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John Ash shares tips for making crepes

Mar 26, 2024Mar 26, 2024

Crepes as we know them originated in Brittany, France. They are thin pancakes made in dishes both sweet and savory and filled or topped with all kinds of preparations. Thin pancakes also show up in other cuisines, especially Asian. What would mu shu pork be without them? It makes sense that such a simple preparation of flour and water would have universal appeal.

When you visit France, you’ll see creperies everywhere, partly because they are inexpensive street food and also because they are delicious. They have migrated to the U.S., where successful chain restaurants now feature them because of their broad appeal and simplicity.

In France, the crepe is celebrated on Feb. 2, known as le jour des crepes, or “day of the crepes.” That date is also known as La Chandeleur, marking the return of daylight and the decline of winter. Families gather over a large dinner of crepes to celebrate their culture and the new season.

Traditional crepes in France are made with buckwheat flour, which has a primal, nutty flavor and texture. Despite its name, buckwheat isn’t a form of wheat. Buckwheat is technically a seed, according to the Whole Grains Council, although it’s also called a pseudocereal, not quite a grain but similar to one. Buckwheat is naturally gluten-free and generally safe to eat for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

Buckwheat’s advantage is that it grows in areas with harsh, unforgiving climates (like Brittany’s). It can be used in many recipes that call for wheat flour, yet it doesn’t work so well in making bread, where the usual choice is to mix it with wheat flour. Buckwheat does show up in many Asian recipes I love, including soba noodles and porridge.

Most crepes today are made mostly with wheat flour, but I suggest adding buckwheat flour, if you can, to honor the French roots. It’s available online and from Bob’s Red Mill, among other producers. It’s somewhat perishable, so keep it in your freezer.

Crepes come in two forms: sweet and savory. The savory crepes — galettes — are made with at least some buckwheat flour (up to ½) and traditionally contain egg, cheese and ham.

The modern sweet crepe uses only wheat flour, instead of the traditional buckwheat. Staying true to tradition, sweet crepes are normally filled with sugar, butter and lemon and garnished with fresh fruit.

Here is the basic recipe for all crepes. For sweet crepes, add a couple teaspoons of sugar. For savory, omit the sugar and add ½ teaspoon salt. Letting the batter rest before making the crepe is important, because it lets the flour hydrate.

As for choosing a crepe pan, you can buy a steel crepe pan but, like with cast-iron pans, they need to be seasoned so the crepe doesn’t stick. The best solution is a good nonstick 8- or 9-inch pan which you also can use for omelets and frico.

Makes 12 or so crepes

1 cup all-purpose flour, or ½ cup plus ½ cup buckwheat flour

3 large eggs

1 ¼ cups milk

3 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled

2 teaspoons sugar or ½ teaspoon salt

Neutral oil or oil spray, for the pan

In a blender, combine the milk, eggs, flour, butter and salt or sugar until smooth. Be sure to scrape the sides of the blender bowl to free up any flour. Cover and store the mixture in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 day.

Lightly grease a medium nonstick skillet and heat over medium heat.

Once heated, add ¼ cup of crepe batter, swirling the skillet so it spreads evenly across the bottom of the pan.

Cook until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes, then use a spatula and your fingers to flip the crepe, allowing the other side to cook for about 1 to 2 minutes, or until cooked through.

Transfer to a plate and repeat with the remaining batter. If making ahead, separate crepes with squares of waxed or parchment paper.

Let’s start with sweet crepes, a no-brainer for Valentine’s Day.

Here is a simple recipe that uses vertically sliced strawberries, giving a shape that suggests a heart. You also could add a spoonful of Nutella to the filling and top with a spoon of sour cream or crème fraîche. Use your imagination!

Makes 4 servings

8 crepes (see Basic Crepe Recipe)

Powdered sugar

Lemon wedges, to squeeze over

2 cups stemmed and sliced strawberries

Warm the crepes in a 225-degree oven for a few minutes. Fold or roll and dust with a generous amount of powdered sugar. Squeeze lemon over, garnish with sliced strawberries and serve.

The curd recipe below makes more than you’ll need for this recipe. But then you’ll have some on hand to spread on scones, etc.!

Makes 6 - 8 servings

12 - 16 crepes (see Basic Crepe Recipe)

Lemon Curd (recipe follows)

Blueberry Sauce (recipe follows)

Powdered sugar, for dusting

Lay crepes slightly apart on a clean counter, pale side up. Place 2 tablespoons or so of the Lemon Curd on the bottom half of each crepe. Fold top half over to make a half moon and then fold once more to make a triangle and enclose the filling.

Place in a single layer on a lightly buttered baking sheet and warm crepes through in a preheated 350-degree oven, 5 to 7 minutes. Arrange 2 filled crepes on each plate, spoon Blueberry Sauce around and dust with powdered sugar. Serve immediately.

Note: You can forego heating the crepes and serve at room temperature, if you like.

Makes about 3 cups

1 cup fresh lemon juice

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon cornstarch

3 whole eggs

3 egg yolks

½ teaspoon salt

6 ounces unsalted butter, cut into small bits

1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest

Whisk first six ingredients together and strain. Place mixture in a stainless-steel bowl and set over (not on) simmering water. Whisk in butter and zest. Continue whisking until mixture thickens, 5 to 7 minutes. Off heat, whisk for a minute more to cool slightly, then place in sterilized jars. Cover and store, refrigerated, for up to 3 weeks.

Makes about 1½ cups

3 cups fresh or frozen IQF blueberries

⅓ cup powdered sugar, or to taste, plus more for dusting

3 tablespoons red wine or water

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

In a small saucepan, combine orange juice, zest, butter and sugar. Place over high heat and bring to boil; reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer until syrupy, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Fold crepes into quarters and arrange beautifully in a nonreactive skillet or other shallow flameproof pan. Pour warm syrup on top (reserve syrup pan), and place over low heat until crepes are warm, about 5 minutes.

Warm liqueur in the pan that held the orange syrup. When crepes are hot, pour liqueur on top. Carefully touch a flame to the surface to light it. Avert your face! Serve immediately, spooning crepes and sauce onto each of 4 warm plates, with cheers from your guests.

You can make the crepes for the blintzes a couple days ahead. Stack them on a plate, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate. You also can make the blintzes themselves ahead and store them, refrigerated and covered with plastic wrap, for up to 3 days.

Makes 6 servings

For the cheese filling

1¼ pounds drained whole-milk ricotta or farmers cheese

1 large egg, beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

¼ teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons finely grated orange zest (use a micro plane)

⅓ cup chopped golden raisins or dried cherries

To prepare

12 crepes

2 tablespoons each of neutral vegetable oil and butter

Optional suggested toppings:

Crème fraîche, sour cream or slightly sweetened Greek yogurt

Fresh seasonal fruits of any kind

Powdered sugar

Powdered cocoa

Maple syrup

Fruit syrups

Reduced balsamic vinegar

Drops of lemon juice

Combine the filling ingredients in a bowl and set aside. When ready to serve, fill the crepes with a heaping tablespoon of the cheese filling, then fold the top and bottom, followed by the sides, over the filling to enclose and make a compact package. Store seam side down in the refrigerator until ready to cook.

Place a skillet over medium heat for a couple minutes. Add a bit of oil, melt in a bit of butter and fry the filled blintzes for 5 minutes or so on each side, until they are golden and crisp. You may need to do this in batches. Serve warm with any of the suggested toppings.

Now for savory crepes, starting with a classic ingredient combination: ham and cheese.

You can make plain crepes up to three days ahead of time and store them in the refrigerator, wrapped in plastic.

Makes 2 servings

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, divided

4 large eggs

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 cooked basic crepes (see Basic Crepe Recipe)

4 ounces grated Gruyère or other good melting cheese, divided

4 thin slices good ham or prosciutto, divided

Chopped fresh chives, for garnish

Warm the crepes in a 225-degree oven.

To make the filling, melt the butter in a saucepan and add the flour, stirring with a wire whisk. When it’s blended, add the broth and sherry, stirring rapidly with the whisk. Let the mixture simmer, stirring often, about 8 minutes. Add the cream, sherry, salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne, to taste.

Add the chicken and reheat gently. Divide filling among the 8 crepes and fold or roll into neat packages. Top with grated cheese and serve immediately.

Crespelle are the Italian version of French crepes. Found in Tuscany and other places in Italy, they make an easy and delicious alternative to pasta. The quality of the ricotta is all-important. I like the sheep’s or cow's milk versions from Bellwether Farms.

Makes 4 servings

1 16-ounce tub whole-milk ricotta

1¼ cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

¼ cup chopped fresh basil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

3 cups marinara sauce, either homemade or store-bought

8 crepes or crespella

Place ricotta in a strainer over a large bowl and allow to drain for at least 3 hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

In a large bowl, combine the drained ricotta with ¾ cup of the Parmigiano, the basil and salt and pepper, to taste. Mix well.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Ladle 1 cup of the marinara sauce into a 13-inch-by-9-inch baking dish. Place 2 heaping tablespoons of the ricotta mixture into the middle of each crespella and fold to form a half circle. Fold in half again to make a triangle. Place crespelle into the dish and repeat with remaining crespelle, slightly overlapping them. Pour the remaining 2 cups of marinara sauce over and around and sprinkle the remaining Parmigiano over. Bake until lightly browned and bubbling, about 20 minutes. These also can be covered with plastic, refrigerated and baked the next day.

Known as Bánh xèo (bahn SAY-oh), this is a popular street snack in Vietnam. Banh means “cake” and xeo refers to the sizzling sound the crepe makes when it’s cooked. It’s typically served with fresh lettuce, basil, mint and nuoc cham dipping sauce, the recipe for which follows. Be sure to use Asian white rice flour, which is very fine. Regular supermarket rice flour is too coarse.

Makes 4 servings

For the crepe batter

1 cup white rice flour

½ teaspoon white sugar

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground turmeric

1 cup coconut milk

⅔ cup water, or as needed

For the filling

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided, or as needed

2 tablespoons minced shallot or green onion

2 cloves garlic, minced, or more to taste

¾ pound 21 to 25 size shrimp, peeled, deveined and halved lengthwise

2 tablespoons fish sauce, or more to taste

Salt, to taste

6 ounces mung bean sprouts

4 lettuce leaves, or as needed

Fresh basil sprigs (preferably Thai basil)

Fresh mint sprigs

Make the crepe batter: Mix rice flour, sugar, salt and turmeric in a large bowl. Whisk in coconut milk until thick. Slowly beat in water until it reaches the consistency of heavy cream, adding more water if needed. Let sit for 30 minutes for flour to hydrate.

Make the filling: Heat 1½ tablespoons oil in a large 9- to 10-inch skillet (preferably nonstick) over medium-high heat. Add shallot and garlic. Cook and stir until softened but not browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Add shrimp and saute until cooked through and just opaque, 2 to 3 minutes. Season with fish sauce and salt. Transfer filling to a bowl.

Preheat the oven to 225 degrees. Wipe out the skillet and reheat over medium heat. Add half of the remaining ½ tablespoon oil. Stir crepe batter and pour ½ cup into the hot skillet, swirling to coat the bottom. Lay 3 or 4 cooked shrimp on the bottom half of the crepe. Top with a small handful of bean sprouts. Cover and cook until batter appears set and edges start to brown, minutes. Gently fold crepe over and slide onto an oven-safe plate.

Place filled crepe in the preheated oven to keep warm. Repeat with remaining oil, batter, shrimp and bean sprouts. Serve crepes with lettuce leaves. Break off pieces of crepe and roll them up in lettuce to eat along with basil and mint. Serve with Nuoc Cham on the side for dipping.

Makes about 1 cup

½ cup fresh lime juice

4 tablespoons Asian fish sauce, Red Boat preferred

1 teaspoon minced fresh red chile, or to taste

2 teaspoons finely minced garlic

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

5 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

1 tablespoon cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

Combine all ingredients and stir until sugar is dissolved. Let stand at least 30 minutes before serving, for flavors to develop. Adjust salt, sweet, tart and hot flavors to your taste.