We lost our minds at the end of filming with Paul Cao, executive chef-owner of Burnt Crumbs in Irvine. In my kitchen, the Food Network’s “Chopped” champion consented to show every secret step to creating his wiggly-jiggly soufflé pancakes.
Videographer Curt Norris and I have an unbreakable rule established a couple of decades ago. When taping with a chef is complete, Curt takes several still photos of the dish, and then photos of the featured chef and me holding the finished dish. But we lost our minds, led astray by those pancakes.
The plate should have shown the beauty of the dish, the stacked, thick lushness of the pancakes, the swirl of strawberry coulis, fresh sliced strawberries, plus a gentle drift of strawberry whipped cream barely oozing off the top. And an ever-so-light dusting of powdered sugar.
But we ate it. Curt, me, and PR guru Kat Nguyen De Angelis ate all of it. Every crumb, cream, and berry. So the Cao-Thomas photo shows two adults, side by side, holding empty plates, only a little strawberry cream remains in thin, fork-scraped smudges. It was pancake seduction, double-stacked fluffy clouds of just-right sweetness. Alluring wonders, to see and eat.
Cao confessed that souffle pancakes are temperamental and a challenge to master. Downright tricky. During the pandemic lockdown, perfecting the preparation of those Japanese-inspired pancakes was his goal.
“I was obsessed with it,” he says. “I saw them on Instagram, with everything jiggling. I thought how hard can it be? I did it my way without a recipe. It was a complete failure.
“I started to break down the ingredients, looking into what each one did. You must make them 10,000 times before they become second nature. Guests love them. They love the wow factor.”
He attributes part of the success to having the right griddle with a lid. He brought “the king of Japanese appliances” to my house, a large, nonstick Zojirushi with a cooking surface that measured 19 inches by 12 1/2 inches. His fondness for griddles is influenced by his wife, Carol, and her Korean family. When they gather, multiple griddles are used to sizzle everything from pork belly to ribeye steak.
I’ve requested that king of appliances for my upcoming birthday. I’m on the elusive souffle pancake quest. Meanwhile, I’ll go to Burnt Crumbs. Wiggle. Wiggle.
Engineer, CPA, Chef: My education at UCLA took a few twists and turns. I thought engineering was my calling, but I switched to business and accounting. After a job at Merrill Lynch working toward a CPA, I decided to follow my passion and go to culinary school. Against the advice of my mother and aunt.
Food Network Scoop: It was a whole day in the twilight zone—6:30 a.m. to 9:15 p.m. No phones allowed, so I didn’t know what time it was. It was a mental and emotional roller coaster. If they ask me to be part of an all-champions show, that would be fun.
Restaurant Fave: I appreciate Folks Pizzeria at The Camp in Costa Mesa. The couple who own it don’t cut any corners—everything is from scratch.
Drink of choice: At our house, we drink Trader Joe’s sparkling water. The fridge is full of it. I’ve sampled what seems like hundreds of brands, but TJ’s fizz lasts the longest. I order eight cases at a time.
Secret talent: I have an unwavering obsession to figure things out. I am fascinated with human needs. I know what they want before they tell me.
Dream Project: Right now, it is Burnt Crumbs. I realize that I’m not in love with the business part. I fell in love with mentoring the staff, helping people who are struggling. I have close access to cool human beings I can help.
Best Line-Cooking Advice: The sous chef at Stonehill Tavern told me I was one of the fastest learners on the line, but one of the worst partners. He said to think about what’s on my right and left; it’s about the line. That changed everything for me.
Chef Paul Cao’s Souffle Pancakes
Yield: 2 servings
- Strawberry Coulis garnish: 1 cup frozen unsweetened or fresh hulled strawberries, 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- Strawberry Chantilly Whipped Cream garnish: 1 cup heavy whipping cream whipped slowly with 1/4 cup powdered sugar, a drop or two of red food coloring, a drop or two strawberry extract – whip until very soft peaks form
- 4 room temperature eggs, separated (be careful not to get any yolk in the whites), divided use
- 1 1/2 tablespoons whole milk
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1/4 cup Japanese cake flour, see cook’s notes
- 2 tablespoons superfine granulated sugar
- Butter for greasing griddle
Extra garnish: 4 sliced fresh strawberries, a few fresh blueberries, powdered sugar for lightly dusting surface
Cook’s notes: Japanese cake flour is essential in this recipe; it is softer (lower protein) and finely ground. It is sold online and in Japanese markets.
Equipment: electric griddle with lid, electric stand mixer, silicone spatula
- Prepare garnishes. For the coulis, combine strawberries, sugar, and lemon juice in a saucepan. Bring to boil on high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat and simmer 2 minutes. Puree in blender (use caution with lid – hold down with potholder) or puree using an immersion (stick) blender. Strain, cool, and place in squeeze bottle. For Chantilly (Whipped) Cream, slowly beat cream, powdered sugar, food coloring, strawberry extract in electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment until soft peaks form. Chill.
- In a bowl, whisk egg yolks with milk and vanilla until combined.
- In another bowl, sift cream of tartar, Japanese cake flour, and 2 tablespoons granulated sugar. Add dry ingredients to egg mixture, little by little; stirring constantly with a whisk; whisk enough to combine and eliminate lumps.
- Place egg whites in large clean bowl of standing electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Start heating griddle on medium setting (360 to 390 degrees). Beat egg whites on medium-low speed until whites get foamy. Increase speed to medium and beat until egg whites fluff up and are just starting to get stiff. Increase speed to high and whisk until stiff peaks form. Gently fold in flour-egg mixture into the stiff egg whites (the goal here to lose as little volume as possible). To fold use a silicone spatula. Sink the spatula into the center of the bowl, then rotate the mixture over itself moving the spatula to the top of the mixture. Rotate bowl 1/8 of a turn and repeat, making gentle movements; repeat. When everything is combined, move the spatula around the sides of the bowl to make sure everything in incorporated without being deflated.
- Butter griddle. Using an ice cream scoop (#7 size – holds about 1/3 cup), place 4 scoops on heated griddle, leaving space between them. Top each scoop with another scoop the same size. Use a silicone spatula to smooth the sides to erase the seam line. Cover and cook about 4 to 5 minutes (bottom will be well browned). Flip over, cover and cook 2 to 3 minutes.
- Plating: Squeeze ring of coulis around edge of two plates. Place a one pancake on top of another in center of each plate. Garnish with strawberry cream on top of each, using enough to generously cover and drip down a little bit on the side. Top with a couple of blueberries. Place fresh strawberries on the side. Dust with a small amount of powdered sugar, shaking it on top from a sieve. Serve.
Source: Paul Cao, executive chef-owner Burnt Crumbs, Irvine
Burnt Crumbs, 8549 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine (Los Olivos Marketplace)
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”