Fluff Factor: Just a few simple steps will get you perfect pancakes – and bragging rights

My first apartment was a converted garret in a 19th-century multifamily tenement house, the kind you see all over the mill towns of New England. With dark walls, low ceilings and a total lack of air-conditioning, it had all the charm of a rusty bucket of dried-up paint, but it was mine. My parents were horrified, but I thought myself incredibly cool. Plus there was a little storefront right next door, run by a 90-year-old Italian man who made his own fresh cheeses, which he then stuffed into his own homemade ravioli. What more could a girl need? The best thing in the apartment was the antique enameled cast-iron stove in the kitchen. Since I was 18 and had as much interest in cooking as Britney Spears does in parenting, it’s kind of funny that I fell in love with a stove. I admired its multiple ovens in all their various sizes, the row of sturdy porcelain knobs and the smooth, black flattop griddle. It had the elegant look of a vintage Rolls-Royce combined with a stately sturdiness – kind of like the big old boiler in my parents’ basement. The stove made my attic feel homey and secure. Of course, it also came in handy for the only two culinary tasks I undertook: boiling water (for the ravioli) and making pancakes. I was proud of my pancakes, too. They came right out of the Bisquick box and were light and fluffy every time. I made pancakes to win over my boyfriend, who didn’t know any better. A little later his mother presented me with my first cookbook (yes, it was a hint), The New Doubleday Cookbook. It was a big book, full of charts, tables and thousands of recipes for things you can make from scratch. Like pancakes. I tried my hand at them one morning; they were much better than my Bisquick version and not at all to difficult to make. A feeling came over me, and I knew I was scratching the surface of something big. It was a feeling that soon grew into an insatiable curiosity, eventually transforming me into a passionate cook – why hadn’t anyone told me that you didn’t have to use a packaged mix to make a pancake? It turns out that pancake mix was one of the first packaged food products of any kind to be marketed in this country. The Pearl Milling Co. of St. Joseph, Mo., developed Aunt Jemima pancake mix in 1889, ushering in the age of convenience food – and, some say, the death of home cooking. It’s not that there’s much in those packages; usually just flour, salt, sugar, baking soda and some fat. You still need to add eggs and milk, mix them up and cook them. So what’s the big deal? Pancakes from scratch not only taste better, they earn you bragging rights as the household Pancake Master. I suppose that could be a problem if you’re the type who enjoys sleeping in. But here’s the other thing about homemade pancakes: People love you when you make them. It’s like giving them a warm stack of affection, with sweet syrup drizzled over the top. There are just a few simple steps to making puffy, tender cakes. First, to achieve the ultimate fluff factor, you must make sure you’ve got fresh, new boxes of baking powder and baking soda on hand. If you can’t remember the last time you replaced the containers on your shelf, chances are they’re past their prime. I buy new ones every four to six months. Second, try not to overmix the batter – you don’t want to break a sweat here. Beating your batter will toughen up the protein in the flour and produce firm little pan-pucks. Stir everything together just until the flour is moistened. Then step away from the bowl! Finally, heat your griddle in advance. You want to hear a gentle hiss when the batter hits the surface. I set my griddle over low heat as soon as I enter the kitchen, before I start finding bowls, measuring ingredients and mixing the batter. I raise the heat to medium about a minute or two before I’m ready to cook. Making the following creative pancake recipes and sauces for a holiday brunch might be the ultimate secret to making friends, influencing people and getting your kids to stop talking so darn loud and so darn early on those festive weekend mornings. Also, you don’t have to be an ace in the kitchen to make them – even my kids line up to help mix the batter.