Culinary school 101: crêpes, two ways

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Ahh, the crêpe! The French answer to the American pancake, crêpes are thinner, eggier and, in my opinion, more versatile. I guess I’ve never tried a savory pancake and there are probably tons of awesome recipes out there, but for me, nothing beats a thin and crispy buckwheat crêpe filled with whatever savory ingredients my heart desires. Usually it’s ham, egg and cheese. Sometimes it’s bacon and caramelized onions, or even egg, olive and spicy guacamole. A crêpe is the perfect envelope for whatever you’re craving, and I’m going to tell you how make them according to my newest culinary bible, “La Cuisine de Référence,” otherwise known as the official guidebook for French culinary students.

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So yes, the title of this post promises crêpes, two ways. That’s because whether you’re just using flour or decide to go all out and use buckwheat flour, a sweet crêpe is not made for savory toppings, and vice versa. The procedure is exactly the same, just add or omit the sugar depending on what you want. I highly recommend buckwheat flour if it’s readily available in your area. It has a great flavor and some nice health benefits as well!

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Before going to culinary school, I, like most people in France, knew that crêpes didn’t have a recipe. It’s all about eye-balling your batter, adding just enough egg to hold them together without them actually tasting like an omelette, a tiny bit of oil because that’s just what you do, and then dumping in the milk until you reach that perfect, thin texture. I will admit that even after I learned the magic of crêpes, when I make them at home, I rarely measure. Once you see what a perfect batter should look like, you can pretty much make it in your sleep. The big difference between my crêpes before, and my crêpes now, is, of course, the method.

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Perfect crêpes must not have lumps of flour. Since they’re so much thinner than a pancake (and for pancakes, I’ve seen many a recipe tell me not to worry about lumps), the slightest lump will make itself blatantly obvious when the crêpe comes out of the pan. Over-mixing a crêpe batter is also a big no-no, so how do we banish the lumps? Here’s where the method comes in. Crêpe batter is first made into a thick paste and stirred into a perfectly smooth, sticky mess before milk is added, a little bit at a time, thinning the batter slowly and preventing lumps. The best part, browned butter, is added right at the very end. The last and most important tips are to let your batter rest for at least 30 minutes, and to preheat your pan for at least five before attempting to cook them up.

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Culinary school 101: crêpes, two ways
Traditional recipe from “La Cuisine de Référence”

Ingredients (makes 8-10 crêpes):
1 1/3 C flour (or buckwheat flour, for savory crêpes)
1 1/2 C milk, room temperature
Pinch of salt
1 T sugar (optional, for sweet crêpes)
2 eggs, room temperature
2 T butter

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First off, decide if you want sweet or savory crêpes. I often make a batch of each; the batter will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days, just make sure to leave it in a bowl and press some saran wrap directly onto the batter to avoid getting a crust. The method is the same: in a large bowl, add the flour, salt (even in sweet crêpes!) and sugar if using. Stir to combine (do not use a whisk at this point!). Add the eggs and begin to stir your crêpe batter. It will be too dry to come together, so you’ll want to add just enough milk to make that happen. Start by adding 1/4 C and stirring again, adding more if needed. Once your batter starts to come together, stir it for about 2-3 minutes until the mixture is perfectly smooth and lump-free.

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During this time, brown your butter! Place the butter in a small pot over medium-low heat. Let the butter melt, keeping a close eye on it. Once the foam (milk fats) starts to subside, watch it like a hawk (and smell it, too!). Swirl the pot around a bit if need be to help distribute heat evenly. A couple of minutes later, you’ll notice little brown bits beginning to form; take it off the heat immediately to avoid burning the milk fats, which can be toxic!

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Let your butter cool slightly before you go to the next step. This is less important if the eggs and milk were at room temperature, but the thermic shock of warm butter and cold batter can mean that you’re crêpes will separate and the butter will be difficult to incorporate. While the butter is cooling, slowly start adding the rest of the milk to your batter. Mix with a wooden spoon until the batter is thin enough to whisk; break out your whisk and continue adding milk until the batter is thin but still coats a spoon. The batter should be light and you should see bubbles in it. Now you can gently whisk in your brown butter. Immediately after, place saran wrap on the crêpe batter and let it rest in the fridge for at least thirty minutes.

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When you’re ready to eat your crêpes, preheat a non-stick pan over medium high heat for at least five minutes. I use a 1/3 measuring cup to drop my batter into the pan. Once hot, wipe the pan down with vegetable oil if you’re not 100% confident in it’s non-stick coating, then drop the crêpe batter in the middle, pick up the pan and swirl it around until you’ve covered the entire surface. Don’t use too much batter, you should just be able to coat the pan without too much excess. If need be, use a spatula to spread the batter evenly throughout the pan. Now, we wait. Let the crêpe cook untouched until tiny bubbles begin to appear, about 3-4 minutes. Turn the crêpe over and let cook 2-3 minutes longer.

As for toppings and add-ins, you can either cook all of the crêpes first, then throw them back in the pan with toppings when you’re ready to eat, or make each crêpe as you go. On our crêpe nights, we make as we go, eating in the kitchen next to the stove so we can still chat and enjoy our hot crêpes right out of the pan. In this case, once you turn your crêpe over, simply add your savory or sweet ingredients, letting the crêpe cook for a couple of minutes and warming your ingredients too. I usually start with my egg, let it cook through, then add ham, cheese, caramelized onions, bacon, etc. After 2-3 minutes, fold the crêpe in two, let it cook a minute or so longer and serve immediately with a dab of butter on top.

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