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How-To

Classic French Crêpes Make Great Fast Food

Browning the butter gives the pancakes a deep, toasty flavor

Fine Cooking Issue 35
Photos: Joanne Smart & Martha Holmberg
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Crêpes are amazing. These paper-thin pancakes are fun to make, taste great, and always make what’s inside of them seem more special. And talk about versatile: they can be savory or sweet; plain or fancy; a first course, a main course, or a dessert. You can roll them, fold them, or layer them—and best of all, you can freeze them. Unlike their thicker breakfast cousins, these pancakes don’t suffer from the cold. Once defrosted, crêpes are once again pliable and delicious, ready to be rolled around your favorite filling.

Browned butter and a blender

Crêpes are essentially very thin pancakes. But since you want flat, not puffy, pancakes, there’s no leavener. And, instead of adding plain melted butter to the batter, as you do for most pancakes, I cook the butter until it’s golden brown and has a toasty fragrance, which gives the crêpes a nutty flavor.

I used to make my crêpe batter in a bowl, making a well with the dry ingredients and then adding the eggs and the milk. That method works fine, but I switched to using a blender. Not only is this method faster, but the results are also lighter, perhaps because more air is incorporated into the batter. For best results, have the ingredients at room temperature and don’t overmix them. Then, let the batter rest for half an hour before cooking to let the flour absorb the liquid, creating the most tender crêpe.

Stir in the key ingredient last. The butter makes the batter richer; browning it makes the crêpes intriguingly nutty.

A small, hot skillet and a twist of the wrist

I happen to have a set of pans made just for crêpes. They’re small—about 6 1/2 inches across, iron, practically flat, and well loved. I got mine in France, but you can find similar ones here. A small, nonstick skillet, the kind you may already use to make your omelets, works really well, too, and you can use less butter (if that’s a concern) to keep the pancakes from sticking to the pan.

The proper heat makes all the difference. You need a hot—but not too-hot—pan to make crêpes. Heat that’s too low won’t brown the crêpes, and the pancakes will take so long to cook that they’ll turn brittle and hard. Heat that’s too high won’t allow the batter to spread evenly in the pan and may cause holes in the crêpes. Start with the heat set to the high side of medium high, and adjust the flame as necessary during the cooking process. You’re looking for heat that causes the batter to form a film over the entire surface of the pan almost on contact.

Pour, swirl, and pour. Making crêpes is a two-handed task. With one hand you pour the batter into the pan, while with the other hand you quickly swirl the pan to distribute the batter evenly. Don’t be timid with the swirling. You’ll need to lift the pan off of the stove, and you’ll need to tilt it to get full coverage. You’ll need to do this in mere seconds to be able to pour off any excess batter—a step crucial to keeping the pancakes thin—before it sets. The extra batter can go right back into your pitcher of batter. This pouring off will give an otherwise perfectly round pancake a “tail” of batter, which is easy to cut off with the spatula if you don’t like the look.

A pitcher gives the batrter a straight shot into the pan. As you pour, lift the pan off the stove and tilt it to spread the batter around the pan.
After the pan is coated, pour any extra batter back into your pitcher.

Cook the crêpe until its underside is nicely browned. Cooking time will vary, but it usually takes one to two minutes to cook one side. You want to be sure that the edges of the crêpe look dry and that the center is set before flipping. I have asbestos fingers, so it’s easy for me to pry the set crêpe from the hot pan, lift it gently, and turn it to the other side to cook. The second side, which never browns as well as the first, will take about half as long to cook as the first, prettier, side. If you have tender fingertips, use a small spatula or a palette knife to lift and turn the pancakes.

Be ready to lose a few the first time around. Crêpes are easy once you get the hang of them, but you might sacrifice a little batter as you learn to gauge the pancake’s thickness, the heat of the pan, and the exact cooking time. (Even now, I occasionally drop one on the floor because of my exuberant flipping.)  

Charles Pierce can juggle four pans at a time. Once you get the hang of making crêpes one at a time, try using two pans at once to speed things up.

Create your own fillings

The beauty of crêpes is that they welcome many kinds of fillings. Try them hot off the griddle brushed with some soft sweet butter and jam, make up your own fillings, or try some of these suggestions.

Savory fillings for crêpes:
• Fill with sautéed spinach, mushrooms, or asparagus, simmered in cream until thickened.
• Fill with hunks of cooked crabmeat and ripe avocado.
• Line with a slice of ham, sprinkle with grated cheese, fold into a triangle, and heat until the cheese melts.
• Fill with leftover ratatouille, roll, sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese, and bake until warm.
• Spread with cream cheese mixed with dill and chives. Layer some thinly sliced smoked salmon. Roll and cut into slices for hors d’oeuvres.

Sweet fillings for crêpes:
• Spread with sweetened cream cheese or ricotta cheese mixed with lemon zest.
• Fill with chocolate ganache or chocolate mousse and serve with a crème anglaise.
• Fill with chopped fresh pineapple and bake in a butter-rum sauce.
• Stuff with pears, peaches, or ripe fresh berries that have been cooked with a little sugar. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.
• Spread with butter and orange marmalade, flash under the broiler, and dust with confectioners’ sugar for mock crêpes Suzette.

An immediate meal or a future treat

As the pancakes come off the heat, you can eat them right away spread with some butter or jam (or both) or quickly rolled around your favorite filling. More likely, you’ll want to let them cool either to stuff and bake them later that day or to refrigerate or freeze them for future use.

Don’t stack hot pancakes or the resulting steam will make them gummy and cause them to stick together. Cool the crêpes briefly on a rack and then stack them between sheets of waxed paper. Wrap them tightly in plastic and refrigerate them for up to a week. To freeze them, I wrap stacks of eight in plastic and then again in foil. This way, I can take out the number typically called for in recipes and leave the rest of my frozen batch undisturbed. Crêpes will keep for months in the freezer. Defrost them in the refrigerator until they’re pliable.

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