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Going Dutch

For all the years that I've eaten, baked and loved Dutch baby pancakes, I was oblivious to one important thing: their name. Then, last week, a friend told me that her sons "freaked out when I told them we were eating Dutch babies!" I don't think I had parsed the name before.

Maybe I'd had my first Dutch baby before I was aware of such things. Maybe I wasn't as curious as those boys when I was a youngster. Or maybe I was just so anxious to scarf down the dish that I never stopped to question what it was called.

Thanks to them, I've done a little searching, and I now know a little more about this.

First, to describe a Dutch baby: In its most usual incarnation, it resembles a sweet popover. It's a quickly made batter that's poured into a hot skillet and baked until the edges rise above the sides of the pan, with mountains and valleys in the center. Sometimes a Dutch baby involves sauteed apples; often it involves confectioners' sugar. Watching it in the oven always involves wonderment, as its rise is spectacular, and typically involves disappointment upon delivery, as a Dutch baby's belly flattens quickly.

Although the traditional Dutch baby is best known as a breakfast treat or a dessert, my current fave is savory, meant as a nibble with drinks, a brunch dish or a first course at dinner. It has herbs in the batter and scallions on top, and it's good served with ricotta, sour cream, salsa, grated cheese or a salad. It's also good with wine — red or white, sparkling or not.

My dip into the dish's history revealed that, sweet or savory, the name has nothing to do with Holland and Dutch people but rather with the Pennsylvania Dutch, whose "Dutch" is a corruption of Deutsch (German).

Wikipedia, citing Sunset magazine, says a cafe in Seattle originated the Dutch baby and owned the trademark for it at least as early as 1942. Since then, the pancake has made itself at home all over the country, including chez me. (That fact wasn't in Wiki.) This is the kind of dish you make once and then make over and over, because it hits all the marks: It's easy, it looks great, it's delicious and it's just about infinitely play-aroundable.

Takeaway tips

• Choose a heavy, ovenproof skillet. My two favorites for this recipe are an old-fashioned cast-iron skillet or an only slightly less old-fashioned enamel-over-cast-iron.

• The technique of heating the pan and the butter in a hot oven is key to the baby's puff. Keep an eye on the butter: It should bubble but not brown.

• You can mix the batter by hand; I did for years. But it's better when you use a blender. You want to be sure the flour is completely incorporated.

• Add the herbs only after the batter is smooth. The idea is to blend them into the batter, not to emulsify them. Choose whatever herbs you like or have on hand.

• When you pour the batter into the hot pan, the butter will be pushed up the sides and may even cover part of the batter, and that's fine.

• Lay the scallions over the batter, and don't fuss with them. You want to get the pan back into the oven as quickly as you can.

• You can swap the scallions for other finely cut vegetables. Think leeks, carrot ribbons, zucchini rounds, broccoli rabe, asparagus, snow peas or lightly steamed broccoli or cauliflower.

• Serve the pancake nanoseconds after it comes from the oven. It can go to the table as is or topped with something creamy, cheesy or green. Put a pouf of salad on top, and you've got a great brunch/lunch dish.

If you're Dutch babying for kids, sit them in front of the oven so they can watch the batter rise — it's like time-lapse animation — and then christen the dish "Magic Pancake." I think the pancake's creators would be fine with that. I know the children will be.

Dorie Greenspan's Herb and Scallion Dutch Baby

4 main-course servings or 8 starter servings

To serve this as an hors d'oeuvre, you can cut it into bite-size pieces and serve it straight from the pan, with toothpicks.

For the pancake:

4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces

¾ cup whole milk

3 large eggs

¾ teaspoon fine sea salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¾ cup flour

¼ cup minced mixed herbs, such as chives, basil, thyme and/or oregano

4 to 6 scallions (trimmed), white part and 1 to 2 inches of green, halved lengthwise

For the toppings (optional):

Plain yogurt, ricotta cheese, sour cream, lightly dressed green salad, tomato salsa, hot sauce, mixed fresh herbs, sprinkling of grated cheese

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place the butter in a 9- or 10-inch ovenproof skillet.

Slide the skillet into the oven; bake (middle rack) until the butter is melted and bubbling. Keep on eye on this: You don't want to brown the butter. Start the batter as soon as the pan goes into the oven.

Combine the milk, eggs, salt and pepper in the blender; puree until well incorporated. Add the flour and mix, diligently scraping the sides and bottom of the container, until it is evenly incorporated. Add the herbs, and pulse only until incorporated.

Remove the skillet from the oven. Rap the blender jar or bowl against the counter to get rid of some of the batter's bubbles, then pour the batter into the hot skillet. Scatter the halved scallions over the top, and quickly return the pan to the oven.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the pancake is golden brown and puffed above the skillet's rim. The middle of the pancake will be puffed, and a skewer inserted into the center should come out clean or with just a bit of custard clinging to it.

Cut and serve right away, either plain or with any of the optional toppings. The pancake collapses quickly, but even then, it's beautiful.

Nutrition | Per serving (based on 4): 270 calories, 9 g protein, 21 g carbohydrates, 17 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 175 mg cholesterol, 480 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

— From cookbook author Dorie Greenspan

Dorie Greenspan's Herb and Scallion Dutch Baby. Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post