French food is pretty hot right now due to all the buzz surrounding “Julie and Julia,” and though I don’t know the first thing about boeuf bourgignon or duck en croute, I am a fanatical devourer of crepes. Spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, artichokes – stuff I usually shy away from becomes as addictive as crack once they’re lovingly sandwiched in those little pancakes of happiness with some cream and butter. A savory crepe followed by a sweet crepe of nutella or jam was truly one of the highlights of my travels through Paris and Montreal - but efforts to recreate them at home were mediocre at best. They seemed so easy, yet the care-bear-fluffiness of authentic crepes kept eluding me and I was left with shamefully thick imposters that were fine, but nothing special. So when Elodie, a French friend I’d met traveling who happens to be visiting me in NYC for the week, mentioned that she was an all-star crepe maker, I was ecstatic. Crepes originated in Brittany, the region where she is from, and her stepmother’s recipe is the best ever. Would we like her to make crepes for us one night? Once I wiped the drool off my face, I managed to nod, uh, yes please.
Though there’s no question that the crepe is the most identifiable French dish outside of France, I had just assumed that crepes were French, through and through. It turns out that I was wrong – though most can agree that crepes didn’t originate in France, no one can settle on much beyond that. Some say that it is a traditional Celtic recipe, brought to Brittany when the Celts settled there to escape Anglo and Saxon persecution. Others think that crepes are of Italian origin, introduced to France in the 5th century A.D. when Pope Gelasio had his cooks prepare the crepselle (an Italian cousin of the crepe) for visiting French pilgrims. Still others believe that when the Crusaders introduced buckwheat from Asia Minor to Brittany in the 12th century, locals added water, cider and salt to the buckwheat flour to give rise to the first crepes. Indeed, flour-and-water cakes such as the Ethiopian injera or the Indian dosa are staples the world over, and crepes were originally unfilled and instead used as a bread accompaniment to a meal. But the famously rich butter and dairy of Brittany eventually found its way into the recipe, and combined with the best fruit, cheese and vegetables France had to offer, crepes as we know it today were born.
These days, creperies are a dime a dozen throughout France, and they’re a quick, reliably cheap meal for anyone on the go. Children often grow up eating crepes as an after-school snack, but Elodie prefers to make a stack of them to freeze so she can reheat them in the microwave when she gets home from the bars, rather than messing about with the oven when drunk. However you decide to enjoy your crepes, I’m sure that, like me, you’ll find these to be a revelation – thin but doughy, light but substantial, as good as any Parisian bistro has to offer.
* in true French fashion, Elodie never measures anything, but I’ve done my best to figure out amounts. This worked pretty well in my kitchen, with Elodie proclaiming that these were awesome crepes, but there are pointers throughout the recipe in case something goes wrong with your batter. Also, buckwheat galettes are a bit different – I wouldn’t go and substitute buckwheat flour without doing a bit of research beforehand.
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
pinch of kosher salt
3 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon oil
5 oz (i.e. a little more than 1/2 cup) light lager beer, like Amstel Light
In a large bowl, dump in the flour and make a well in the middle with your fingers. Crack 3 eggs into the well, add a pinch of salt, and while whisking, add the milk.
Keep whisking and add the beer. Add a 1/4 teaspoon of oil, and if you are making sweet crepes, you can add a teaspoon of rum or vanilla. The batter will be pretty thin – it should coat the back of a spoon so thinly that the metal is somewhat visible beneath the translucent batter, and excess batter runs off the spoon. If you see lumps in the batter, beat them down – the last thing you want is lumpy crepes.
Seeing bubbles on top of the batter is a good thing, because that means it will be fluffy. Once you’ve made the batter, you should let it sit for 1/2 hour.
When you are ready to cook, heat a nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Depending on how rich/greasy you want your crepes, you can use either butter or oil to coat the pan. If you want rich, greasier crepes, or are making savoury crepes, use butter – melt butter in a small saucepan and dip a paper towel into it to wipe oil onto the pan. Otherwise, pour some vegetable oil into a glass, dip the paper towel, and wipe. Take a ladle and pour enough batter into the pan to coat the surface thinly – as you pour, grasp the pan by its handle and keep turning it to ensure even coating.
When the top of the crepe doesn’t look wet and slick and the edges have started to curl, check the underside of the crepe and flip it if it’s golden brown. Leave for a few minutes until golden brown spots appear on the underside. It is normal for air bubbles to form once you have flipped the crepe. It is also normal for the two sides of the crepe to look pretty different. A good crepe will be thin and crispy on the edges, but doughy and softer in the middle – if your crepe is universally crispy, add more flour. If your crepe is too pancake-like, add beer.
In between crepes, you want to wipe down the pan with oil or butter. If you like your crepes to be crispy near the edges, you can start adding filling now. There’s no limit to what you can add, but my favorites are nutella/bananas, jam, ham/swiss, or spinach/garlic cream. Pliable fillings like nutella and jam can be spread thinly onto the entire surface of the crepe, but if you’re working with solid fillings, stick to only spreading them onto half the crepe. Once the fillings are warmed, fold the crepe on itself so that you have a half-circle. Place on a plate and garnish with powdered sugar, herbs, extra cheese, etc.
If you like your crepes to be softer toward the edges, let it rest for about 10 minutes. It’s okay to pile crepes on top of each other as you’re cooking; they’ll soften just the same. When you’re ready to eat, put the crepe back on the pan, and follow the above instructions for filling.