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A good reason to rise and shine

THE CALIFORNIA COOK

As big as a dinner plate and as light as a cloud, these are pancakes you'd drive 500 miles for, unless you know the secret to making them yourself.

February 19, 2003|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

There are many reasons to visit the Mendocino coast: rocky cliffs that tumble to a wind-whipped sea; antique shops, New Age pottery barns and bookstores (sometimes all wrapped up in one); and Ole's Swedish hot cakes.

The hot cakes might not show up in the travel guides, but to me they may be the most compelling attraction of all. Light, tender and impossibly buttery, they are some of the best I've ever eaten.

Every time my family goes that far north, we make a pilgrimage to the Little River Inn, where they are made. In that way, these pancakes are kind of the Lost Coast's equivalent of the little cazuelas at Santa Barbara's La Super Rica taco stand -- simple food so perfect it transcends the plainness of the ingredients and demands a detour.

There is certainly nothing fancy about either the pancakes or the hotel. The latter, established in 1939, is an old-fashioned California motel court that grew. Though it now fancies itself a resort, with tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course and some rooms with Jacuzzi tubs, we like to stay in the older part, where the rooms are large and comfortable but unadorned except for full-length sliding glass doors that offer sweeping views of the ocean.

The dining room and bar have the feel of a small-town place. You have to go past the bar to get to dinner, and it seems like no matter what time I've been in there -- early, before breakfast, or late at night -- there are always a couple of locals sitting around chatting and looking out the window at the sea. (I take it as a sign of old-fashioned values that the bar gets ocean-view priority while the dining room gets the garden.)

But the real reason we stay there is the breakfast, which if not world-famous, is certainly locally prominent. I was at dinner in Mendocino one night and, stuck for the name of where I was staying, I said: "You know, the place with the pancakes." Everyone immediately recognized where I was talking about.

An unbroken tradition

These hot cakes are credited to the inn's original owner, a Finn named Ole Hervilla (I know, why would a Finn serve Swedish hot cakes?). And they've been on the menu at the restaurant since the day the inn opened.

There can be no better breakfast than a plate of these pancakes, topped with a bit of homemade berry jam, a side order of thick-cut bacon, some fresh-squeezed orange juice and, in the immortal words of Agent Cooper, "a hot cup of joe."

Thus fortified, you begin the morning assured that no matter what vacation stresses the rest of the day might hold -- whether it's shopping, going for a ride on the beach or just sitting in a deck chair watching the waves -- things have gotten off to a great start.

Which got me to thinking: Why should such cosseting be enjoyed only when you're on vacation?

These pancakes are extremely simple to make -- so easy that while you're at it you can whip up a quick sauce with all of those fresh strawberries that are flooding the market at this time of year.

The process is straightforward.

First, stir together the dry and wet ingredients. Beat in the egg yolks. Whip the whites and then gently whisk them in, too.

Finally -- and this has to be the secret to the flavor -- stir in what seems like an insane amount of melted butter.

An unusual batter

Just because the recipe is simple does not mean that it is without surprises. You may be dismayed when you stir together the wet and dry ingredients; the mixture will be so liquid it hardly deserves to be called a batter. Persevere. After you've added the eggs the texture will be more like good homemade eggnog, and it's this moist consistency that makes the pancakes so tender.

The batter is a little airier than crepe batter but otherwise it is quite similar. And because of all that butter, the surface gets ever-so-slightly crisped -- a perfect contrast to the delicate interior.

As good as Little River Inn's original recipe is, I took the liberty of adding some grated orange zest. It's not enough to overpower the buttery flavor of the pancakes, but I find it adds just a hint of perfume that points up nuances in both maple syrup and the strawberry sauce.

Make a breakfast of these and even a stay-at-home weekend full of chores will seem like vacation.

*

Ole's Swedish hot cakes

Total time: 20 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: This recipe comes from the Little River Inn just south of the town of Mendocino. The pancakes can be served with maple syrup or a big spoonful of strawberry sauce in the center. To really gild the lily, you can top that with a spoonful of whipped cream.

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups milk

1/2 cup half-and-half

Grated zest of 1 orange

3 eggs, separated

1. Melt the butter and let it cool slightly.

2. Meanwhile, stir together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk in the milk, half-and-half and zest. The mixture will be very liquid; don't worry.

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