for yeast, and one called for beer. Then I invited a friend over and we set out to make micro-batches of aebleskiver, taking careful notes along the way.
They were all bad. Every last one. Only two of them weren’t rubbery in the middle, and those had a bitter after taste. Experimentation had failed; it was time to resort to theory.
We pulled out The Cook’s Bible, a great cookbook done by the editor of Cook’s Illustrated, and started browsing the index. This led to a discussion on the science of waffles, full of tidbits like the fact that a waffle is fried on the outside and steamed on the inside, that browned waffles are more flavorful than just tanned ones because of the Maillard reaction, that buttermilk and baking soda is the key to a good thick batter and baking powder leaves the batter thin and bitter, and that you want to mix liquid and dry ingredients with a very light touch so you don’t burst the CO2 bubbles formed by the buttermilk’s lactic acid reacting with the baking soda. Best of all, it had a master recipe for waffles that took all these principles into account. We tried it, and the aebleskiver came out perfect!
Here’s a synopsis of the master waffle recipe described in The Cook’s Bible, modified only slightly for aebleskiver. I find I still have to sacrifice a batch or two to the skiver gods when I’m using a new oven to get the right pan temperature, but this recipe has yet to let me down. (Note to Danish grandmothers out there: if this recipe goes against all that is holy about a proper aebleskiver batter, just chalk this up as yet another example of American ignorant hubris and ignore it.)
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons cornmeal (optional)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 2 eggs, separated
- Between 1.75 and 1.875 cups buttermilk
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- diced apple, applesauce, applebutter or jam (optional)
- cardamom or cinnamon to taste (optional)
- Put the aebleskiver pan on a medium-to-high heat. The goal here is to have the pan good and hot (around 390°) by the time the batter is ready.
- Whisk the dry ingredients together. Whisk the egg yolks with the buttermilk and melted butter in a separate bowl.
- Beat the egg whites until they just hold a 2-inch peak. (The Bible specifically admonishes that you not overbeat the whites.)
- Add the liquid buttermilk-butter-yolk mixture to the dry ingredients in a slow, steady stream while gently mixing with a rubber spatula. This is where the gentle hand comes in — you want as many of those invisible bubbles intact as possible. I find it easiest to do this step with one person slowly pouring while another mixes. You should still have large patches of dry ingredients by the time you finish, this is more wetting of the batter than mixing.
- Fold in the egg whites, again with a light touch. Again, the Bible emphasizes that it’s better to undermix than to overmix.
- Place a little butter in one of the pan’s hollows. It’s not really necessary to grease the sides of the hollow as well, but I do anyway. Then take a small ladle or big spoon and fill the hollow not-quite-to-the-top with batter. Depending on how hot your pan is, you may need to add batter quickly so the butter doesn’t hit its smoke point. Fill the other hollows the same way.
- Add a little diced apple or jam to top of each dough-ball, and cap it off with a little more dough (optional).
- By the time you’ve finished filling the last hollow, the first one should be just about ready for turning. Take your specially-designed Danish knitting needle (or wooden skewer, or whatever) and poke the batter right at the edge of your first hollow. A semi-spherical shell should pop up out of the hollow. Push it so it caps off the hollow, allowing the uncooked dough from the center of the shell to fall into the hollow. Repeat for the other hollows.
- Now it’s just about turning the balls every now and then to give them an even heat, though honestly they don’t really need turning (I just can’t help fidgeting with them). Remove from pan when a toothpick comes out clean, usually about 5 or 6 minutes. The aebleskiver should be brown (not just tan).
- Serve immediately. If you added jam or applesauce to the centers, be sure to warn your guests that while the bread may merely be hot the fruit may be molten.
Update 6/20/06: I was recently at The Little Mermaid, a Dutch restaurant in the tourist-town Solvang, California, and asked how they made their (very tasty) Aebleskiver. The woman serving us leaned in conspiratorally and whispered “Bisquick Pancake Mix — it works every time.” She also mentioned you should turn the balls just a quarter turn at a time (which takes up to 15 minutes to fully cook), and this clever trick: instead of buttermilk, use 7-Up! This still provides the acid to react with the baking soda, but also provides Carbon Dioxide for extra froth. Oh yes, and don’t spare the cardamom (they used quite a bit). I haven’t tried any of these tips yet, but I plan to give it a whirl the next batch I make.