Word Choice

Naleśniki or Pancake?

Before we headed to my cousin’s for dinner last night, I got a text asking for the name of the Polish pancake we had talked about at our last get together. Naleśniki* I replied with a recipe link. Add grated apple. The recipe did not call for one, but I knew it was an important addition.

An interesting discussion ensued about different names of batter fried in a pan. It got me thinking about how writers use words and how the words we choose and blend can convey and conjure an array of meanings and interpretations. Delicacies first.

When we arrived, there was a plate, two plates actually, stacked with two different pancakes on the dining table. I hesitate to call them pancakes, because pancakes are a distinctly American version of a pan-fried batter-style cake topped with butter and Maple syrup. They have leavening. The ones before us were flat. Thick, dense, and flat, as they should be. These two stacks were distinctly different. One was the Polish version called Naleśniki, the other a Romanian version known as Clătite. Both look very similar to French Crêpes.

Bien sûr there is a difference, and while I am confusing you on pancake styles, let me bring in another version, the one I grew up with. My Salesian Oma made Palatchinken. In my house, we filled them with blueberries, wild Maine ones only, stacked, cut into wedges like a pie, and topped with sugar AND maple syrup. My other cousin ate the same cooked batter in a roll-up style with jam. Same Oma.

How words relate to pancakes.

As a cook, I can choose from a multitude of words that in the end describe eggs, milk, and flour being blended together. Alter the ingredient ratio, change the viscosity, and the result is a different delight. If I say Crêpes, you are walking along the Seine holding a waxy paper filled with a steamy, thin batter version filled with Nutella. Pass the Palatchinken, please, and you are walking in the dark Bavarian woods. Clătite brings us along winding Eastern European streets to a countryside dotted with stone roofed castles, or on a hike with breath-taking views in the Carpathian Mountains. Naleśniki evokes writers, poets, borscht, solidarity, and freedom.

As a writer, sometimes the viscosity of the words is a steady flow and ends as a clearly conveyed message. But usually, finding the right word takes hours, and it can wait to appear until the middle of the night only to be forgotten by the crack of dawn. What we say, how we say it, and what we mean can all end up as savory, sweet, or bitter to our reader's ear.

To a cook, it’s the blending of three simple ingredients that creates something different in the end.

To a writer, it's developing a plot and having the character do something that creates a picture in the mind's eye.

* I learned how to make Naleśniki from a young Polish woman. Whether it was her family recipe or her spin on it, I don’t recall. What I remember is my children being ecstatic when I went out because they were going to be served Naleśniki for dinner. And secretly I loved to go out, and not because it was a break from home. It was because I knew that when I got back, there would be a plate of leftovers sitting under a dish towel waiting for me. No jam needed.



  • 2 eggs, beaten

  • 8 oz/250g whole wheat or unbleached white flour

  • 8 fl oz/250 ml whole milk (more if needed to thin out batter a bit)

  • 4 apples, grated (skin does not need to be removed)

  • 2 TBSP sugar, optional

  • Butter for frying


  1. Other than butter, blend all ingredients in a large bowl. The batter should be thick, like a dense custard.

  2. Heat a nonstick frying pan, add a bit of butter. Add a scoop of batter (you choose the size).

  3. Cook until air bubbles begin to pop.

  4. Flip and cook until golden brown.

  5. Place on a platter or individual plates.

  6. Serve rolled with jam, Nutella, honey, maple syrup, or eat straight from the stack.


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