I have this one friend who I may or may not have mentioned before, and she has this habit of making fun of me for my “obsession” with brown butter. Listen, I have made, like, one other recipe that even uses it (the link is to an old recipe video I made for brown butter chocolate chip cookies, by the way. Would recommend). I have no such obsession, but rather a respect, even a sort of reverence for the chemical reaction that turns your standard Land O’Lakes into something nutty, toffee-esque, and so unbelievably delicious.
Now as someone who is most assuredly not obsessed with brown butter, I naturally don’t always use it as the basis of my recipe developing. No, I tend to focus on components that are less trivial. The sweetness of cornmeal and the slightly course texture that it lends or the combination of strawberries and basil, for instance. What is brown butter even? A glorified fat that you add to xyz batter or baked good. (For the curious, brown butter is a result of cooking butter past melting, until the milk solids brown and the beautiful Maillard reaction occurs).
So, as fate would have it, I was daydreaming about some sort of pancake, and I eventually settled on cornmeal pancakes with strawberries (the strawberry basil sauce idea came later). I don’t know why I chose cornmeal as the basis – I was probably making love to some mysteriously good dining hall cornbread at the time of this recipe’s conception. But really, cornmeal has a heartiness, a subtle sweetness that makes it a great addition to the flour collection I’m sure you don’t have but I certainly do.
Time came for mixing up the batter, and as I grabbed for my usual grape seed oil, my mind hissed at me to stop. What happened next, I can’t be sure — I think I blacked out a little. I do remember closing the fridge, stick of butter in hand. As I type this narrative in a similar trance, my hand periodically makes circular motions, swirling some imaginary saucepan. Now this is an educated guess, but I’m pretty sure that my eyes shut and a slightly inappropriate moan escaped my mouth at the nutty aroma that likely permeated the kitchen.
When I came to, there was a bowl of already mixed pancake batter in front of me. I took a tentative taste, and it had the most euphoric mix of sweet corn-y flavor and a strong toffee undertone. There was also a touch of freshness…lemon zest, I realized, as I saw a lemon, pith exposed, tucked away on the counter. I’ve gotta give kudos to my subconscious on that one.
Now here comes the crux of my issue with brown butter: I am most definitely not obsessed with it, but put it in any dish, and it becomes the star. Don’t get me wrong, these pancakes cooked up into the most wonderfully balanced, fluffy, cornbread-like pancakes that were made even better by the folded in strawberries that transformed into jammy little morsels. But the brown butter brought these over the edge, and I’m going to stop myself there before this becomes an ode.
I was initially going to try my hand at a crème anglaise for the topping, but a) I was too lazy and b) the brown butter gave the pancakes a rich, caramel-y taste that needed a lighter compliment, not more decadence from a custard. Anyone who knows me on a culinary level knows that I have a weakness for fruits and basil, and by luck, I had basil on hand. Strawberry basil sauce ensued. My memory of these events is still foggy, but I may have shed a single tear at the first bite of my creation.
As I had hypothesized, the floral and slightly acidic strawberry basil sauce worked unbelievably well with the earthy and sweet cornmeal, and it made the nuttiness of the brown butter pop even more, almost as if there actually was caramel or toffee or some other sort of delicious. I don’t think that I could ever get enough of that warm, toasty decadence…
I promise I’m not obsessed with brown butter.
But I am obsessed with these pancakes.
Brown Butter Cornmeal Pancakes with Strawberries
(Makes about 12-15 pancakes)
1 ½ cups finely-ground cornmeal
½ cup flour
½ teaspoon salt
⅓ cup sugar
2 eggs, separated
¼ cup butter (1 stick)
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup milk
½ cup yogurt
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 cup strawberries, chopped
Vegetable oil, for cooking
Strawberry basil sauce, for serving (recipe below)
Heat a small saucepan over medium heat. Add in the butter and cook, swirling occasionally, until the butter melts, becomes a dark golden-brown color, and has a nutty aroma (this should take 5-7 minutes).
In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. Mix together the wet ingredients plus the egg yolks, and stir the wet ingredients in with the dry, until the batter just comes together but is still very lumpy. In a separate bowl, whip egg whites until they form medium-peaks (if you lift the whisk up, the egg whites will form a little mound, but it’ll fall a little). Add half of the whipped egg whites to the batter and stir through. You don’t have to be careful here, you’re just trying to slacken the mixture. Now, add the rest of the egg whites and use a spatula to carefully fold the egg whites throughout the batter, being very careful not to deflate the egg whites. Gently stir through the strawberries.
Heat a large non-stick pan or griddle over medium heat. Add a drizzle of vegetable oil, and then spread with a paper towel. Ladle in the batter (about ½ cup of batter per pancake) and cook until quite a few bubbles form on the surface, about 3-4 minutes. Flip, and cook for another 3 minutes.
To keep the pancakes warm as you’re cooking the rest of the batch, you can keep the cooked pancakes warm in an oven heated to 200 degrees.
Serve the cornmeal pancakes smothered in strawberry basil sauce and even a little maple syrup if you want some extra sweetness in your life.
Strawberry Basil Sauce
2 cups strawberries, chopped
1 teaspoon lemon zest
½ cup water
¼ tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
8 leaves basil, julienned
Add all ingredients except the basil to a medium sauté pan. Heat pan to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the strawberries have softened and are syrupy, about 6 minutes. Stir in the basil off the heat.
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