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The pan where East meets West

Thursday, August 02, 2001

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Let me tell you about a cast-iron pan with dual citizenship. It looks like the offspring of a marriage between a muffin tin and a cast-iron skillet.

The same pan can be used for Danish Aebleskiver pancakes and Thai Kanom Krok. (Annie O'Neill/Post-Gazette, food styling by Marlene Parrish)

Small pans for use in the home have seven deep, round depressions, and large commercial ones can have up to 36. To further complicate matters, the pancake-dumplings made in the pan may be served either sweet with syrup or savory with shrimp.

In Denmark especially, but in fact in all of Scandinavia, both the pan and its pancakes are called aebleskiver. There, a sweet pancake batter made from flour, eggs, butter and milk is poured into the depressions and partially cooked. The semi-baked cakes are rolled and rotated until the batter is baked uniformly and the balls are crisp and brown. The round little cakes are the size of inflated golf balls, fun to see and fun to make. They are so beloved by their fans that there are Internet chat rooms where aebleskiver devotees trade recipes and anecdotes.

Across the world in Thailand, the identical pan is used in markets to make a grab-and-go savory breakfast food called kanom krok. As snacks, they are also popular in food booths at festivals. In Thailand, the batter is made from rice flour and coconut milk and is usually topped with shrimp, chilies, caramelized peanuts, corn and scallions. A serving-to-go is two kanom krok dropped into a folded banana leaf and wrapped in a piece of newspaper, English fish-and-chips-style.

My Thai daughter-in-law, Umarin, grew up in Bangkok. "If you don't eat kanom krok, you are not Thai," she says. "My grandmother sold pad thai, curries and noodles for lunches from a pushcart in the crowded marketplace every day. But first thing in the morning, she sold kanom krok. When I was little, I was allowed to help her. We had to be in the market before 6 a.m., before the rush. Grandma's kanom krok pan had 28 holes, and it was so heavy. She poured the batter, which cooked quickly, so it was my job to turn and rotate the cakes with a bamboo stick. Some other vendors made two batters, one savory and the other sweet, one poured right on top of the other. Thais like a slightly gooey center."

In Thailand, little girls play with toy versions of the baking pans, rather like American girls who play with Easy-Bake Ovens. "When I was 6 years old, I had my own kanom krok pan with thumb-size holes that sat on a little sterno light," Umarin remembers.

When she was 14, she sold homemade Thai food from her own trolley-cart to make extra money. Today Umarin is a Paris Le Notre-trained pastry chef in London.

So how do you suppose both Denmark and Thailand lay claim to the skillet-pan?

My theory is this: Back in the 1600s, European Christian missionaries in Siam became overzealous in their efforts to convert the population from Buddhism to Christianity, so the government kicked them all out. This much is true.

I'm guessing, then, that some Dane, accustomed to eating what had become his favorite snack, crammed a kanom krok pan into his duffel bag before going up the gangplank.

Once back in Denmark, the missionary tried to make the snacks for his pals, and failed. The flavors of coconut milk, chilies and rice flour were too foreign, not to mention unavailable. The inventive fellow then converted the recipe to pancake batter and got rave reviews. He christened his result aebleskiver, and the rest is gastronomic history. Scandinavian immigrants brought the pans with them to America.

Want to try making them yourself? The batter is easy, but the technique is a bit tricky. It may take a few trials and errors before you find the right temperature on your range and get the knack of rotating the balls. Remember to grease the depressions (cups) with a bland oil or unsalted butter before baking the batters. Salt makes the cakes stick. Most cooks use a wooden skewer to turn the cakes, but some say they like to use a knitting needle.

Wouldn't plain old pancakes be easier to make? Of course. But then you wouldn't have this fun story to tell.

Find the aebleskiver pans, sometimes called a monk's pan, in flea markets and cookware shops. Or buy an aebleskiver kit from Your NorWest Stores (888-252-0699) or on the Internet at www.yournw.com. An aebleskiver kit, which includes a seven-serving pan, box of mix, jar of preserves and a wooden skewer, costs $26.95 plus shipping, which is $5.50 in the continental United States.

Related Recipe:

Danish Aebleskiver

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