Cooking class went to pot the other day. It was a “flippin’ disaster.”
“Mom, it was so embarrassing. Everyone else could flip a crêpe, but mine kept sticking and folding in half,” Alex said.
When my fourteen-year-old son isn’t swimming or lifting weights, he’s eating. So, when the smell of brownies and cupcakes wafted through the hallways from the food science kitchen last semester, he made sure to sign up for the class this semester. Then, he realized that he’d need some mad cooking skills—skills that involve crêpe making and flipping.
“How do you do it, Mom? How do you make a perfect crêpe?”
“It’s easy. I don’t. I stay away from crêpes, things that you’re supposed to light on fire like Cherries Jubilee and Baked Alaska, complicated desserts, omelets, soufflés, and flan. I did make a Tortilla Española in a spring form cake pan once, but it didn’t exactly spring from the pan when it was done. Complete disaster.”
I can’t even describe the look on my son’s face when I told him this. His whole life he’s seen me go to the kitchen, toss back a couple of light beers, and whip up pizzas, chicken dishes, pastas, bread, cookies, soups, stews, pork in orange sauce, and sometimes a steak—all while blasting alternative rock music or Reggaeton. (Pitbull and a bottle of Corona are the inspiration behind my “Mr. 305 burritos.” ¡Dale!) Sure, sometimes I’ve entered baked goods in the county fair and have won a few ribbons, but I haven’t “got game.”
“It’s all smoke and mirrors,” I told him. “I’m not a cook or a chef. I can’t use a knife properly and I broke the food processor on your first birthday. Your first birthday cake was a Sara Lee.”
“You never had to take a cooking test?”
“A food safety test?”
“Do health inspectors come to the house when I’m at school?”
“How is it that you’re allowed in a kitchen?”
“Well, my mom got sick with the stomach flu one day when I was eight years old. I was hungry and wanted breakfast, so I heated tea on the stove and put toast in the toaster. I made some for my mom, too and she got better. I just did what I saw her do every day. I just watched. And, I’ll bet if we watched some videos and took some notes, we could make crêpes right here.”
Alex looked happy—a little too happy—like he smelled shenanigans. He couldn’t wait to see his mother attempt to flip a crêpe.
Before making the crêpes though, we had some research to do.
“Do you remember the recipe?” I asked Alex.
“Umm—eggs, some flour—I don’t know—you have to lift the pan up and keep swirling it around—it was hard. The teacher used lots of cooking spray too.”
I could only imagine. That poor food science teacher. Twenty-six teens in a kitchen—all arguing in groups at different ovens. I need to buy her some flowers. I couldn’t bother her with the recipe on a Sunday morning, either. She needed her rest.
Luckily, I have plenty of cookbooks—as well as the Internet—so I could probably recreate the recipe somehow. My first “stop” was Ken Albala’s “Food Rant” blog. He’s a food historian and DIYer extraordinaire, who not only cooks, but is a potter as well. He’s written several books—including one called Pancake: A Global History. Unfortunately, I did not have that book on hand, but I could run a “search” in his blog. When I typed in “crêpe,” a picture of some gorgeous blintzes he made popped up. The recipe included 1 ½ cups of flour, two eggs, vanilla, a teaspoon of baking powder, “a spoon or two of sugar,” “enough milk to make a light, thin batter,” and “a few tablespoons” of butter.
I figured the Joy of Cooking, sitting on my kitchen bookshelf would also have a recipe or two—as well as some history. Sure enough, editors Rombauer, Becker, and Becker include the following information on page 803 of my 1997 edition: “An ancient European dish, crêpes were brought to America by the first English settlers of the seventeenth century and continued to be enjoyed until the time of the Civil War.” However, it’s Elizabeth Lewandowski’s The Complete Costume Dictionary that helped me locate another version of the word crêpe. Most everyone will tell you that the crêpe is a “light, thin, pancake,” but it’s also a fabric. The “Cyprus crêpe” for instance, is a “fine, black silk crêpe worn as mourning veils or for hatbands, from the Renaissance (1450-1550 C. E.) to the Restoration (1660-1700)” ( Lewandowski 81). The edible version, of course, is pretty thin and paper-like, much like the material that also bears its name.
The batters for crêpes that I found did vary a bit. The Joy of Cooking includes ½ cup of flour, ½ cup of milk, ¼ cup lukewarm water, 2 large eggs, 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter, melted, and 1 ½ tablespoons of sugar—as well as a “Pinch of salt.” I also consulted the Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home cookbook, which features recipes Julia Child and Jacques Pepin make together. Crêpes are one of the featured dessert recipes. Their basic dessert crêpes include 1 cup of all-purpose flour, 2 large eggs, 1 egg yolk, ¾ cup of melted butter, 2 tablespoons of sugar, “A large pinch of salt,” and ¾ cup water.
“Alex, which recipe for the batter looks the closest?” I asked, when I showed my cookbooks to him.
“Oh, now I remember,” he said. “We watched Alton Brown’s Good Eats video on ‘crêpes.’ We basically used that recipe.”
Alex and I climbed the stairs to my office and watched the video on my computer. We took careful notes. Brown consulted a food scientist who specified that you must let the batter rest for an hour. The food scientist on the video said it helped the air bubbles in the batter work their way out.
“We didn’t do that, Mom. Class is only 50 minutes long, so we couldn’t do that part,” Alex said.
I was relieved to hear Alex say that because I didn’t have a whole lot of time to just let batter rest in my refrigerator.
Then, the food scientist mentioned something about baking powder.
“Did you use baking powder in your crêpe batter, Alex?”
“No,” he said.
I hadn’t seen any crêpe recipes so far that used baking powder or baking soda (with the exception of Ken Albala’s blintz recipe, which used baking powder.) Crêpes made with baking powder would perhaps be fluffier. While baking soda and baking powder are both leavening agents, which act as a base for acids like milk, they aren’t the same thing. Matt Shipman at NC State University writes in his 2014 Web article that baking soda acts all at once from the time it’s added. If you want an extended reaction or leavening process, he suggests baking powder, which rises over a longer period of time while baking.
Alton Brown didn’t use it in his recipe. We guessed he ignored the food scientist’s advice in that episode. However, he did use a blender, as the food scientist recommended. The blender would make for a smoother batter, but it was important to only let the blender run for 7-10 seconds, otherwise we would end up with a thick, tough batter.
Alton Brown’s resulting recipe went something like this:
1 cup of all-purpose flour
¾ cup of milk (We used whole milk because we thought it would yield a richer crêpe.)
½ cup of water
2 ½ tablespoons of sugar (for a dessert crêpe)
1 tsp of vanilla (for a dessert crêpe)
3 tablespoons butter (melted)
We actually let the ingredients rest at room temperature for a little bit so that they might be the same temperature when we made the batter and added them to the pan. We figured, in that way, the eggs might not curdle in the warm, melted butter.
I also made a blueberry sauce, which consisted of a package of frozen blueberries, a few squirts of lemon juice, and two tablespoons of granulated sugar. I had Alex mix that together over low heat, until it thickened and bubbled just a bit. I didn’t follow a recipe for this one. I just kind of threw it together.
Here are the steps we followed for making the crêpes, once we had all of the ingredients together:
1) We placed all of the ingredients (except for the blueberry sauce) into a blender and pulsed them on high for 7-10 seconds.
2) We melted butter in a nonstick pan over medium high heat.
3) Using a ¼ cup as a “ladle,” we poured the batter into the pan. Alex demonstrated how he learned to pour the batter into one side of the pan and swirl it about. Both he and Alton Brown insisted on moving the batter around the pan constantly. When the edges started to curl up and the top of the crepe started to look smooth and firm, we could flip. Alton Brown just confidently threw his crêpe into the air. Alex told me his food science teacher would not let the class do that. (Gee, I wonder why.) He said they used a spatula. Thank goodness. It only took a few seconds for the other side to cook. Special Note: The first one NEVER comes out right. Even Alton Brown said so. Ours didn’t, either. The second one, however, looked pretty good! Alex did a decent job!
4) We filled the crêpes with the blueberry sauce, rolled them up, and topped them with extra sauce and powdered sugar.
Alex even let me flip a crêpe or two. I ended up using the spatula AND my fingers. I didn’t even try to just flip the thing in the air, though Nate was daring me to do so. The kitchen was a battered mess by the end, but the crêpes, I think, would have passed inspection. Redemption accomplished? Heck to the flippin’ yes!
Your Turn: Any advice for crêpe making? How do you flip a crêpe? What’s the hardest thing for you to make in the kitchen? Post your response here.