Poor crepes. In some circles they still have a bad name. Maybe it’s Pancake Parlour’s fault or maybe it was the ’70s when every home cook tried to make crepes and vol-au-vents filled with a thickened chicken stodge that was, frankly, not quite right. That stigma aside, when this dish makes its way onto the restaurant floor, it makes many people very happy, in a soft, nostalgic and comforting way.
I grew up eating fantastic crepes. My mother was a dab hand at them, and I would wait at her elbow as she twisted and turned and rolled the batter around in her special crepe pans. Every so often she would flip a warm crepe onto my plate, on which I would squeeze lemon and sprinkle sugar, then roll it up and happily eat. Often she would be making a version of this recipe, something that obviously still lingers in my memory.
This dish calls for buckwheat crepes, known in France as galettes. The batter is quite different to a standard white flour only version. It’s best if it is made the night before, and at time of use should have the consistency of thickened cream but with a slightly odd mucilaginous texture. Once you start making your crepes, the first one will probably be a dud. But persevere – as you get the right amount of butter and heat in your pan, and then the right amount of mixture, the beautiful rhythm of crepe-making will come into your life. It is to me one of the most satisfying exercises in the kitchen, rolling the batter around the pan, waiting for the bubbles to come through and then flipping it over, placing it on a rack and starting again.
Once these crepes are made, they are “buttered” with a little Dijon mustard, rolled with good leg ham and grated Gruyere, placed in a baking dish and then smothered with bechamel sauce and more grated Gruyere. Familiar ingredients you may think? Indeed, they are exactly the same as the parts of that other very classic French favourite, the croque monsieur. Perhaps that is why they bring that sense of comfort to the dining room when I serve them. At home they are great for an autumnal supper served with a crisp, sharply dressed salad. For vegetarians, substitute the ham for a sauté of mushrooms and spinach.
Like most foundation-style recipes, these crepes are not just good for the aforementioned dish. If you add about one tablespoon of castor sugar to the batter, they are terrific for a sweet dish. Serve them warm with lemon and sugar, or with strawberries tossed in a little butter, sugar and lemon juice over a medium heat, or maybe even with some prunes soaked in Armagnac as well as Chantilly cream.
- 500ml milk
- 3 large eggs
- 80g unsalted butter, melted
- 70g buckwheat flour
- 105g plain flour
- 1/4 tsp sea salt
- a little extra butter
- 30g butter, chopped
- 40g plain flour
- 550ml milk
- 40g parmesan cheese, finely grated
- 1/4 tsp salt
- good pinch ground nutmeg
- 250g sliced leg ham
- 250g Gruyere, grated
- 4 tbsp Dijon mustard
- Whisk the milk, eggs and melted butter together. Place flours and salt into a bowl, make a well in the centre and whisk in the liquid ingredients. Whisk until you have a smooth batter. Cover and chill overnight.
- To fry the crepes, remove the batter from the refrigerator about an hour before frying. Stir it briskly. It should be the consistency of heavy cream. If it is too thick, dilute it with a little more milk.
- Heat a 22-centimetre cast iron or non-stick pan on the stovetop. Drop a tiny piece of butter into the hot pan and swirl about. Lift the pan and pour a quarter cup of the batter in the middle of the hot skillet, swirling the pan to distribute the batter quickly and evenly. The pan shouldn’t be too hot or too cold – the batter should start cooking within a few seconds, giving you just enough time to swirl it.
- After about a minute, run a non-stick spatula around the underside of the rim of the crepe, then flip the crepe over. Let the crepe cook on the flip side for about 30 seconds, then slide it onto a cooling rack. Repeat, cooking the remaining batter, stirring it every so often as you go.
- Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until foaming. Add the flour. Cook, stirring, for one to two minutes or until bubbling. Remove from the heat.
- Slowly add the milk, whisking constantly, until the mixture is smooth. Return to the heat. Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, for 10 to 12 minutes or until the sauce comes to the boil, thickens and coats the back of a wooden spoon.
- Remove from the heat. Stir in the parmesan, salt and nutmeg.
- Preheat oven to 180ºC.
- Butter a baking dish that will hold 16 rolled crepes. Spread a little Dijon on each crepe, place some ham and a sprinkle of grated Gruyere. Make sure you leave some grated cheese for the top. Arrange the rolled crepes snugly in the baking dish, smear the bechamel over the top, and then scatter the cheese. Bake for about 20 minutes, until golden brown.
- Serve with a crisp green salad.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 7, 2018 as "Crepe crusader".
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