Those Mickey Mouse pancakes with chocolate chips for eyes? So analog. We live in a digital world now, with self-driving cars and virtual coins. Can't we digitize our pancakes?
In a word, yes. We can rebuild Mickey Mouse, better than before. We have the technology.
In fact, it's called the PancakeBot, and it'll only set you back $300. You can even add one to your cart the next time you're shopping for oven mitts at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Yes, it's that mainstream.
Buy it: PancakeBot, $300 at Bed Bath & Beyond
The PancakeBot is essentially a printer, but instead of ink on paper it prints batter on a griddle, adding it in stages to create details in light, medium, and dark shades. Sounds insanely cool, right? But before you buy one with visions of astronaut-shaped pancakes dancing in your head, there are a few important things to consider (including its large size; make sure you have ample storage space). Recently, my family and I got to play around with one for a few weeks. Here's what we learned.
1. It's not plug-and-play.
Don't expect to just turn it on, add batter, and print a perfectly rendered pancake version of whatever your heart desires. This is one device where you really need to read the manual. You'll also need to download software to your computer in order to create designs, or upload other users' designs from the company's website onto an SD card. But even after setting everything up just right, you still shouldn't expect anything close to perfection right off the bat. Which leads me to my next point.
2. There's a learning curve.
Unlike ink on paper, there are a lot of variables when "printing" with pancake batter on a hot griddle. The batter itself, especially its viscosity, is the biggest variable of all. The thicker the batter, the more pressure is required to push it out of the nozzle. But unlike when you're dispensing batter from a squeeze bottle yourself, the PancakeBot doesn't know when the batter is having trouble coming out. It'll just keep going, leaving a sad trail of emptiness behind. Conversely, if the batter is too thin, it'll pour out too much, and flood any details you were trying to achieve. Thankfully, there's a dial you can use to modulate the pressure, arrows to control the speed, and a dial for controlling the heat on the griddle. Be prepared to use these like a maestro, and be prepared for a lot of trial and error.
3. It's more of an educational toy than a cooking tool.
The PancakeBot isn't the best way to feed your hungry kids on Saturday morning. It takes several minutes for each pancake to print, and they'll be pretty thin, not fluffy, because the batter has to be liquid-y and strained of any lumps in order to come out the nozzle. More importantly, until you have a repertoire of designs that you know work well and have the batter viscosity dialed in, there will be constant trips back to the software's drawing board to tweak the designs.
We definitely spent a lot of time tweaking. The kids made their own simple design first, which didn't go well. In the software program they traced the outline of Pusheen the cat, which seemed simple enough, but how well they traced it, and in what order they traced each line, made a difference. We tried the auto-trace function with only minimally better results. Plus, we were still learning the physics of printing with batter.
We tried again with some simple emojis we downloaded from the company's site and these worked better. When we flipped over our first poop emoji (I didn't pick it!) and saw its smiling face, even my teenager exclaimed, "Whoa!"
Of course, you can eat your mistakes, but a plate full of half-formed Pusheens doesn't exactly scream "breakfast time!" Instead, think of the PancakeBot as a fun way for kids (and adults) to experiment, be creative, and play with technology.
In fact, after a couple weeks of playing with the PancakeBot, I now look at it like a STEM toy in disguise. There are physics involved, and some food science too (batter with sugar browns more quickly). You can even print components of an engineered design and put them together into a 3D model, as the company has demonstrated with a Ferris wheel.
I asked Slim Geransar, a VP at StoreBound (the company that brought the PancakeBot to the market), if creating an educational toy was an unintended consequence or if it was actually what they had in mind. Sounds like it was a little of both.
"Miguel Valenzuela was the inventor. He created the first version out of Legos for his three-year-old daughter. But his inspiration was bringing families together through food and technology," says Geransar. "Friends can download the software and bring their design over on an SD card. It's great for parties."
And it definitely offers plenty of learning opportunities. "It teaches kids about sticking to something and starting from scratch," he says. "They're going through the steps of a project from start to finish. It gets them involved with technology and design, and if it doesn't work out, it's just pancake batter and they can eat it." Perhaps best of all? "They're transforming something digital into something that's edible, and that's so fascinating."
Thinking of the PancakeBot as a creative device, not a fancy breakfast machine, changed everything for us. Instead of being disappointed and frustrated when the designs didn't turn out, we looked at it like a challenge: What should we tweak to make this work? Decrease pressure? Add a little more flour to the batter? Move the whiskers on the design? It became a hands-on project we could all get involved in. And here in Portland, Oregon, it's turned out to be the perfect rainy-day activity.
"When I first started, I couldn't get anything to print, but now it's sort of second nature to me," says Geransar. "Once you're familiar with how it works, and the correlation between the griddle and batter, it gets easier. Just start with the basics and work your way up. It's fun to see how far you can take it and how creative you can be."
Would you spend $300 on a (slightly temperamental) machine that prints pancakes?