Whenever I think back to the three days I spent in Paris back in 2010, my memories always seem to be one of two extremes. Some of them are wonderful and nearly surreal like cheese, baguettes, and perhaps a little too much wine beneath the Eiffel tower, walking for hours along Christmas markets, morning croissants, and gazing awestruck at the cavernous ceilings of the Notre Dame. Others are not quite as nice. Sleeping in shanty hostels with paper-thin walls and overtones of cigarettes and mold, viewing Versailles though an impenetrable blanket of rain and fog, oh yeah and getting cornered and screamed at by the metro police because they were certain I jumped the barriers (I did not, for the record).
With these memories, so profoundly great in their goodness and badness, I sometimes forget to note the smaller details of Paris, the nuances of its food, architecture and people that make it the amazingly beautiful and almost dreamlike city that it is. One of these small details of Paris are crepes. With a creperie booth in nearly every street corner, they appeared as commonplace as a hotdog cart in any US city. Yet, as it was Paris, the crepes seemed to transcend commonplace. I’m sure that there were most likely much better crepes in nice cafes and restaurants. I’m sure that the street versions were probably mediocre in the realm of all things crepe. Yet I happened to overlook the fact that the guy making looked bored out of his mind, cold, and tired of fulfilling tourist’s desires for this “authentic Parisian cuisine” and I instead enjoyed these crepes as if I were experiencing some rare and valued cultural treat.
I was in awe of the expansive cast iron crepe griddles and the way that the maker swirled the batter paper thin with a dowel rod. I was salivating in anticipation as he smeared heaping spoonfuls of Nutella and cut slices of over ripened banana overtop. He folded the crepe in half, then again and again and plopped this warm, oozing chocolaty cone of crepe into my hand, but not before swiftly taking his 4-euro payment, of course. The crepe was squishy and spongy and becoming nicely soggy every minute as the Nutella seeped into its pores. It warmed me to the core as the cold wind blowing across the Seine cut through all 5 layers of my clothing. The last bite, that little corner at the bottom of the cone was a molten pool of Nutella and sickeningly sweet.
In the two years that have passed since my Parisian crepe experience, I have not attempted any sort of European pancake at home. My general lack of the obligatory 14-inch diameter crepe pan may be to blame as well as a sense that I could never achieve the same sort of perfection, the soft sparingly texture and unearthly thinness. Yet in the last few months, I’ve seen crepes everywhere, especially savory buckwheat versions (more properly called galettes). On television I watched as they were filled with ham and Gruyere, I read about a lovely cream cheese and smoked salmon interior, and ate, with much enthusiasm, a wonderfully curious ensemble of pulled pork, vinegar slaw, and blueberry compote all tucked inside. And then, after finally purchasing a bag of buckwheat flour, I made my own crepes with much success.
The recipe is from Alice Waters and is just about perfect. It has an unexpected addition of beer, which accentuates the lightless of the finished crepe. And even using a very old nonstick pan that has nearly reached the end of it nonstick capabilities, I was able to lift them straight off the pan with my fingers without a glitch. They are certainly savory themselves but lend well to both savory and sweet fillings. For dinner, I filled them with small cubes of maple roasted sweet potato and sharp cheddar cheese, rolled them into cylinders, popped them into the oven to let the cheese melt, and topped them with toasted walnuts and a drizzle of real maple syrup. The sweetness of the potatoes and the syrup contrasted the slight bitterness of the buckwheat and the salty cheesiness. They were comforting and filling. I had plenty of plain crepes leftover too and enjoyed them for breakfast, heated briefly in the microwave and smeared with cream cheese and pumpkin butter (jam would be great too). It may not have been quite like paris but hey, at least I got to eat these in the warm comfort of my home. That must be a plus, right?
Buckwheat Crepes (and filling)
Makes about 10-12 medium sized crepes with filling recipe from The Bojon Gourmet via Alice Waters
A quick note that the batter, like all crepe batter, NEEDS to rest in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours after mixing. This allows the gluten to relax which make for the optimum thin, chewy, and pliable crepe. Also, the crepes, once cooked, keep well in the refrigerator if they are folded into quarters and placed in a covered dish. You could also assemble the entire dish the day before and reheat in the morning for a quick and easy brunch.
1 cup milk, divided
½ stick (4 Tbs) unsalted butter, melted
½ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
¼ cup plus 2 Tbs buckwheat flour
¼ cup plus 2 Tbs all-purpose flour
¼ cup plus 2 Tbs spelt flour
1½ tsp vegetable oil
½ cup beer (lager would be best but I only had wheat beer around and used that…it worked just fine)
3 sweet potatoes, cut into ½ inch cubes
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 Tbs pure maple syrup (plus extra for drizzling)
salt and pepper
6 oz shredded cheddar cheese
Combine ½ cup of the milk with the melted butter, salt, sugar, the three flours, eggs, oil, and beer in a blender. Blend on high until very smooth. Pour the batter into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours (can sit overnight too).
Once the batter is rested, remove from the refrigerator and stir in the remaining ½ cup of milk. Heat a medium (8” to 10”) nonstick skillet over medium heat. While it’s heating, pour some vegetable oil into a bowl and get a pastry brush. Once the pan is evenly heated, brush a small amount of oil onto the pan. While holding the pan in one hand, pour ¼ cup of batter into the center and immediately start swirling the batter around the pan until it coats the entire surface. If there is extra, pour the remaining back into the bowl of batter. If it doesn’t spread around the pan easily, add a little more milk to the batter.
Place the pan back onto the heat and let the crepe cook for about 30 to 45 seconds. Once the top surface looks a little dry, its ready to flip. Use a spatula to loosen an edge and quickly use your fingers to flip the crepe to the other side. Let it cook on the other side for just another 30 seconds. When it is done, fold the crepe into quarters and place on a large plate and cover with a large pot lid to keep warm and soft. Continue the process, brushing the pan with a little oil for each crepe, until the batter is used up.
For the filling, preheat the oven to 425. Toss the sweet potatoes with the oil, maple syrup, and salt and pepper and spread out on a baking sheet. Bake for 20-25 minutes until tender. To assemble the crepe, place a spoonful of the sweet potatoes in a line across the center of the crepe and sprinkle with some of the cheddar and some toasted walnuts. Roll into a log shape and place in a casserole dish. Once all assembled in the casserole, you can sprinkle with any remaining cheese overtop and place in a 350 degree oven for about 5 minutes to let the cheese melt. Remove from the oven and serve the crepes with a drizzle of syrup and a nice salad