For something a little fancy but not at all difficult to make, why not not whip up batch of crepes?
I haven’t made crepes for years and I really don’t know why. In honor of Bastille Day, which was Tuesday, I pulled down one of my favorite cookbooks, “Simple French Food” by author and cooking teacher Richard Olney. Then I set out to make something a little different for dinner.
Olney, who died in 1999, was an American writer whose specialty was French country cooking. His recipe calls for a simple batter of flour, eggs, milk or cream, a dash of cognac, a pinch of salt and butter or olive oil. I chose olive oil, which worked quite well. After whisking the ingredients in a batter bowl, I let it “rest” in the refrigerator for a few hours.
About an hour before dinnertime, I heated up my trusty omelet pan and turned out 12 eggy, lacy-edged crepes.
We had fresh spinach and some chicken breast left over from a meal the previous day. (Crepes are also great for using up leftovers in fillings.) I made cream sauce to bind these together for the filling.
One can create just as many filling variations with a crepe as with a flour tortillas. Make a filling of seared fresh scallops in a light saffron cream sauce, fill your crepes and sprinkle a little Parmigiana-Reggiano on top. They’ll make an elegant first course or lunch dish. Fill them with lightly poached, sweetened fruit and that’s dessert. Or, give them the Italian treatment and turn them into manicotti, stuffed with herbed ricotta and topped with a light tomato sauce.
It took me about an hour, start to finish, to make the crepes (including time to prepare the filling). Those we didn’t eat will hold well in the refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap, for a couple of days. You also can separate them with squares of parchment paper, put them in a freezer bag and freeze them. In fact, if I were making crepes to freeze ahead, I’d probably make two batches.
Don’t let the proper pan be a big issue. Years ago, while working for a particularly exacting (nasty) British chef, I learned the hard way that the cook treats the chef’s crepe pan with great honor. You don’t pull it down to make an omelet or sauté the veal medallions. It is for making crepes. Only. Afterward, it must be carefully cleaned and stored. I was, in fact, pretty scared to even look at that crepe pan.
In his book, Olney said a good crepe pan is made of heavy iron. “They differ from omelet pans only in that the sides are lower and more oblique; in their absence, small omelet pans will serve, ” he wrote.
My omelet pan has always made good crepes. It was built to last and is still in great condition after 35 years. After the first crepe or two, I simply had to lift one edge of the cooked crepe up, shake the pan lightly back and forth, and the crepe slipped neatly out of the pan. If I didn’t have my fine omelet pan, I’d probably consider using a good quality, small-to-medium-sized nonstick skillet. I’d use a little butter on the bottom for the first crepe or two, though.
Another couple of notes: Don’t bother to put sugar in a crepe batter that is going to be used for a dessert. Olney said it took him years to come to this realization. “Whatever their ultimate treatment, they will receive a large sufficience of sweetening.”
Also: Olney, in his recipe, says to turn the crepes. I will depart from his instructions here and suggest leaving this step out. This is how I was taught. Just cook the bottom of the crepe to a golden hue. The top will have set enough by that time if your batter is thin enough (and the following recipe will make a batter of perfect consistency). Slide the crepes, as they are made, onto a plate. They won’t stick together. When you fill them, wrap the crepes with the browned side out.
The best part about making crepes on Bastille Day was patting myself on the back. I have crepes for two more meals in the fridge — and the “hard” part is already done.
1/3 cup flour
Salt, to taste
3 large eggs
1 cup liquid (you can use milk, beer, half-and-half, water or any of these enriched with heavy cream)
1-2 tablespoons Cognac
3 tablespoons olive oil or melted butter (butter suggested for dessert crepes)
Put flour in medium bowl and add pinch of salt, to taste. Add eggs to the flour mixture and whisk from the center of the bowl, working gradually out, until no lumps remain. Then stir in, with the whisk, the liquid, Cognac and olive oil or melted butter. Cover the bowl and let the batter rest in the refrigerator for a couple of hours.
When you are ready to make the crepes, put the pan on the stove and coat it lightly on the bottom and a little up the sides with butter. Heat over medium until the butter starts to spatter. For 8-inch crepes, use a 1/4-cup measuring cup, and fill it about 3/4 of the way up (about 3 tablespoons). Pour it into the hot pan. Immediately, with your other hand, lift the pan up and turn it this way and that so that the liquid batter covers the bottom of the pan and, if the pan sides are sloped, a little ways up the side of the pan. The batter is thin, so it should be completely cooked within 15-20 seconds or so. Lift or slide the crepe from the pan and put on plate. Take the pan off the heat for a moment or two before replacing and heating for the next crepe.
If you wish to turn the crepes, here are Olney’s instructions: The crepe is ready to turn when the edges become almost dry, tacky, and beginning to curl. Slip a heat-resistant spatula under one edge, working it gently around the pan until the crepe loosens. Carefully lift crepe and turn over.
Stack the cooked crepes on a plate. If you are using only part of the batch of crepes, cover the remaining ones with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Makes 10-12 crepes.
Adapted from “Simple French Cooking” by Richard Olney
Spinach and Chicken Filling for Crepes
1 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon flour
2/3 cup milk or half-and-half, hot but not boiling
Salt, to taste
Small pinch white pepper
Small pinch nutmeg
1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
1 tablespoon shallot, minced
3 tablespoons dry white wine
1/4 teaspoon paprika
Salt, to taste
1 (5-ounce) box fresh baby spinach, steamed and drained, with excess water pressed out
8 ounces cooked chicken, diced
Melted butter, for brushing
For white sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add flour, stirring well until butter and flour are well blended and just beginning to lightly brown. Add warmed milk or half-and-half. Raise heat to medium and stir or whisk until mixture is smooth and beginning to thicken. Turn heat down and continue to let cook, another minute or so, stirring until thick. You can add a little more milk if the mixture is too thick (pasty). Turn off heat.
For filling, warm butter or oil in small skillet or saucepan. Add minced shallot and sauté for a minute or so until it is cooked through. Add white wine and turn heat to medium. Let the wine reduce down to about 1 tablespoon. Add paprika and salt. Take off heat.
In a bowl, mix together the spinach, chicken and shallot/wine mixture. Then, pour in the white sauce and mix together gently until the filling is well blended.
For serving, fill 4-6 crepes with the spinach and chicken mixture. Roll up into a cylinder. Lightly brush with a little melted butter, if desired, and top with sprinkling of Parmigiana-Reggiano.
Makes 2-3 servings.
From Bonnie Walker