Pumpkin makes pancakes even tastier

Fall favorite embraces all the flavors of autumn in a delicious breakfast treat

Even if the weather is still hot and sunny, Demetrios Panos knows when October is approaching.

Servers at Yia Yia's Cafe in Grant Square will start relaying one message: "People are asking for the pumpkin pancakes," said Panos, owner of Yia Yia's Cafe in Grant Square.

The pancakes go on the menu - along with other fall specials - the first Monday of October. While some chains start serving pumpkin-flavored items much earlier, he does not.

"It feels like there has to be a little chill in the air. August seems a little too soon," he said.

The pumpkin pancakes are a simple but tasty variation on the restaurant's regular pancakes, with pumpkin puree and pumpkin pie spices added in, Panos explains before we head back to the kitchen.

There, Sergio Almarz is getting the ingredients ready. He typically mixes up a batch of batter that will last the day, but today we're making a much smaller batch for the purposes of this story. He grabs one egg in each hand and quickly cracks them into the bowl before adding a third. A normal batch contains 30 eggs, so he's had plenty of practice. Then he adds the organic pumpkin puree, giving the bottom of the can a quick jab with a chef's knife to release the contents, a trick he learned while working for 19 years for Four Points by Sheraton.

Next he adds the spice mix of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and ginger along with the pancake mix before handing me a giant whisk to mix up the ingredients, with instructions to leave no lumps.

"If it's got little balls, it won't cook all the way through," he says.

He encourages me to take a whiff of the batter.

"There's a nice smell to it with the pumpkin and the pumpkin spices," he says, and he's right.

Next we head to the hot griddle, which Almarz does not grease. Our demonstration batter is thicker and a deeper orange than the batter he usually makes, but we drop some on the grill. Panos interrupts to ask Almarz to throw an order of French toast on the grill. The thick brioche bread is beautiful, but we must remain focused on our pancakes.

After flipping the pancakes and cooking them for a while on the second side, Almarz gives them a little knick on the bottom with the spatula to make sure they are cooked through. Another helpful trick.

Almarz cooks and plates three more pancakes from the regular pumpkin batter, and Panos takes over when it's time to plate. He sprinkles the pumpkin spice mix around the edge of the plate, adds a generous dollop of whipped cream and then gives that a shot of spice as well.

The small pitcher of syrup is dispensed from a machine labeled "hot syrup."

"I want one of those at home," says Jim Slonoff, who is with me in the kitchen taking photos.

The final product smells even better than the batter. And the pancakes are delicious.

"It's a little more of a subtle pumpkin flavor," Panos says, noting the pancakes' texture as well. "Ours are a little chewier, a little spongier."

Pancake fans also will find plain, chocolate chip, cinnamon apple, silver dollar and gluten-free pancakes on the menu at Yia Yia's.

"Our pancakes are really popular," Panos says. "It's one of our biggest selling items - and our pumpkin pancakes especially."

Now I know why.

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean