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Thursday, October 18, 2007

France, Je t’aime

There was that very first time I heard French being spoken on the street, in France. I will never forget it. A tidal wave of happiness washed over me. It was thrilling for this Francophile, let me tell you.

Since the sixth grade when a family tree school project led to the discovery, far back on my father's side, of a great uncle who had been married to a French Woman, I have been obsessed with All Things French. (A typical sixth-grader...there had been a swift change of allegiance--fourth and fifth grades were dominated by a fascination with All Things Egyptian, more specifically, All Things Cleopatra. My dream was to see Egypt. But then in the blink of an eye, it was time to move on. C'est la vie.) French classes started in seventh grade and continued all the way through high school and I dragged the same dreamy, soft focus poster of the Eiffel Tower with me from high school, to college, to my first apartment in Boston. (Of course, then there was that embarrassing realization in my late twenties that posters, were...well... not really 'home decor'. Sadly, the poster hit the dustbin. But wait! A handsome, FRAMED, vintage photograph of the Tour d'Eiffel took its place!)

So it will come as no surprise when I tell you how much I love crepes. It has already been established that I adore pancakes and, um, well, these are French pancakes, people! But, I have been reluctant to make them at home. Not really sure why, except that somehow I was convinced you had to have a special crepe pan. In my tiny, urban kitchen, real estate is precious, so there is no wok, no rice cooker, no ice cream maker, no crock pot. The I-have-only-one-purpose appliance or pan is pretty much off limits.

Perhaps it was The Magic Pan that made me think a special set-up was required to make crepes. Does anyone remember The Magic Pan? My mother would sometimes take me there for crepes and it was as if I had died and gone to heaven. There were savory crepes, sweet crepes…the entire menu was crepes! It was a creperie, and the ultimate sophistication for my teen-aged self. At the front of the restaurant, there was an interesting gas flame ring, above which circled maybe a dozen crepe pans. A chef-guy standing in the middle would dip a pan into crepe batter, set it on the ring, where it would slowly rotate over the gas flames, and by the time it had circled back to the guy, he would toss a hot, finished crepe on a stack. Witnessed at an early, impressionable age, this could perhaps be the foundation of my belief that crepes are only to be made with fancy pans.

Then there were the trips to Paris, where the tantalizing fragrance wafting across the sidewalks from the crepe street vendors would torment me regularly, until I would eventually buckle (I’m not really a big street food person), order a crepe with Nutella and eat it standing on the curb. The street vendors there use those large hot, plate/griddle crepe-making things. Basically, it’s a large, hot disk on which batter is spread in a thin layer. The smell of a crepe sizzling on this griddle is nothing short of divine.

Lately, I’ve been yearning for crepes. The craving had only grown stronger recently when I placed my usual Zingerman’s order for olive oil, vinegar and (for no real reason) a jar of Dulce de Leche from Argentina. Initially I had no plan for the jar of rich and creamy caramel, but as I kept seeing it sitting on the pantry shelf, it dawned on me that this could be the perfect crepe filling.

As far as I know, my beloved Magic Pan has long been out of business and Chicago has yet to develop a strong crepe-making street vendor corps. I was describing this grim scenario to my French friend, Nathalie, while we sat at Wrigley Field not long ago, polishing off a plastic tray of tortilla chips and what looked to be microwaved Velveeta. Nathalie, gave me one of her wonderfully expressive French shrugs, waving away my making-crepes-at-home apprehension. (If I studied this shrug for years, and practiced it every day in front of a mirror, I could never hope to achieve a fraction of the range of meaning she so effortlessly tosses off with one shrug. It’s something to see.)

According to Nathalie, French people make crepes at home…and, get this…IT IS SO EASY. I listened eagerly, hanging on her every word. (If it includes the term “easy”, you know I’m in.) She said you basically whirl up a simple batter in the blender, whenever convenient, earlier in the day, and then keep it in the fridge until you are ready to whip out a few crepes. No fancy pan, needed…just a simple non-stick. Wow. This was big.

So, last week, ready to take the plunge, I grabbed Mark Bittman’s book The Best Recipes in the World, and sure enough, there was a simple recipe for a crepe batter. Bittman also suggests using a blender AND resting the batter in the refrigerator. (That Bittman! How does he know all these things?!) Well, I made up the batter one afternoon and just took the blender jar and put it in the fridge. Voila, as they say. I was ready to make crepes at the drop of a beret.

After dinner, Steve and I wandered into the kitchen and I heated up my trusty non-stick skillet. The key is to find the right amount of batter to swirl into the skillet. I used a soup ladle, and it turned out to be half a ladle-full. And that's it. That glorious crepe aroma filled our kitchen. We ate them as I flipped them out of the skillet. They were remarkable. Light and tender with a delicate flavor. The Dulce de Leche crepes were fantastic, as I suspected they would be. But, Steve was filling his with fresh raspberries and a drizzle of honey and they were equally good. Bittman suggests a sprinkle of lemon juice and powdered sugar, which I tried with the first one out of the pan and the simplicity was stunning, and delicious.

In a few weeks, I am planning to take my mother to see Paris for the first time. There will be the plenty to see and experience. All those places that have meant so much to me...museums, monuments, churches, beautiful walks...and of course, my favorite chocolatier, fromager and patissier. But somewhere along the way, rest assured that we'll take a moment to stand on a sidewalk and enjoy a freshly made crepe. Vive La France.

Sugared Crepes
adapted from The Best Recipes in the World

makes 6 to 8 servings

Earlier in the day, or the night before (up to 24 hours), make up the batter:

1 cup flour
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon sugar, plus sugar for sprinkling
1 1/4 cups milk (I used whole milk)
2 eggs
2 tablespoons melted and cooled butter, plus butter for cooking
Fresh lemon juice for sprinkling

1. Blend the first 6 ingredients until smooth. Cover blender jar and place in refrigerator until ready to use.

2. Put a 6- or 8-inch non-stick skillet over medium heat and wait a couple of minutes; add a small pat of butter. Stir the butter with a large spoon or ladle; add a quarter- to a half-ladle of batter to the skillet. Swirl it around so that it forms a thin layer on the bottom of the pan.

3. When the top of the crepe is dry, after about a minute, turn and cook the other side for 15 to 30 seconds. (The crepe should brown only very slightly and not become at all crisp. (Don't worry if the first crepe doesn't really "work" -- you know how it is...a first pancake is always kind of messed up.)

4. Slide the crepe on to a plate and fill as you like. A sprinkle of lemon juice and powdered sugar. Spread some Nutella, or preserves...or Dulce de Leche.

These can be kept in a low oven, but really, you just want to eat them as they come off the skillet. That's part of the fun.

Bon Appetit!


bigdaddyD said...

Do you vant a cheese bleentz?

Marcia said...

My brother just reminded me that I always had the cheese blintz crepes, garnished with fresh strawberries. He always had the Apple Crepe -- a huge bar of vanilla ice cream, enveloped by a crepe and then smothered in sauteed apples and cinnamon. mmmmm Magic Pan. Brings back memories...