There was no sourdough bread in my pandemic plans.
No kombucha or kimchi, either.
But I did master a culinary goal with the help of crêpe-maker extraordinaire Steve Nson, father of my three granddaughters.
At least weekly this summer, he would break out the small sauté pan and measuring cups as he prepared the favorite breakfast of those at my table, gathered as we were to brave the threat of the coronavirus by isolating ourselves together with the best medicine of all, i.e. good food.
He has made them before in my kitchen during much shorter visits, during which I've been a hearty admirer and hungry diner. I've eaten my fair share of these treats, served simply with powdered sugar, never to have them again until the next visit.
But this year was different, in so many ways. The stay was prolonged, the breakfasts many and, well, it was time I learned for myself.
To be clear — as my granddaughters will remind anyone and everyone who mispronounces the name — these are called crêpes (one syllable, pronounced as in "step"). Not crepe as in crepe paper. No, indeed.
"It's crêpe," they would correct me, as only a 6- and 9-year-old can do when I carelessly slipped on the wrong pronunciation. They know because their father told them so. And they do not tolerate mistakes, even from Grandma.
Today Steve remembers the recipe from memory, a culinary fixture from his childhood in the French-speaking region of Cameroon, where they were served for special occasions. As an adult, he recalled them wistfully and, inspired by those moments, made a call to his mother for the particulars. (Thanks, Henriette Nson.)
There are as many variations as there are cooks, and all of the versions are fairly simple. His involves flour, water, milk, eggs, sugar, a bit of melted butter and vanilla extract, which make a slightly sweet crêpe worthy of the morning meal or dessert.
These aren't so different from my own Swedish pancakes, which I've made for decades, though the Scandinavian version is a bit thicker. (Jacques Pépin notes that you can adjust the thickness of the crêpe with the quantity of the liquid in the batter.) In either case — Swedish or French — these thin pancakes take some time to make, inasmuch as they require attention and a single pan to make each.
Steve uses a whisk to make his batter, but my early effort was less successful. "Why are there lumps in the crêpes?" asked one granddaughter after my first try. Julia Child in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" offered sage advice: After whisking the batter by hand, "strain the batter to get rid of any possible lumps." Ahh. The old gravy backup plan has another use.
Then again, other cooks simply use a blender to prepare the batter, which I found to be both an efficient and lump-free method.
When Steve makes the crêpes, he settles into his comfort zone, oblivious to all but the activity on the stove as he ladles the batter into the pan, then gives the pan a quick swirl. He flips the crêpe with ease when he knows it's ready. (How does he know? He just does, after decades of making them.) Then he offers it to those around the table ("Who needs another?") or stacks them, one by one, until all are ready to serve.
Which got me to thinking. That stack of crêpes looked a lot like a layered crêpe cake, which I had tasted from pastry chef Diane Moua of Spoon and Stable (find hers at the new Bellecour bakery within Cooks of Crocus Hill in the North Loop). If I could master the crêpes, I could move on to the next challenge.
And so I did (and you can, too!). This recipe can make a 17-layer cake (nine crêpes, with a layer of filling between each). Double the recipe, and it's double the layers. The cake is not nearly as difficult as it would seem to be (or as tall — 17 layers work out to about 2 inches in height). But it takes time. My version uses a filling of whipped cream with mascarpone and powdered sugar, but anything spreadable works (think jam, Nutella, lemon curd).
But first you must master the crêpe itself. Give yourself some time to practice. Even Julia says the first crêpe is a "trial to test out the consistency of the batter, and exact amount you need for the pan, and the heat."
Words of wisdom from the kitchen: The first is always a test.
Lee Svitak Dean • @StribTaste
Makes 9 (6-inch) crêpes.
Note: Feel free to use whatever size nonstick sauté pan you prefer, keeping in mind that you will need additional batter if it's larger than 6 inches at the base. The measurement of the top of the pan is likely around 8 inches in diameter. The recipe is easily doubled or tripled. From Steve Nson.
• 1/2 c. water
• 1/2 c. milk
• 2 eggs, lightly beaten
• 1 tbsp. butter, melted and slightly cooled
• 1/4 c. sugar
• 1 tsp. vanilla
• 1 c. flour
• Neutral oil for pan
In a blender, combine water, milk and eggs, and process for a moment. Add the butter, sugar and vanilla and process again. Finally, add the flour and process until smooth. (Alternative: Whisk together ingredients by hand until batter is smooth.)
Swirl a little oil in the bottom of a shallow pan and place over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add 1/4 cup batter and swirl the pan to spread out the batter. (The finished crêpe will be about 1/16-inch thick.) Keeping a close eye on the pan, cook until the crêpe is set and the bottom is lightly browned, 60 seconds or more, using a spatula to peek underneath.
Flip over the crêpe with a spatula or toss the crêpe with the pan, if you are daring. Cook briefly for the underside to get lightly brown, another 30 to 60 seconds. Serve immediately or stack on a plate with additional crêpes until all are done. To retain heat if stacked, cover them with another plate.
The crêpes can be made in advance and refrigerated, covered in plastic wrap, for a couple of days. They also freeze well.
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: Mascarpone cheese, which comes in a small tub, is added for both flavor and to stabilize the whipped cream. You could also use whipped cream cheese. There will be leftover whipped cream to use as a garnish. From Lee Svitak Dean.
• 9 crêpes (see recipe)
• 1/2 c. (4 oz). mascarpone cheese, at room temperature (see Note)
• 1/8 c. (2 tbsp.) powdered sugar
• 2 c. heavy cream
Prepare crêpes and cool.
To make the filling: In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the mascarpone cheese and powdered sugar until light and fluffy, then add the heavy cream, beating until the cream holds a stiff peak.
To assemble: Place 1 crêpe on the serving plate and spread a thin layer of filling on its top, all the way to the edges. Carefully position another crêpe on top of this and spread another thin layer of filling. Continue until all the crêpes have been used (do not add a layer of filling to the very top of the "cake").
Chill and serve with berries and/or a sprinkle of powdered sugar.
• Lemon curd, with or without the whipped cream mixture.
• Jam or preserves.
• Grated chocolate with the whipped cream mixture.