Monday, October 6, 2008

Crepe Happy

I haven't made crepes in years because they are laboriously time consuming, they stink up your house like it's the local greasy spoon diner, and the results are sort of a rubbery, limp leather glove texture.

I am pleased to announce that I've overcome every last one of these problems, thanks to dear, dear Julia Child.

I honestly had never given Child much consideration until about a year ago when I read Julie Powell's memoir, Julie and Julia (2005), about Powell's attempt to cook through the entire Mastering the Art of French Cooking Cookbook (1961). The Julie and Julia project started as blog. Once I read about Powell's disastrous Potage Parmentier, I was compelled to look up the original recipe. Luckily, at the time Boise State's library had a first edition of MtAoFC, which I had checked out continuously from August of 2007 to May of 2008. Luckily, this summer I found a pristine 1st edition of MtAoFC, at Jackson Street Booksellers for a paltry $8.50. (Kent and I hold the belief that Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha is one of the best used books store in the country.)

MtAoFC is my go-to cookbook now. Although severely outdated, it provides such a fundamental basis for from-scratch cooking that I would be lost without it. Many food writers have speculated why America has such an enduring affection for Child, and I join the chorus when I mention her lack of pretense, her distillation of French technique for the layperson, her straightforward double-column formatted recipes, and her down-to-earth charm. I've also been working my way through the 6-disc DVD collection of The French Chef. Once you watch Child on The French Chef you fall in love with her. The early shows were taped live and are a bit rough around the edges: she loses her reading glasses, or mis-speaks and gets tongue tied, or she whacks the head off a whole fish without warning. She's a far cry from the cocky celebrity chefs on the Food Network now.

Last week, I happened to watch a French Chef episode on crepes. Buoyed by Child's effortless and lilting example, I suddenly had not only a deep primal urge for fresh crepes but the determined confidence to produce DAMN good crepes.

Crepes are essentially impossibly thin pancakes, and they are extremely versatile. You can serve them like pancakes, fill them with sweet or savory fillings to make blintzes, or use them like mannicotti stuffed with a savory filling, doused with a good sauce and baked like a casserole, or you can even layer and bake them like a lasagna.

Previously, I had used a recipe from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, which isn't as good as Child's because the batter is thicker as it calls for no water, resulting in the leathery glove consistency. The crepes are also fried in butter, which burns easily at the high heat necessary for crepes, resulting in the greasy spoon aroma. As for the laborious part, Child recommends using a blender to mix the ingredients (I used my food processor, and it worked fantastic). Child also insists that with a little practice, "it is no problem at all" to get two pans of crepes going at once, thus cutting your work time in half. Lo and behold, I was able to churn out 20 crepes in about 10 minutes!

Crepes (adapted from MtAoFC)
makes about 18 to 20 crepes

1 cup cold water
1 cup cold milk
4 eggs
1/2 t. salt
2 cups a.p. flour, sifted
4 T. butter, melted

Combine all ingredients in bender or food processor and blend at top speed for 1 minute. Cover and refrigerate so that the flour can soften and absorb the liquid. This results in a softer, lighter, practically ethereal crepe. Child recommends letting it chill for 2 hours. I only managed to give my batter a 1 hour rest, and the results were still quite good. You could also chill it overnight.

When ready to make, heat two skillets (with about 6 inch diameter bottoms), and grease with a vegetable saturated paper towel. Heat should be very high. As soon as oil begins to smoke, grab pan of off heat, and ladle in about 1/8 to 1/4 cup of batter. Using your wrist action to swirl the batter around. You want just enough batter to completely coat the bottom of the pan and stick. If there's more than that, pour the excess back into the batter bowl, and adjust the amount of batter for the next crepe.

Cook over high heat for about a minute or until the edges of the crepe are dry, and it releases easily from the bottom of the pan. If you're as talented as Child, you'll be able to flip the crepe with a flick of your wrist or lightly grab the dry edges of the crepe with your fingers and turn it with your hands. If you're a mere mortal in the kitchen, like me, you'll need to use a pancake turner, which works just fine. Cook other side about 30 seconds or until small brown spots emerge that look, like Child says, "look almost like the spots of a baby dalmatian."

When cooked, remove to plate. It is helpful to put the growing stack of crepes in a warm oven if you're going to serve them like pancakes, but if you're going to make blintzes or stuffed crepes it is not necessary, and keeping them warm in the oven dries them out a bit.

Crepes freeze and refrigerate beautifully, so save any leftovers for other dishes.

The first night I made blintzes with a ricotta cheese filling. (My apologies for the photo styling. My Ohio kitchen is sorely lacking in the natural light my Idaho kitchen had, and I'm still trying to figure out the necessary adjustments to remedy this problem.)

Blintz Filling adapted from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen (1982).

7 oz part-skim ricotta
1 T. sugar
1 1/2 T. a.p. flour
dash of salt

Mix ingredients well.

To assemble blintzes, place a heaping tablespoon of filling in the center of one crepe and roll like a burrito. The blintz will resemble an egg roll.

Then, carefully saute blintzes over medium-high heat in a small amount of butter until golden brown, using tongs to gently turn the blintzes so each side cooks.

Top with fruit and whip cream, or if you're ambitious, make an recipe of Brandied Baked Pears as a topping and dust with cinnamon and powdered sugar before serving.

I was inspired to make Brandied Baked Pears because of these delicious beauties. When was the last time you saw such beautiful, golden blemish-free Bartlett pears in the supermarket? My guess is never. They just are too fragile to transport long distances. I got these at the Perrysberg Farmer's Market, and the are by far the most amazing pears I have ever eaten. They exploded with a sweetly tart perfume flavor and with chin dribbling juice at each bite.

They were so good, in fact, that even Henry Miller liked them.


Anonymous said...

My question is, are the crepes worth the time and effort? Are they really that delicious? I do love pears and those did look exceptionally nice. But I can't believe that Mr. Henry Miller would like pears. What a weird cat. Didn't Kenny on "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter Died" fall in love with Julia Child's cooking? Nonetheless that was a great article on crepes. Mom

Diane said...

Mmmm, I love crepes, but only the sweet variety. Savory crepes tend to freak me out. Levi would love those pears too.

What kind of pans did you use? I'm trying to ease off of the teflon, but I seem to burn my food with any other kind of pan.

Zan said...

These look fantastic! I might even be bold enough to try this recipe.

Sarah said...

Mom, crepes are totally worth the time and effort. If you can make pancakes, you can make crepes. However, don't try to make the crepes and a dish that requires filling and baking crepes on the same day (you'll burn yourself out.) Serve the crepes simply like you would pancakes first, then save the leftover crepes in the fridge or freezer for more elaborate preparations later.

Diane, these were Bartlett pears from the local farmer's market. I'm glad Henry and Levi have something in common! I used one stainless steel pan and one teflon pan, and the results were nearly identical. The stainless steel pan, however was able to heat much higher and quicker (so control heat appropriately), therefore it took a bit more speed to spread the crepe batter in that pan. I had no problem with sticking or burning with the stainless steel pan. Have you tried cooking with cast iron? I have several seasoned cast iron pans, but I don't use them as often as I should.

Zan, after rocking the fondant, I'm sure you can pull off some fabulous crepe action!