While exploring some local nature trails along Fall Creek in early September, I found an oddly-shaped cast iron pan in the water. I had been noticing a large amount of litter in the creek and was attempting to carry out as much as I could when I stumbled upon the strange, rusty object. I was confused at first by its form, which prompted me to hold onto it and do some research. Some investigation informed me that the pan was used to make a dessert called æbleskiver. Æbleskiver are Danish spherical pancakes, traditionally eaten around Advent, that require this very type of pan to cook them. The pan I found was extremely encrusted with rust from likely over a century in the water, and it also had a sizable chip broken from it (I suppose the reason it had been thrown away). Despite this, I thought it might still be usable. After all, cast iron can last many lifetimes with a bit of care.
Recently, I got around to trying to clean it, which took two weeks in an electrolysis bath. Remarkably, underneath all the rust remained a beautiful, usable surface. I also noticed the pan had a “gate mark” on the back, which is a scar from where the molten iron was poured into the mold. This solidly dates the pan to the 19th century and means it could have even been made in Denmark. I could only imagine who may have used this pan and where it had been. Now that it was free from rust, I had to season the pan to prevent any future oxidation and create a glossy, non-stick cooking surface. To do so, I applied a thin coat of shortening (though any oil can also be used) to the entirety of the heated surface of the pan and left it upside down in a 400 degree oven for about an hour. This process polymerizes and then carbonizes the fat onto the cast iron to create the non-stick surface. Because my pan had been in such rough shape, I repeated the procedure several times before feeling satisfied. Afterwards, I finally was able to make æbleskiver with it.
Æbleskiver batter was unlike anything I had ever attempted. I would not consider myself the most adventurous person in the kitchen, especially when it comes to desserts. Yet, I was determined to fully bring my pan back to life and use it for its intended purpose. One obstacle was whisking egg whites until they were stiff, which I had never done before; luckily, my roommate was around to help me figure it out. I carefully folded the beaten whites in with the rest of the mixture (flour, salt, baking soda, vanilla, sugar, buttermilk, butter and yolks). The result was an airy batter that would easily pour into the cups of my pan.
I set the stove to medium, let the pan heat up and buttered each cup before filling them about three quarters full with batter. Next came the hardest part, which was the specialized cooking technique. Æbleskiver must be turned and rotated in their cups periodically to properly form the spherical shape. For this, Danish cooks use long wooden sewing needles, so I used the next best thing: a sharpened chopstick. There is certainly a learning curve involved, but I got the hang of it by the last few pancakes. After a quick dusting of powdered sugar, it was time to enjoy my pan’s first fruits in many years, as well as my first taste of æbleskiver. The Danes often eat their æbleskiver with jam or applesauce, but I ate mine without so I could learn their flavor alone. I called in my roommates to share in the experience. We agreed that the warm, fluffy, ball-shaped pancakes were not only tasty but also loads of fun to eat. I especially enjoyed my creation, not only because the æbleskiver were delicious, but because it was a new beginning for this wonderful cast iron pan.
Reviving this object and cooking with it after it had faced so many years of neglect feels nothing short of amazing. I’m constantly struck by the pan’s embodied energy, as I ponder what it must have experienced in its lifetime. It’s a survivor, and thus I owed it another chance at life. And now, the pan will live and be loved once more.
Matthew Becue is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].