On paper, the making of a crêpe is one of the easier kitchen jobs. But in practice it’s actually so difficult to get right that few cooks manage it. Yet a correctly made crêpe is a simple wondrous dessert and it can be mastered quickly if we learn a few basic rules.
The main mistake is heavy-handedness with the flour— that always leads to stodgy crêpes.
There’s a French connection in my family and I had an aunt from Brittany with whom I spent summer holidays in Paris when I was in my early teens.
Bretons are famous for their crêpes and my aunt’s were the best I’ve ever eaten. Her crêpes were never stacked and left lying around for finishing off later. As soon as she made a crêpe she sprinkled it with sugar, added a few drops of lemon juice folded it on a warm plate and served it. You ate it immediately, while it was still hot and glistening with butter — and extremely light. Hers were the only really fine crêpes I’ve ever eaten.
By the time I knew my aunt she was in her early 60s and had been making crêpes since she was a young girl so she was very adept at it. By doing them in two crêpe pans side by side, she could turn them out with amazing grace and speed.
Even so, she never made crêpes for more than four people and in my case it was three: her husband, herself and me. Three was an ideal number because it meant the crêpes could be eaten as soon as they were made. Sitting in her little kitchen, almost within an arm’s reach of the cooker, it was all very informal — and it is the only way to eat crêpes if you want to taste them at their best.
Perfect crêpes call for two main rules that must be followed. The most important is that the batter must have a high egg content and a small amount of flour. And it is essential to beat the mixture gently and for just long enough to mix the whipped eggs and the flour.The more you beat, the longer the mixture will have to rest to lose its elasticity. If you beat softly and for only a few seconds, you’ll be able to use the mixture immediately. The final consistency of the batter should be that of single cream.
Basic crêpe mixture
A good basic crêpe mixture calls for 30 grs flour, 3 eggs, about 250 mls of liquid, salt to taste, 1 tbsp brandy and 3 tbsps butter (use olive oil if the batter is for savoury crêpes). The liquid can be milk, water or beer and the total amount should be about 250 mls.
The amount of flour is not a misprint: it is 30 grs. Part of a crêpe’s essential character is its thinness and it will always be thick and stodgy if you use too much flour.
Crêpes are best when made in a cast-iron crêpe pan, but a heavy omelette pan, which is slightly deeper and with less oblique sides, will also turn out lovely crêpes. You can also make excellent crêpes with the thin iron frying pans sold in hardware shops (ferreterías) and in some of the bigger supermarkets. They come in a wide variety of sizes and are very cheap.
You can keep the surface of these pans perfectly clean by rubbing the base frequently with salt tied up in a small piece of cloth. When you have finished your batch of crêpes, rub the bottom of the pan vigorously with a wad of kitchen paper and finish off with a good smear of olive oil. When treated like that it will never rust.
Use this pan only for crêpes and plain omelettes and before every use rinse it well with boiling water (no liquid detergent should be used) to get rid of the stale oil smears.
To make the batter, sieve the flour and salt into a bowl, add the beaten eggs and gently whisk from the centre, working outwards until it is free of lumps. Use the whisk to stir in the other ingredients.
Get the pan hot on a high heat and then lower it to medium-low. Smear the base with a mere film of butter or oil. If the temperature is correct, the butter (about 1.5 tbsps for a small crêpe and double that for large one) will sizzle slightly as it hits the pan.
Tilt the pan in a quick rolling motion so that the batter quickly covers the base. When the crêpe starts to curl at the edges and the surface has dried out, turn it over with a thin spatula or pick it up by the curled edges with your fingertips.
It is very important to stir the batter every time you use it because the flour settles and the batter becomes thicker at the bottom.
As you make the crêpe, the heat under the pan may need adjusting. I get best results by holding the pan just above the flame and moving it around so that the sides are always nearest the heat: if you look after the sides the centre will take care of itself.
Pour the batter into the pan from a small ladle, a tiny jug or a measuring cup with a spout. If you add too much batter to the pan, pour the excess back into the bowl. If you have used too little, quickly fill in the spaces with batter poured from small spoon.
When doing dessert crêpes, most cooks add sugar to the batter. My French aunt didn’t use sugar in her batters and neither do I. I have tried it both ways and I get better results with sugarless batters.
Dessert crêpes should be eaten immediately, having been sprinkled with sugar to taste and a few drops of lemon juice if liked. If you are making stuffed savoury crêpes, the filling should be added at once. The stuffed crêpes should then be arranged in their oven dish and partly covered with their sauce before being popped into the oven. All sauces should be as simple and as light as possible. And so should the fillings.
Like so much we take for granted in cooking, a great deal of mystery surrounds the origin of crêpes and pancakes. It is not known for sure where they were first made although there are theories, some of them plausible, some way off beam.
The French make wonderful crêpes and like to think they were invented in France, almost certainly in Brittany. Bretons have been eating crêpes for centuries and they are a classic dessert there, from Candlemas (2 February) until the last day of Carnival.
Some food writers claim pancakes first came from Portugal and that a Galician cattle dealer took them to Galicia some 300 years ago. But this theory couldn’t be more wrong because the pancake has a much longer pedigree than that.
Some facts are known, among them that the Russians have been eating pancakes since the 9th century. It is also a fact that every country in Europe (as well as other parts of the world) has its favourite kind of crêpe or pancake.
How was it possible for the pancake to achieve such popularity, from Britain right across Europe to Russia and taking in parts of Scandinavia?
There is a theory that accounts for the pancake travelling so far and also for its association with religious festivals, such as those in Brittany and England’s Shrove Tuesday. Like most theories, this one starts with a fact: the only towns and villages in Spain where pancakes are made as a regional speciality are in Galicia and Asturias.
And all of these places have one thing in common: they are along the pilgrim’s route that leads to Santiago de Compostela.
It is highly possible that Christians from all over Europe, making the pilgrimage to Santiago, learned how to cook pancakes along the way and took the recipe back to their respective countries.
That would certainly account for the pancake travelling so far and also for its becoming a part of so many religious festivals. This is a neat little theory, but it leaves one big question unanswered.
Did these pilgrims from all over Europe find the recipe in Galicia or did one of them take it to Galicia from his or her own country? It could be that a Breton pilgrim took the recipe over the Pyrenees and introduced it to other pilgrims.
If we bear in mind that pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela started in the 9th century, and that Russians have been making pancakes since that time, it could be that some Russian took it to Santiago. Or did a Russian take it to Moscow after coming across it on the way to Santiago?
We’ll probably never know for sure, but there are pointers that make one think the pancake could have originated in Galicia, where it is known as a ‘filloa’.
The filloa was originally made with only water and flour and as Galicia was always a poor part of the Iberian peninsula, such a simple dish that quickly filled empty stomachs would have seemed an obvious invention.
Another thing points to the pancake’s origin being in Galicia: a special frying pan for making them. It’s a round pan attached to a container filled with glowing charcoal.
The smooth even heat from the embers made this utensil ideal for doing pancakes. As far as I know, no other country has such a specialised implement for making pancakes.
But whatever its origins, the simple pancake or filloa, made from nothing but water and flour, has come a long way. It wasn’t until the late 18th and early 19th centuries that France’s great chefs began to elaborate on the basic recipe and made the crêpe part of French haute cuisine.
This new style crêpe contained milk, butter and eggs, making it considerably more nutritious than before, and changing it from a simple rustic dish into one that top-class restaurants could have on their menus.
Recipe for dessert filloas
For a basic recipe for dessert filloas you will need: 6 eggs, 75 grs flour, 75 grs butter without salt, half litre milk, salt to taste, and caster sugar (azúcar granulado extra fino, in Spanish) or icing sugar.
Beat the eggs lightly and stir in the flour, melted butter and salt to taste. Add the milk and stir gently to mix it with the other ingredients. Put this mixture through a sieve. The filloa is cooked on both sides, sprinkled with sugar to taste and rolled up.
Another Galician recipe calls for 250 mls milk, 250 mls water, 4 eggs, 1 tsp ground cinnamon, salt to taste and as much flour as necessary to achieve single cream consistency. These filloas are also sprinkled with sugar.
Bear in mind that filloas, crêpes and pancakes are not for tossing. If you can actually toss a pancake then you have far too much butter or oil in the pan and your pancakes will be greasy.
If the pancake has to be cooked on both sides, as in the recipes given here, wait until the edges dry out and start to curl. Pick the pancake up carefully with the fingers of both hands and turn it over. If it’s a dessert pancake sprinkle with caster sugar and serve immediately.Scotch pancakes, sometimes called Scotch drop scones, call for a batter that is somewhat thicker than most others. You will need: 200 grs flour, good pinch of salt, 1 XL beaten egg, 1 tbsp sugar, 125 mls milk, 2 tsps baking powder.
Sift the flour, salt and sugar into a bowl. Beat in the egg, mixed with the milk, until smooth. Beat in the baking powder just before using.
Drop the batter by the tablespoonful on to a hot well-greased griddle or cast-iron frying pan. Cook until bubbles form on the surface, then carefully flip over with a spatula to brown on the other side.
Serve hot or cold with butter, marmalade, jam or honey. Makes about 10 pancakes.