BATTER spills across an expanse of hot iron like the tide washing over a beach. A rozelle spreads it, the T-shaped wooden tool making a wide arc and turn, into a circle. The edges move into a fine lace filigree, the wide interior cooks up the color and texture of muslin. A spatula flips the crepe on its back, where it pauses briefly before it's done, coming to rest on a plate, a paper-thin picture of the sun ready for whatever awaits it. A handful of grated Gruyere, a rain of sugar, your hunger.
A crepe is not so much a recipe as a pan and a state of mind.
There's an economy of movement and coordination of design -- a swirl of batter, a tilt of the pan -- that's beautiful, whether the crepes are coming off the pans of the street vendors in Paris, or the creperies in Brittany or Santa Monica, or the one on the stove top of your own kitchen. The crepe's beauty is in its utter simplicity, both in composition and in consumption; and though it looks difficult, it's actually much easier to make than you think.
And now is the perfect time to appreciate -- and practice -- the simple art of the crepe. You may not know it, but it's high crepe season.
Last Friday was Candlemas, or Chandeleur in French, a holiday that's traditionally a day to make crepes; the crepe-making continues throughout the month before Lent and Mardi Gras, the last day before it. In England and in this country, many churches celebrate this day, also called Shrove Tuesday, with a pancake supper. In golden stacks, shaped like the sun they can symbolize, crepes celebrate the harvest, good fortune and wealth.
"You put a coin, it's supposed to be gold, in your hand when you flip the crepe," remembers chef Alain Giraud, who was born in Paris and lived in France for many years before coming to Los Angeles, where he was chef at Lavande and then Bastide. "Only the first crepe; it's good luck."
It's also a way to use up all the eggs and milk and butter in your refrigerator before Lent -- eggs were not to be eaten again until Easter. Made from the simplest of ingredients and filled with whatever was on hand, crepes originated as street food for laborers in the sea-swept landscape of Brittany, in northwestern France. There the streets were filled with workers and farmers, townsfolk and -- later -- tourists and locals who would flock to the crepe stands and creperies for a quick meal. Filled with a sausage or spread with ham and cheese, crepes formed easy rustic repasts, simple and delicious fare that could be eaten easily, without utensils.
"It's fast food, but it's not," says Thierry Boisson, a Frenchman who owns Acadie, a Santa Monica creperie; he also sets up a popular crepe stand in the Sunday Main Street Farmers Market. Boisson and his wife, Isabelle, who is from Gourin, in Brittany, owned a creperie in Montpellier, France, before coming to California and opening their shop four years ago.
A delicious history
ORIGINALLY, the Breton locals spread buckwheat paste on flat rocks they'd hauled back from the shores and heated in fire pits. The rocks evolved into wide cast iron disks called biligs and then to the smaller long-handled crepe pans. The crepes themselves also evolved, from the thin buckwheat pancakes called galettes and filled with the most rustic ingredients, to the sweeter crepes, made from the more refined wheat flour, butter, milk and sugar, even cream or brandy. Soon they were adopted by haute cuisine, served in chafing dishes and filled with the priciest of ingredients. Henri Charpentier, student of Escoffier and one of the best chefs in France in his day, famously lighted them on fire and served his crepes suzette to the future King of England.
Fame and fortune not withstanding, crepes are simple food, best eaten in kitchens or on paper plates along street sidewalks.
"On Sunday afternoon we would make crepes," says Giraud of his childhood in Paris. "All the ingredients were in the fridge ... milk, eggs, flour." And what do you put inside? "Anything," says Giraud. "A slice of ham, mushrooms, a little bechamel."
Giraud then begins a sudden catalog of ad hoc crepe recipes. Fill them, he suggests, with vanilla whipped cream and a compote of fresh fruit; with lobster and grapefruit; bake a lemon souffle inside; spread chocolate ganache in them; or maybe grate black truffles in the batter and then fill them with mascarpone cheese and grated fresh truffles, lots of them. "Or just Nutella, that's probably my favorite."
The original galettes were made from just buckwheat flour, water and a little salt, which were mixed together, then the batter left to rest. Later people added wheat flour to smooth out the batter, or traded in the buckwheat altogether, adding milk and eggs and butter. Although you can make serviceable crepes with only flour and water, the addition of the eggs and dairy makes crepes more tender -- and noticeably easier to cook.
Secrets of a silky batter