(ugh, one day after I start this post I see America’s Test Kitchen do an episode on the subject w/ ingredient ratios and all that!! Durnit!!)
Almost every country has that one street food that’s just iconic, either to them or those who know of them, whether we’re aware of it or not. Japan has Takoyaki, India practices Dosa and Chaat, Mexico their own “Corn on the cob,” Italy idolizes the Gelato and Pizza, and the list goes on. But I think foremost of this lineup of stereotypical deliciousness will always be France and their Crepes.
With their easy batter preparation, long history, holding ability, and amazing versatility in meals and flavor matching, it’s not surprising their popularity has moved from the street to the home kitchen. They can have a habit of holding a slight difficulty and trickyness in the cooking process, though if anything that’s probably made them more endearing in our eyes.
It of course then fell upon me to attempt their creation sooner or later (especially since I have this totally awesome crepe machine/pan/thingy!!), and with a recent departure of a family member to Paris and their desire for a birthday dessert soon beforehand, the occasion presented itself.
Basic Crepe Recipe (a la Jacques Pepin)
¾ cup Flour
½ cup Milk
1/8 tsp Salt
½ tsp Sugar
1/3 cup Cold Water
1 Tb Canola Oil
1 Tb Melted Butter
Crepe recipes abound throughout books, websites, etc, all with the same ingredients but slightly different proportions. My past searches and experiments have led to countless, countless results of something that tastes sorta the same but yet never even close to my memory of that proper French result. As of now I don’t know if it’s simply HOW they cook it, a mixing preparation, or maybe they just use buckwheat flour (I’ve seen it in some recipes, but not a regular thing to get a hold on). Either way, I like to think a fun way to approach crepes is trying different base recipes each time to see what you enjoy; can also give one a good idea on which “sweet” versions are better for dessert and which “savory” for other meals.
Such an easy recipe to put together, whisk the first 5 ingredients together to a thick batter, then finish with the last 3. The result should be sorta thin but with consistency enough to stick (sorta like a sauce). You can do this in a blender too; the idea is there’s too much liquid for overworking the gluten, but I still like the whisk.
So we get to the tricky party, actually cooking the guy; now, in this situation I’ve been quite lucky to be gifted with this cool, amazing little electric non-stick flat “grill” highly reminiscent of those wide stones used in France. Most people don’t have that luxury however. Besides this, people also sell these special “crepe pans,” which sort of look like a thinner-metalled cast-iron skillet but much wider with very tiny, angled edges, giving easy access to grab the curling edges and flip.
Good chance one won’t have these either, but it gives an idea of what kind of pan you should pick. If anything, the main importance in the cooking of crepes is ORGANIZATION of your station; get everything set up close and neat together in whatever way is easiest for you to produce. Find the widest NONSTICK sauté pan you have, preferably with lower edges. Good chance they’ll be rounded and you won’t be able to make as large of crepes as other pans, but they’re still yummeh!
Move the pan to a medium-high temp; it should be VERY hot, but not to that extreme level ya know? One should still have some time to move the batter around the pan before it completely seizes.
Brush a thin, even smear of oil or softened butter over the hot surface (I like using a paper towel, like when oiling a grill) before working; some recipes may have you doing these before every crepe, but depending on pan it may only be needed a few times while working, or even once (but you WILL need to ensure the pan is “clean” and free of any leftover bits of batter after each crepe; just a few wipe with a dry paper towel should do). Scoop up a medium to large ladle (depending on size of pan, I hear ¼ cup for a 12” pan is proper) into the pan, OFF-CENTER (not in the middle, to the side) so that it spreads over more of the pan; there’s a mechanic to it, but I don’t feel like going into it.
Spreading can be accomplished traditionally with an awesome horizontal wooden spreader thingy, sorta looks like a car window squeegee but flat. For the rest of us, you’ll want to quickly lift and rotate the sauté pan at a high angle to have the batter slide over and cover the whole bottom. Really, do this FAST, and hope you have enough batter to fill a full circle; if it seizes up beforehand though, no worries, just add a little bit of extra batter into the empty areas and wiggle about. It won’t look so perfect, but who actually cares?
This should cook quickly, so NO MOVING! After 15-30 seconds, the bottom should brown nicely, and the edge will (if done properly) start to curl slightly (lending crepe its name). Run the edge of your flipping instrument (most likely a spatula or, in my case, an awesome tradional long, thin wood paddle) under and around, pinch an edge to hold firm and lift, using the spatula to stabilize and help flip (gotta do it with both hands to get it right, not just one).
Before I continue, I should mention that, good chance, you will not accomplish a good, or decent, or even something even closely reminiscent of a crepe in your first one or two (or 5…) attempts. Don’t worry, that’s natural; if anything, it’s often just something one has to do to get the pan to a good temp.
That said, the second side will take a lot faster to cook than the first, though it can stay on longer safely. And sadly won’t have that same, completely even and smooth browning to it; Most likely it’ll be sorta spotty. As it’s cooking, this is your chance to add any spices and ingredients to complete whatever crepe you’re making! This can be done quite easily with a pat of butter, spread over to melt, and topping with some jam, fresh fruit, some sugar and citrus juice, chopped (cooked) meat and/or veggies, etc. Fold, I like the doing it in halves to turn into the triangular wedges when it’s flat and able, or folding each side into a square package when there’s a savory mound in the middle.
Or, one could forego instant gratification and stack your crepes onto wax paper and, once cooled, into the fridge for later. One of crepe’s renowns is how AMAZING they store; people love them for parties, because you can cook them all up the night before, store in the fridge, and then just reheat them in a warm pan with whatever desired fillings on the next day for quicker service.
Then again, if you have all those crepes saved up, you could make something a little special… which is of course what I just had to do for that birthday dessert.
Gateau Crepe Millefeuille (thousand-layer crepe cake… though it’s only 20 layers, ish), a very unique and very traditional preparation of stacked crepes with a pastry cream-like filling. A very, very simple but somewhat time consuming dessert which leads to a delicious and beautiful result.
Since I didn’t have 20 crepes, the pan made them too damn big for the amount of batter (and I did a double batch too), I decided to cop out and just cut each one in half, make a fully layered semi-circle cake. This also yields the possibility of cutting out shapes from your French pancakes, maybe making a small, tall square cake, or smaller individual circles. Many fun potentials!
While that’s kept away in the fridge, we can prepare the filling. Find any good looking pastry cream recipe (I was gonna list down mine, which was a simple Pepin recipe that used flour instead of cornstarch, but I wasn’t too thrilled about its final outcome) and prepare the ingredients. Could keep it simple, or like me you could add some flavor through infusion; in this case, adding some fresh basil and orange zest (along with half an actual vanilla bean, scraped) to the milk and/or cream while warming to get their flavor. Doesn’t need to sit in there too long, otherwise the flavors can overpower easily, so one just needs them for the scalding phase before straining.
Mix all the eggs, sugar, starch, and other ingredients together, temper once the dairy mixture has scalded (gotten hot, do NOT let it get even close to boiling and curdling!). Transfer back to the pot, turning the heat somewhere between medium and low (which you may have to increase as time goes on, depending on the recipe).
Based on your heat, the pastry cream will thicken either really fast or pretty slow. Whichever the situation, we must stick to the one golden rule: KEEP STIRRING! Never, never stop unless it’s in the very beginning, and use a whisk! One can start off slow easily, but as the mixture starts to thicken and give that little glossy shine the speed should increase. We are naturally taking this milk and dairy mixture to a temperature that it normally curdles at, but the starch addition is allowing it to survive and aiding in its thickening properties. That doesn’t mean it’ll do all the work, however; keeping it still will only serve to burn the bottom and let it set like a scrambled egg. Keep it moving, don’t let it stay on the bottom and sides any longer than it needs, and sooner or later you’ll be rewarded with a rich, creamy pot of congealed custard.
Quickly move this into a container (ideally a metal one which has been in the freezer for a while to chill it down), scraping off as much as possible, and cover it with parchment or wax paper covered in cooking spray. Move to the fridge, and let cool at least a few hours or ideally overnight (it should also thicken even further during this, so don’t feel you have to get it to the perfect consistency when cooking; go a few notches under unless serving immediately).
After cooling, we can move to the next step, or go right to setting up. Now, you COULD fill the cake with just the pastry cream as-is; many recipes do, and it’s a great suggestion if it came out exactly how you want it. There are other recipes though, and I sorta like the idea, that fold it with whipped cream, sorta making a mousse.
So I thought I’d do that with what cream I had, and I also whipped up some leftover egg whites from the yolks I used in the pastry cream. Fold in with the basic technique, “slicing” down the middle, gathering it with your spatula and “folding” it over the cut with a turn of the wrist and bowl.
Hell, if I was serving this mousse as is, I’d stop here, have those beautiful streaks of white and orangish-yellow. Put it over a beautiful, crispy tuile, some fresh black currants… so good… BUT we’re sliding it between crepes today, so a full mixing it is.
And putting it together is simple. Spread a thin, even layer over your bottom piece, top with another, spread a thin layer and repeat until either all your crepes are used up or all the pastry cream (sadly, the latter in my case… knew I should have made more whipped cream).
Also, by now I’m sure your crepes aren’t all perfect. That’s fine; take your largest (or one of them) and smoothest, best pieces and reserve it on the side (what I did was choose the best of my first two pieces, and if better ones came along during stacking I’d switch ‘em out) to place on top. This will act as a great presentation, and its larger size (amongst other large, good pieces placed near the top) will help hide the questionable ones below.
Can serve immediately or keep it, covered, in the fridge for later. If doing the latter, make sure to remove 15-30 minutes before eating (… sorta like cheese… I don’t know if that excites me or makes me cautious). During this time we can finish it off the traditional way, with a Brulee of the top, best done maybe 5-8 minutes before ready at the MAX.
Spread a THIN (very important, otherwise one gets clumps of it), completely even layer of sugar over the top; should look like when one spreads sugar around a buttered ramekin and then taps out all the access (ideally… which I still have yet to master). Take your torch (hopefully you have some kind, handheld or those big clunky tanks or something; if you don’t, and want to attempt this, you could try doing it directly under a hot broiler) and simply run it over that granular top, holding it over the melting sugar until it turns a nice goldenish-brown, caramelized color. Do your best not to burn the crepe below.
We could stop here as well, just dust it with a bit of powdered sugar for the traditional crepe… but as we know I’m not one to “stop here” (and I’m sort of on a roll with adding things on with these guys!). I have to get a good sauce to make this cake complete, and the Pepin recipe came with additional things to make a Suzette, so I couldn’t help but make a similar orange sauce.
6 TB Butter
¼ cup + 2Tb Sugar
1 Tb Orange Zest
1/3 cup OJ
2 Tb Cognac
¼ cup Orange Liqueur
You’ll need to zest about 3 oranges to get all you need (and an additional 2 or more for infusing the cream earlier, hominah hominah lotsa citrus fruit…). Combine with the butter and ¼ cup sugar, either by hand, processor, or mixer.
The recipe states to add the orange juice to the butter; which, if using a food processor or maybe a mixer probably shouldn’t be to difficult. I found it hard to do by hand (at least in a smooth bowl… maybe a rougher plastic to get holding friction), if doing so yourself add in VERY slowly, a bit at a time. I ended up doing too much at one point and had to just add it to the sauce directly. I mean pretty easy, but having it in the butter just pumps up the flavor, in case you have leftovers that you might want to use in something else. Move butter to fridge before making.
Mix alcohol, sugar, and leftover oj in sauté pan, bring to a boil and move off heat. Whisk in COLD butter (of which you might only need ½-3/4 of what’s made) until fully emulsified and incorporated.
Assemble plates as desired; CAREFULLY slice cake with a sharp knife, revealing all those beautifully simple layers. Spoon sauce onto plate, maybe onto the side of the cake (not the top, don’t want to accidentally soften that crispy sugary crust). Garnish with thinly sliced basil and serve.
Quite a long journey from a typical French pancake to a dressed up layered cake, but that’s just how the modern world of street food has gotten to where it is. Well, that and as we know I like to ramble and add things. Either way I do hold hopes that you were able to enjoy and find inspiration in one or two sections of this long narration and recipe on Crepes.