Tuesday, March 8, 2011

I said crêpes not creeps!


“There’s a thing I’ve dreamed of all my life, and I’ll be damned if it don’t look like it’s about to come true—to be King of the Zulu’s parade.  After that, I’ll be ready to die.”
-Louis Armstrong, quoted in Time Magazine, February 21, 1949


For those of you who have been living under a rock the past of couple of weeks, first of all, Charlie Sheen has taken over the world; and secondly, it’s Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, today.  While most people are familiar with the carnival in Venice, Rio de Janeiro or New Orleans, many countries have some tradition of feasting before the beginning of the Lenten fast.  And if you observe Lent, just be glad that you didn’t live in an earlier era. You would have to abstain from anything that makes food worth eating: fat, meat, eggs, dairy products, sugar, booze, etc. Think of it as vegan gone on steroids.
Luckily, you get to eat some serious yummies before you reach the desert of dessert.  In various parts of across the world (UK, Scandinavia. Canada, parts of the US, Portugal, etc.), Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day is celebrated instead of Mardi Gras.  For Americans, the pancake is raised with baking powder, but for most of Europe, when people talk pancakes, they’re talking crêpes. Regardless if it’s Shrove Tuesday[1], Festelavn, Fasching or Pancake Day, the message is the same – it’s pancake time.
Like many other basic foods, crêpes are not the easiest thing to master.  While a basic crêpe can be made readily, the ones that you remember from your college trip to France?  That’s comes from years of crêpe making as well as some basic knowledge of kitchen science. Crêpes are basically in the same family of batter, pan-fried goods, such as waffles, pancakes, crumpets, etc.  The difference lies in the type of leavening, proportions of liquid to flour, and method of mixing.  Crêpes are the simplest in this category.  There is no chemical leavening (e.g. baking powder, yeast), have the most amount of liquid and involves the least amount of handling. 
The key to a good crêpe really lies in letting the protein and starch molecules to absorb the water and disperse air bubbles.  This ensures a delicate but flexible structure when cooked.  But how do you achieve this?  Ask any Frenchie – let it sit, sit, sit.  The longer it batter rests the more time it has to absorb all the water for a uniform chemical structure when cooked.  Furthermore, the escape of air bubbles insures that the batter does not have any miniature gas bubbles to expand and break your crêpe when cooked.
The rest is fairly elementary.  Make sure you have a non-stick skillet.  This is absolutely necessary, otherwise you are in danger of making greasy, torn crêpes.  Also, have a pastry brush to make sure the pan gets an even coating of fat, thus browning properly (and also making sure it doesn’t stick).  And while it is extremely helpful, but not necessary, try to find a wide crêpe spatula.  It will help you avoid the “@#&$%!” when trying to flip your crêpe properly (especially if you make large crêpes). And the last bit—make sure that pan is HOT.  Electric stoves stink for this purpose because they do not get hot enough (this is the same reason why if you stir-fry, an electric stove is useless) and do not regulate the heat evenly enough.
Now you have the perfect crêpe, fill it.  Lemon juice and sugar is my favorite, but others are sworn Nutella junkies. Marmalade, chocolate, cajeta are also good choices.  Leftover meat and cheese make a great filling, as well as any other stew/braised dish (think alu chole, boeuf bourguignon, creamed spinach, etc.)  Make sure the filling is not too liquid, because it will make a crazy mess when you fold it over.
Even if you can’t get to Rio, you can now celebrate Carnival in culinary style.  Whoop it up!

Crêpes

I would like to thank blogger Frenchie But Chic for her superb crêpe recipe.  I have tried others, and frankly, I am happiest with this one.  To reiterate, let it sit for at least an hour.  Overnight is the best, and if the batter seems too thick, just stir in a little water or milk to make it the right consistency.

3 1/2 c. of pastry flour
3 to 4 c. milk (do not use skim)
3 eggs
1 tbs. neutral vegetable oil
pinch of salt
For sweet crêpes, you can add 1-2 tsp. of liquor or flavoring of your choice (Grand Marnier, vanilla, rose water, etc.)
For savory crêpes, you can add a handful of chopped herbs (tarragon, chives, parsley, etc.)
Neutral oil for cooking

1.     In a large bowl, blend flour, 3 1/2 c. of milk, eggs, oil and salt (and liquor if you are making sweet crêpes) with a hand-held mixer until smooth.  The batter should have the consistency of thin pancake batter.
2.     Cover the top of the bowl with plastic wrap and let the mixture sit in the fridge for AT LEAST an hour.  The longer the better.
3.     Take the batter out of the fridge, and stir well. If you are making savory crêpes, this is the time to add chopped herbs to your batter.
4.     Take a large, non-stick skillet and oil the pan lightly with a pastry brush.  Heat the pan over medium-high heat and when the oil has a sheen (but not smoking) take about a 1/2 c. of batter and pour into the pan.  Swirl the pan around to create a thin pancake.
5.     Cook for about 2-3 minutes, or until the sides of the crêpe start curling on the edges.  Flip the crêpe over with a spatula and cook the other side for a minute more.
Curling edges--Time to Flip!
6.     Repeat with the rest of the batter and place finished crêpes on a plate with wax or baking paper between them to prevent sticking.

Folding

For sweet crêpes: Take a finished crêpe and spread filling on top.  Fold the crêpe in half, then into quarters.  Ready to eat!
For savory crêpes: After flipping over the crêpe, add a thin layer of whatever filling you have unto the crêpe. Turn down the heat to medium low (to prevent the crêpe from burning while the filing warms), and fold the crêpe in half.  Fold in half again carefully into quarters.  It’s important not to overfill the crêpe, otherwise your filling will spill all over the place.  Alternatively, you can fold the crêpe like an envelope.  Place filling in the middle of the crêpe. Fold top third down and the bottom third up. Then fold the sides up (it will look like a burrito). Place on plate seam side down.


[1] According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word shrove is the past tense of the archaic term shrive, meaning to hear penance or confession by a priest.  As is the tradition for Lent, fasting is the bodily manifestation of Christ’s sufferings, thus, fasting or some type ritual penitence before the death and resurrection of Christ.