Crêpes comes from the word crispus, or curly or wavy, probably a reference to how the edges of a cooked crêpe looks; they are known as crespelle in Italy. Along with other types of pancakes, they are economical as well as elegant, a testament to the ability of European cooks to make a simple food a masterpiece of ingenuity as well as taste. They are endowed with the saying that they are “the French cook’s way to transform Sunday’s roast chicken or ham into Monday’s supper.” No matter what filling you make, it must be slightly moistened with some sauce (It is usally topped with a French bechamel sauce, the delicious workhorse of a good cook’s kitchen.), melted butter, or soft cheese, and all the ingredients must harmonize with each other. They can be sweet or savory, with sweet crêpes, crêpes sucress, having a bit of sugar, extra egg yolks, and dash of brandy to make the batter a bit richer. Every French cookbook has recipes for crepes.
Crêpes are rich in milk and eggs, making them more protein-rich than starchy, and the milk can be substituted with stock or beer. Since they are so flexible, crêpes can be folded into halves or fourths, or rolled like a fat cigar into many different shapes around their filling, giving the humble pancake many different guises, from an appetizer bite to an Italian cannelloni casserole or gâteau, which is also called a crêpe cake, when individual pancakes are stacked upon each other with moist fillings inbetween and served in wedges like a cake. They are a vegetarian’s delight. I sampled a gâteau at a wedding buffet made with Gruyére and a bechamel sauce that was a solid 8-inches high, in a casserole dish the same diameter as the pancakes (she made this quite often as it was a favorite dish, excellent for company. A large souffle dish also works), and substantially filling as an entrée.
A batter can sport different flours beautifully, giving their individual flavors a perfect venue. While variations add flours like whole wheat, chestnut, and garbanzo, the most famous is the hearty, oversized buckwheat crêpe called krampouz, native to the coast of Brittany, where they are street food and eaten dripping with butter or wrapped around a sausage. Some batter recipes will have more liquid than flour, making a most delicate crêpe, but the standard is a 1-to-1 ratio of liquid and flour, which is essential if you want to use it for a thick filling, such as for cannelloni and manicotti. All crêpe batters and the pancakes can be prepared in advance, then filled and reheated. Regular pancakes don’t do this; they must be eaten right off the griddle.
Specialty kitchen shops like Williams-Sonoma offer French steel crêpe pans at reasonable prices, often in pairs so you can have an assembly line of sorts, just like in restaurants (experienced crêpe makers bake on up to 6 pans at once!), to efficently make 6-to 7-inch crêpes. It is a flat pan with shallow, angled sides and a long uptilted handle, designed in the 1600s, especially for the essential action of swirling the batter and turning it over. Dedicated crêpe makers only use their pans for crêpes, nothing else. An ordinary black cast-iron skillet or nonstick sauté pan work just as well, but they must be heavy, since the heat will be high and it must distribute it evenly. I generally use a light-weight 8- to 10-inch omelette pan with sloping sides bought at a restaurant supply with a silverstone coating; they require minimal buttering. Any size pan from 6- to 8-inches to 12-or 20-inches in diameter, depending on the size of the crêpe you want to make, will do, but remember that you have to be able to lift and turn it. Small crêpes will obviously take longer than the larger to make and yield more per batch of batter. The larger the crêpe, the easier it is to tear it during the turning.
For the crepes, you may use water for the wine, and lacking buckwheat flour, just use 1 cup of all-purpose flour. For the spinach, beginning with bunch spinach is best—it must be cut and washed very well. But if time and convenience are of the essence, you may use a large bag of pre-washed spinach or frozen defrosted. Serves 6 as a main course or 8 as a smaller course. This is a very filling dish.
How To Cook Crêpes
The secret to perfect crêpes is the correct heat, the consistency of the batter, and your quick wrist movements to distribute the batter over the bottom of the pan. Practice is the key here to gaining culinary confidence. As a caterer, I had requests for crêpes often and used the opportunity of making 50 crêpes per batch to get good at making them. Use this recipe to make any crêpe batter.
Melted unsalted butter or vegetable oil, for brushing the pan
1. Assemble your work space with everything you will need for cooking the crêpes before baking, so as to be able to work uninterrupted. Spread out a large clean kitchen towel on which to lay the crêpes after baking (in Brittany there are ribbed wooden boards specially for this purpose). Set out a measuring cup or small ladle for the batter and a long metal cake spatula or wooden crêpe tongs for flipping. Have a piece of paper towel, natural bristle brush (one with plastic bristles will melt), or a piece of cloth for brushing the hot pan with a thin layer of oil, just enough to keep the batter from sticking.
2. Brush your pan with some oil or spray with a vegetable cooking spray (if you want to use cooking spray for the oiling between crêpes, be sure to remove the pan from the heat source as you spray). Heat your crêpe pan, skillet, or nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat until hot, but not smoking. Stir the batter a few times.
3. Remove the pan from the heat and immediately ladle in desired amount of the batter, tilting and rotating the pan quickly in all directions to coat the entire surface evenly. If
the batter does not spread quickly, it is too thick; thin with water. If the batter stiffens when poured into the pan, the pan is too hot. (If the crêpes have holes, fill in with a few drops of batter; this is a common beginning problem that disappears when you master the tilting of the pan.). If you have too much batter, just lift the pan and pour the excess back into the bowl of batter. Plan on a few uneven crêpes at first while regulating the heat and thickness of the batter (No matter how many years I have been making crêpes, it still takes a few to get the rhythm unless I make them every day. Sometimes it takes a few to get the right look.). Return the pan to the heat. In about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes, the edges will lightly browned and lifting up slightly off the pan and the top set and almost dry. Slide the long spatula under and turn carefully to prevent tearing. Cook briefly, just until brown in spots but not until crispy, 30 seconds. The second side is never as attractive in appearance as the first (when you fill, keep the first side on the outside.). These crêpes should remain soft, so don’t overcook. Invert the pan to release the crêpe onto the clean dish towel. This goes very quickly once you get going and you can use two pans at once.
4. Continue to make the crêpes in this manner, stirring the batter and greasing the pan lightly as needed before cooking each pancake. If using within a few hours, cover the crêpes with another towel for a few hours.
Storing and Reheating Crêpes: If you are not going to use the crêpe right away, you can wrap the cooled crêpes in plastic or slip into a self-sealing plastic bag and refrigerate up to 3 days, or freeze, in plastic freezer bags, up to 1 month. Wrap in stacks that will be the amount you are going to use. Let the refrigerated crêpes stand at room temperature 1 hour before filling so they won’t tear as you separate them. After being frozen, the crêpes must be defrosted in the refrigerator or on the kitchen counter and be brought back to room temperature before separating to avoid tearing. A package of 6 crêpes takes only 20 to 30 minutes to defrost. Delicate crêpes can be stacked with some waxed paper in between to keep them perfect. To reheat, wrap your stack in foil and keep in a 325º oven for 15 minutes. Warmed crêpes separate the easiest. You need to do this if you are going to fill and serve. Room temperature crêpes can just be filled, as they are going to be warmed in the oven with their filling.
GATEAU DE CREPES (Savory Crepe Casserole with Spinach, Gruyere, and Béchamel)
for the crepes:
1 cup whole milk
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup buckwheat flour
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
about 1/4 cup melted butter for cooking crepes
for the béchamel sauce:
2 cups milk
3 to 4 tablespoons finely diced shallot or onion
1 bay leaf
2 pinches dried thyme, or 3 to 4 sprigs fresh thyme
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
freshly-ground pepper to taste
for the filling:
12 ounces fresh spinach, ribs removed, washed, or two 10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed, and drained
3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 tablespoon butter
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
pinch of salt
8 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated
4 ounces goat cheese, such as domestic chabi or French Montrachet, sliced into 8 pieces, or 5 ounces herbed cream cheese, such as Boursin or Rondelé, room temperature
1/2 cup finely shredded imported or domestic Parmesan cheese
First, make the crepe batter: Combine eggs, milk, wine, water, salt, all-purpose flour, buckwheat flour, and vegetable oil in a blender. Buzz for a full 30 seconds to thoroughly blend the batter. Cover and let rest, refrigerated, for at least 1 hour (overnight is ideal).
Next, make the béchamel: In a small heavy saucepan, heat the milk with the shallot, bay leaf, and thyme, until the milk is hot and steaming. Cover the pan and set aside. In a larger saucepan over a medium flame, melt the butter and add the flour. Cook, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, for 3 minutes—the color of the roux should not visibly darken. Remove from the flame and let the roux rest for 5 minutes. Strain about a third of the hot milk into the roux, whisking to combine. Add the milk in two more additions, whisking to blend after each. Return the pan to a medium flame. Continuing to stir, let the sauce come to a boil. Reduce the heat to very low, and let the sauce gently cook for 1/2 hour, whisking frequently (I sometimes use the oven for this step—I just put the whole saucepan in a 350-degree oven, and take it out to stir a few times). Add the salt, nutmeg, and pepper to taste. The béchamel should only be moderately salted for this dish—the sweetness of the milk should be evident, too.
While the béchamel is cooking, make the filling: wash the spinach and drain in a colander. Heat a wide skillet over a high flame and add the spinach all at once (or in batches, if the pan isn’t big enough), stirring it around constantly until it wilts. Transfer the spinach to a big shallow bowl, spreading it out to cool. As soon as the spinach is cool enough to handle, take up fistfuls of spinach and squeeze out all the excess water (I drink this—the minerals are just what a busy cook needs). Chop the spinach coarsely.
In a skillet, melt the butter over medium-high heat. When it sizzles, throw in the onion with a pinch of salt and sauté until the onion browns lightly. Add the spinach, stirring it thoroughly into the onions.
Now make the crepes: heat a 7- to 10-inch pan with gently sloping sides over a medium-high flame, then brush lightly with melted butter. Use about 3 tablespoons of batter per crepe: drizzle the batter in a swath across the bottom of the pan, then swirl and tilt the pan so the batter completely coats the bottom. Cook for about 45 seconds on the first side, or until lightly browned. Slide a knife or spatula under the crepe’s edge to loosen it, then flip and cook the other side about 20 seconds. Stack the crepes on a plate as they’re done.
Finally, assemble the gateau. First, heat the oven to 375 degrees. In the center of an ovenproof plate (with at least 1/2-inch lip), put a small dab of béchamel. Center a crepe on the plate, then spread about ¼ cup of béchamel over it. Put a second crepe atop the first—this is the base of the gateau. Top the second crepe with about 3 tablespoons of the spinach-onion mixture, and about 2 tablespoons of cheese. Crumble the goat cheese lightly over the surface and sprinkle with Parmesan. Repeat with crepes, spinach, and cheeses until all are used up, finishing with a crepe. Pour the remaining béchamel over the top, spreading it on the sides. Top the gateau with the remaining cheese, and bake in the oven for about 30 minutes, or until the gateau is heated through and the béchamel and cheese are bubbling.
Let the gateau set a few minutes to serve warm or let stand to room temperature, remove the pan sides if using a springform pan, then cut in wedges and serve with a simple green salad.
Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2017
Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.