One morning last month,I called my mother to wake her up as I do every Saturday and, as usual, we chatted about the day ahead. I told her that after I got off the phone I would be making “plättar” in my “plättpanna” for the very first time. A plättpanna (or plett pan in English, since – confession – I can’t pronounce a single word of Swedish) makes silver dollar-sized pancakes, plättar, that look like blini, I explained. She didn’t remember blini. I described the round cast iron pan with its seven shallow indentations – a prized yard sale find some 30 years ago, though at the time I’d no idea what it was for. As we continued to talk, my 92-year-old mother, who struggles with memory loss, gradually formed a mental picture of the pan.

“And you can’t use the pan for anything else?” my mom asked. I heard the incredulity, or possibly disapproval, in her voice.

“I don’t think so, Mom.” A pause ensued.

“Peggy,” she finally said, “if you had to have a special pan for every recipe you make, you’d have to enlarge your house.”

Touché!

Or maybe Jawohl!, since a high percentage of the kitchenware that I have uncovered in my own kitchen in 2020 comes from Germanic-speaking lands. Much of it is for baking, an enthusiasm of five decades. And much of it I’ve lugged from apartment to apartment over the years – yet never once used. Stuck at home like everybody else during a worldwide pandemic, I decided this was the year to remedy that. I would cook with each pot, pan and implement, and give it the Marie Kondo test: Does it spark joy? If not, could I persuade myself to prune?

My collection of largely unpronounceable “exotics,” as my partner has taken to calling them, were piled up on the kitchen counter for some weeks last spring until he unceremoniously reassigned them to a basement shelf, where they sat until late fall. There were eight items in all, irrefutable evidence that I am not the minimalist, gadget-abhorring cook I claim to be: that plättpanna; a Nordicware Daisy Cake pan; a Mohrenkopfform still in its original box (made in “West Germany,” so pre-1990); a Rehrücken pan of mysterious origins; a springerle rolling pin; a ceramic, decorative shortbread pan (a $3 thrift store score); a stove-top cast-iron waffle maker; and – the outlier – a Kuhn Rikon Hotpan.

Maybe I should open a store.

Seven well-buttered indentations make seven doll-sized Swedish pancakes. On Grodinsky’s stove, the middle pancake cooks a little faster than the others. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Origin stories

You’d be forgiven for thinking I own these unusual pans for sentimental reasons. Perhaps a Swedish ancestor accounts for that plett pan, and I grew up eating the rich, eggy little pancakes with lingonberry jam on festive occasions. Nope. Perhaps I travelled to Germany where I enjoyed a transformative Apricot Dream, Banana Surprise or Orange Fantasy Mohrenkopf (I’ve got pristine recipe cards for all of these inside the box with the pan) and was determined to duplicate the experience at home. Nope. Perhaps my partner’s part-Scottish ancestry compelled me to ply him with dangerously buttery shortbread in a hearts-and-vines pattern to seal his affection. That’d be nice, but nope.

You already know about the plett pan (yard sale) and shortbread pan (thrift store). The daisy cake pan was in a swag bag at a food event I attended. My sister picked up the Mohrenkopfform from a free pile in her neighborhood in Vermont – it makes individual spherical cakes about the size of a SuperBall that are filled with custard, cream or icing, then dipped in chocolate. The waffle iron came in a giveaway from my stint at America’s Test Kitchen; the Hotpan, which claims to keep food hot for two hours, along with many other clever tricks, arrived at my desk one day at the Houston Chronicle, where I wrote about food.

I found the Rehrücken pan in my parents’ house when they downsized after 50 years. It’s used to make a traditional Viennese chocolate torte similar to the more famous Sacher torte. The Swedes use the same pan to make almond cake. The name means saddle of venison, and according to stupendous baker, cookbook writer, and my one-time colleague, Nick Malgieri, the cake is “typical of the Viennese love of the absurd,” as it is meant to resemble a tied and larded roast. I assumed my mom got it from my former brother-in-law, Michael, who is German. I emailed my sister, a fluent German speaker, to ask about it. She emailed back: “what’s a rerucken pan????”

I paid full price for the springerle rolling pin. It stole my baking heart the first time I ever visited the King Arthur Baking Company store in Norwich, Vermont, in the 1980s or ’90s. I was young – and foolish? At any rate, I spent considerably more money than I should have on the item, which stamps springerle and speculoos cookies with charming pictures of dogs, angels and swans. Today, a similar rolling pin sells for $134.95 on the company’s website.

Into the kitchen

Much as I love to bake, as I plotted out my baking schedule in November, I found myself unexpectedly grateful that I’d never stumbled across a madeleine, pizzelle or cannoli pan. Before I measured so much as a cup of flour or melted an ounce of chocolate, I begin to feel The Tyranny of the Specialty Pans. Here are just a very few of the things I had hoped to bake this fall: David Lebovitz’s Apple-Red Wine tart, Ken Haedrich’s pear pie with star anise, Nancy Baggett’s Caramel Walnut Slices, Claire Saffitz’s Pear-Chestnut Cake. These, and many more, were put on hold while “the exotics” hijacked my baking life (though really, what hasn’t been put on hold this year?).

It did not help that my first attempt – making waffles – was a disaster. In retrospect, I should have read the instructions, or simply known, to season the cast-iron pan. But even if I had, the short handle would still have become glowingly hot, the batter would still have leaked from the grid, and the waffles would still have been undesirably thin (Note to Babe Paley: if you are a waffle, you can be too thin). In disgust – eying the stuck-on batter, contemplating our ruined breakfast – I put the cooled pan in the sink. It sat there for days, neither my partner nor I willing to clean it, or, in my case, forgive it, accumulating rust. Eventually, he did the grown-up thing and tackled it with an old tooth-brush. “It’s still rusty,” I said, examining it after he was done. “I really need to give this away.” “Either that, or throw it at someone,” he suggested. By then, it was Election Night and, like everybody else in America, we were tense.

The plett pan was a much happier experience. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice, so I started by seasoning the pan with oil and giving it a stint in the oven. An internet search yielded recipes for a simple batter, then I fixed a quick cranberry sauce (New England’s answer to lingonberries) and happily stood at the stove one morning churning out cute little pancakes. We ate them as fast as I made them, in batches of seven. And ate them and ate them. It was festive and fun and filling, and we talked about hosting a post-COVID plättar party, maybe in our pajamas. The plättpanna? A keeper.

A tad too much batter meant this almond rehrucken cake, while delicious, was slightly dense/wet. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

At other points in my endeavor, though, it was unclear whether I was testing the pans or the pans were testing me. I grew tired of trying to figure out volumes of odd pans by pouring in cups of water and subsequently dividing or multiplying recipes so batters would fit, or at least I hoped they’d fit. As it turned out, my chocolate Rehrücken cake  – chocolate, bread crumbs, almond flour, currant jelly – was a little too small; my almond Rehrücken cake had the opposite problem: Because the batter filled the pan just a smidge too high, the middle of the otherwise delicious cake was underbaked. I paused between baking projects to feel grateful for standardized pan sizes.

My partner, incidentally, thought the chocolate Rehrücken cake looked more like a hedgehog or possibly a dragon than a saddle of venison. In its favor, especially now when our big expedition is the weekly trip to the grocery store, it tasted like a Viennese coffee house.

Grodinsky’s first attempt with the springerle rolling pin. So cute. So tasteless. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

As for the shortbread pan and the rolling pin, my attempts yielded either attractive, tasteless cookies, or tasty cookies that failed to hold the patterns. The patterns – need I say? – were meant to be the point.

I made pumpkin cake in the Daisy Cake pan, a wintertime cheat since the cheerful daisy pattern suggests something springlike and lemony. I posted a picture of my fusion daisy-pumpkin cake to Twitter and asked for a virtual show of hands: “Adorable or gimmicky?” It was unanimous: adorable. I’m still not sure where I stand on this.

I ran out of time – this story was due – before I got to the Hotpan and the Mohrenkopfform, though not before I read that Mohrenkopf means “head of a Moor” (the spherical cookies, you may remember, are dipped in chocolate), and, yep, a debate has been raging for several years about whether the name is anti-Muslim and racist. I’ll test the Hotpan post-pandemic, at a party, as there isn’t much point to keeping food warm for hours for just the two of us.

Peggy meets her match

As my project wound down, I put in a call to Andrew Ross, the Maine Sunday Telegram restaurant critic and an excellent baker in his own right, curious what equipment he keeps in his kitchen and why. As we spoke, he took inventory.

“I am looking at just the selection we have upstairs, which is not the entire selection,” he said as he rummaged through his cupboards. He listed off standard cake pans of several sizes, smaller Japanese metric cake pans, a financier pan and a madeleine pan (both thrift store acquisitions), a brioche pan, a mini-muffin pan, a sheet pan of mini-bundts, and “at least three” full-size bundt pans.

“Separate and apart from bundt pans, we have three Gugelhupf pans, Andrew said, continuing to catalog. He purchased the first in Paris after eating a transcendent chocolate Gugelhupf – soft, still warm, dusted with sugar. “It completely obsessed me.” Back home, he couldn’t resist a nicer version of the same pan. Then, in a thrift store, he spotted a third, “and that’s how I ended up with three Gugelhupf pans.”

“Now that I am opening this drawer, I am realizing it has buckled under the weight of all this stuff. Anything that I don’t use ends up in my basement. I have an angel food cake pan there. I think I’ve never made angel food cake. Or maybe I made it once. And like you, I have a speculoos rolling pin. I’ve used it once. Oh my god, I just found another bundt pan. Oh, it’s a baba au rhum pan. Not a repeat.”

Andrew offered to lend me a book, an entire cookbook filled with nothing but speculoos recipes. “But it’s in Dutch,” he added.

I declined the offer. My Dutch is as poor as my Swedish, and I have too many cookbooks of my own. I accepted, however, his theory for why we keep these pans idling in our kitchens.

“I think it speaks a lot about intention,” he suggested. “These are intention made physical or intention made real. Some of them I bought because I intended to make a dish. And before I bought the pan, I thought I would make it much more frequently than I actually did.”

That resonated. I intend to be the sort of person with a standing 4 p.m. coffee date during which an elegant friend and I eat ridiculously rich slices of chocolate Rehrucken torte on my grandmother’s dainty pink and gold china (and we never gain weight!). I intend to be someone with plenty of time around the holidays to make batches of distinct, delicious speculoos and springerle cookies, which I hand deliver to friends in prettily decorated packages. I intend to be the person who hosts the annual neighborhood block party, baking my signature lemon daisy cake and delighting the small children on my street with its darling daisies (or maybe just that one girl who wears pink).

In fact, if I drank coffee at 4 p.m., I’d be up all night. In fact, the holidays are always frenzied. In fact, when push comes to shove, on a beautiful Maine summer day, I’d rather walk on the beach or climb a mountain than plan a party or bake a cake.

If I had all the time in the world, I’m sure I could fix the baking problems I encountered this fall and perfect these cakes and cookies from faraway places. But the coronavirus has made it abundantly clear that I don’t. Nobody does. So one of these days, I probably should find most of them new homes. Meanwhile, in a year of constant anxiety – will our democracy hold? will my mother stay strong and safe? will justice prevail for everybody? will my job vanish and the economy tank? will Americans come to their senses and realize COVID is a medical, not a political issue? – I gave myself a pressure relief valve, time to bake, and a trifling question to absorb and distract me: For these pans and me, is the magic gone?

Though she hasn’t a jot of Swedish ancestry, Grodinsky found these Swedish pancakes, topped with sour cream and cranberry sauce, fun to make and fun to eat. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Swedish Pancakes

This recipe, which I altered slightly, comes from the website of fjørn, which manufactures plett pans. Plan ahead so you can let the batter sit at least 1 hour before you use it. For the cranberry sauce, pretty much the basic back-of-the-bag sauce you serve with turkey for Thanksgiving will do, though I usually substitute apple cider or freshly squeezed orange juice for the water.

3 eggs
1 cup milk
1 ¼ cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons wheat germ
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup light cream or half-and-half
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Cranberry sauce, for serving
Sour cream, for serving

Beat the eggs until very light and airy. Add half of the milk to the eggs. Whisk together the flour, wheat germ, sugar and salt. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Add the cream, butter and remaining milk to the batter and whisk together. Let the batter sit 1 hour on the counter or overnight in the refrigerator.

When you are ready for the pancakes, preheat a seasoned plett pan over medium heat. Let it get hot enough that droplets of water dance on the surface of the indentations. Butter the indentations well using a silicone brush.

Stir the batter, then ladle a little batter into each of the depressions about ¾’s full. Flip the pancakes when bottoms are golden brown, about 3 minutes. They should release very easily. Let the second side brown, a couple minutes more, then top the pancakes with cranberry sauce and sour cream and eat right away (which is not hard to do).

Pumpkin-turmeric cake baked in a Nordicware Daisy Cake pan. Well-greased and floured (flowered?), the pan easily released the cake. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Kabocha Tumeric Tea Cake

I multiplied this recipe, from Claire Saffitz’s inspiring new cookbook, “Dessert Person,” by 1½ to put it in my Daisy Cake pan. It wasn’t enough batter. Next time, assuming I keep the pan, I’ll multiply it by two. Meanwhile, here it is in proportions for 1 loaf pan, which I’m pretty sure more of you own. I made a few other changes, which are reflected below: I swapped out ½ cup of the all-purpose flour for white whole wheat flour; I increased the garam masala to ¾ teaspoon; and I used butternut squash because that’s what I had. I think any winter squash, or canned pumpkin, would be fine. The batter is quite thick. The turmeric makes a lovely orange cake that suits a daisy cake pan.

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup white whole wheat flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
¾ teaspoon garam masala
2 eggs, room temperature
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup, plus 2 tablespoons sugar
½ cup virgin coconut oil, warmed slightly to liquify
1 cup mashed cooked winter squash
¼ cup hulled pumpkin seeds, toasted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease the bottom and sides of the loaf pan with coconut oil. Line the bottom and 2 sides with parchment paper, leaving an overhang of an inch or 2 on each side. Set aside.

Whisk together the flours, baking powder, turmeric, salt and garam masala.

In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs briefly to break up the yolks. Add the maple syrup, vanilla, and ¾ cup of the sugar. Whisk vigorously until the mixture is smooth and slightly thickened, about 30 seconds. Slowly stream in the coconut oil, whisking until fully incorporated. Whisk in the squash until smooth.

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients. Whisk gently just until smooth. Stir in the pumpkin seeds.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Smooth the top and sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Bake until the top is risen and cracked and a toothpick inserted into the center emerges clean, 55-65 minutes. Let the cake pool in the pan at least 20 minutes. Then use the parchment paper to lift the cake out and finish cooling it on a wire rack.


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