Serious Eats: Chicago
We Chat With: Leah Wilcox from Babycakes, Chicago's Pancake Truck
"When I went down to the city to start the licensing process, I got laughed at. The guy said, 'No one is going to want to eat cold pancakes!' But we've had a couple events now, and no one has said a word."
At first thought, the idea of a pancake food truck sounds like a disaster. In Chicago you still can't cook on the truck, so how can pancakes possibly be served warm from a truck and still be good? It almost seems too weird to even take off—until you take that first bite into one of Leah Wilcox's signature creations from her soon-to-hit the streets pancake truck, Babycakes. Then, it becomes apparent that she might be on to something.
"When I went down to the city to start the licensing process, I got laughed at," Wilcox says. "The guy said, 'No one is going to want to eat cold pancakes!' But we've had a couple events now, and no one has said a word."
Though she is very seasoned at it, Wilcox is somewhat modest about her pancake-making ability. "My boyfriend Kyle likes to tell me I'm a witch. That I do witchcraft on pancakes." He's right. They taste very little like the pan-fried griddlecakes commonly eaten for breakfast. Currently, there are twelve featured flavors, including Pina Colada, S'mores, Irish Coffee, and Orangesicle—and more are being whipped up as quickly as they come into her head.
I sat down with Wilcox at home—her original house of pancakes—and spoke to this fast talking, gourmet sprinkle collecting, part-time artist, blogger, and Kendall College grad about reinventing a classic breakfast food, food trucking, and how to make perfect pancakes. So move over Pain Purdue—the pancake is in town, and she is taking names and numbers.
How did you decide to do a food truck starring pancakes? My boyfriend, Kyle, actually thinks it's his idea. Two years ago, he made dinner for a friend of mine and I, and he made raspberry crepes for dessert. So I took that recipe and I changed it around a little bit and used it for a different thing. But that was a long time ago, and he keeps saying that was the Genesis of it. Then, I saw one of those food websites that had those Ombre pancakes and I got the recipe. As I was making it, I thought, "All they do is dye cake," but it still tastes like pancake. And I thought, "this doesn't make any sense, if you're going to dye them, you might as well make them taste good, too." So I dyed them and flavored them and kept experimenting.
Pancakes seem like they might be an unlikely item to build a food truck around. How do you keep the pancakes edible as they sit on the truck? Pancakes hold really well. When you put them on a food truck, you don't have to cook them. They heat up really well. [These] pancakes are really good cold. When you eat a pancake at I-Hop or Denny's, it's not always warm. It's the syrup that's warm. The pancake is always room temperature; it's not piping hot.
How are your pancakes different from the average pancake? We turn it into something new. The first pancake I made was a Tiramisu pancake. So I made some coffee pancakes with rum syrup, and I put the Mascarpone cheese in the middle. So it's Tiramisu, but it is in a pancake form. That's how I have been doing them since I originally started making pancakes with a whole recipe around it. Then, I made a pink lemonade one and a Neopolitan one. I keep coming up with ideas.
What is the key to making a perfect pancake? You want there to be bubbles in it, because that's how you know to turn it over. Where I had trouble initially was when you add flavors—like chocolate or extracts—they just end up different. The chocolate ones always come out flatter, because the chocolate weighs it down and it can't rise as much. They never come out the same size, which is something I struggled with for months and months while I figured out these recipes. I also think the more sugar you add, the faster they cook, but [they] won't rise as much. Then my friend said, "You don't want them to look like they came out of a factory—you want them to seem like they were made by hand."
On your menu, you offer quite a few pancakes that are inspired by cocktails. How do you mix booze properly into pancakes? With the liquor, I have been replacing what would be the milk partially with liquor. But it cooks out, which is what happens when you flavor food with liquor. I also use a few of the liquors upon plating, but it's not enough to get anyone drunk.
Have you had any flavors that were just duds? Oh yeah. Some of the savory ones have been a little more difficult, but I've realized it's better to do savory and sweet together. I tried to do some that were just savory, but it is much better with a mix. Plus, it gives it a signature. There are so many things out there that are just sweet or just savory.
If the laws in Chicago change to allow cooking on board, how would that affect Babycakes? If Chicago let us cook on the truck, we would also have all the components and you could make your own. That way you could be like, "I want the Pina Colada Pancake, but I want it with strawberries and marshmallows."
What has been your biggest challenge with perfecting mini-pancakes? A lot of people try them and say, "It's more like a cupcake than a pancake," but I want to keep it more in the pancake realm because there are already so many cupcakes out there. It was also a little hard to perfect the size—I didn't want to make them too big to where people would be full if they wanted to try more than one flavor, you know? You have a whole lot of options.
The best way to find Babycakes pancake truck is to follow Leah on Twitter and Facebook or to check out its website. Babycakes is also available for private parties.