Chili Stack is an out-of-the-ordinary savory pancake main dish with the flair of the American Southwest. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before or since. Adapted from the 1949 Sunset Cook Book of Favorite Recipes, Chili Stack is a meal of thin cornmeal pancakes and a smooth, spicy chili. The pancakes and chili are layered together, almost like a torte, and then smothered with yet another hearty scoop of chili. It’s equal parts breakfast and dinner and yet somehow manages to be none of the above. The recipe is more than the sum of its parts. The cornmeal and chili need to be just so to pull the dish off properly. The pancakes need to be thin like a crepe without being dry like a tortilla, formed from a thin, wet batter with a little bit of egg to bind it together. Fluffy pancakes will just soak up the chili and make a soggy mess. And the chili needs to be smooth, Coney Island style, almost like a sauce, or you’ll just get a weird lumpy stack of pancakes.
The key to getting the chili just right is to boil the ground beef. It sounds unappetizing and awful, but you’ve got to trust me on this because it’s the only way to get it just right. You’ll start by sauteing chopped veggies, letting them sweat a little, at which point you’d typically add the ground beef to brown it. But browning will make the beef clump together and give you a lumpy chili. Instead, add the water and flour first and then the beef and mix it all together with your hands until you get a thin, smooth paste. It will look grey and weird and inedible at first, but once you’ve added the chili powder and tomatoes it will all start to make sense. Instead of a chunky, stew-like chili you’ll end up with something more like a condiment: a thick, spicy paste that will spread neatly and stick to a stack of cornmeal pancakes. There will still be some texture from the veggies, Leftovers work great for hot dogs, nachos, or burgers (Original Tommy’s style).
I’ve made a couple of simple substitutions but otherwise left the recipe intact. For the chili I chose a mild Anaheim pepper instead of a green bell pepper. Green peppers just rub me the wrong way: flavor, texture, the weird plastic-y skin. Anaheim peppers serve the same purpose without the off flavor. A pasilla pepper would also work well. I also found that the cornmeal pancakes needed a little bit more liquid to get a crepe-like result, and even then they were a little bit fluffier than I had hoped for.
I wouldn’t call this recipe a hit in our house, but my family’s reservations were more along the lines of “what on earth is this?” than “this doesn’t taste good”. Everyone finished what was on their plate, and the leftovers disappeared in a day or two, but everyone walked away from the meal not sure what they had eaten. Was this breakfast for dinner? Was it a deconstructed Frito pie? If we make it again should we serve it with eggs or steamed vegetables? I’ll certainly make the chili sauce again, perhaps with a more adventuresome flavor profile, and the cornmeal pancakes would be great on their own with just a smidge of sugar in the batter. I may never know what possessed the fancy folks at Sunset magazine to dream this up, but this is half the fun of the thrift store cookbook.
For the chili:
- 1 sweet onion (finely chopped)
- 1 pasilla pepper (finely chopped)
- 2 tbsp neutral cooking oil
- ½ tsp minced garlic
- 2 - 3 cups water
- 1 lb ground beef
- 2 tbsp flour
- 1 28 oz can diced tomatoes
- 1 tbsp chili powder
- 1 tsp cumin seed
- 8 oz cheddar cheese (cubed or shredded)
For the pancakes:
- Saute onion and pepper with oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat, until vegetables are soft, translucent, and lightly browned. Add minced garlic and saute for another minute or so.
- Remove from heat. Add 2 cups of water all at once, along with ground beef. Stir with a fork or, better yet, mix with your hands until the beef is distributed evenly and the mixture is a smooth, pink paste. Add more water as needed to get the right consistency.
- Return to the stove top and simmer over medium heat until beef is cooked through. It will be gray and kind of gross looking, but it'll get better.
- Whisk the flour into a little bit of water to form a thin slurry, then stir into the beef mixture. Cook briefly to thicken, then add seasonings and tomatoes. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes (or more)
- While the chili is cooking mix up the pancake batter. Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add the beaten egg and whisk in enough milk to form a thin, soupy batter.
- Cook pancakes on a hot griddle or cast iron skillet over medium heat until lightly browned, and keep warm.
- When the chili is finished simmering, stir in the cheese until melted and mixed well with the chili sauce.
- To serve, place a pancake on a plate. Ladle chili over top, then add another pancake. Stack as high as your stomach will allow, and serve to a hungry crowd.