by Elizabeth Skipper | February 12th, 2014 | Ask the Chef

crepes sanja gjeneroI want to try making crepes as a dessert on Valentine’s Day. I am comfortable making pancakes and hope that switching to crepes is easy. Before I begin I was wondering if I need a true crepe pan or if my regular frying pan will work? Also, can I just thin my pancake recipe with extra milk, or should I use a different recipe altogether?

Crepes! Oh, I love crepes! I love demonstrating them, teaching them, making them, and of course, eating them. Crepes are versatile, suitable for any course in a meal — not just dessert —  or great just as a snack. Furthermore, although they have a reputation for being difficult, it’s not true. Once you get the hang of making them, they’re easy as can be. Just as with riding a bicycle or spinning yarn, it looks and is easy once you get the hang of it. There are a few tricks, though.

Do you need a true crepe pan? Well, they’re designed specifically for crepes, so take a look at one to see what makes it so. Size aside (they vary from tiny pans which will make a crepe 4″ in diameter up to large ones which will make 10″ crepes), the shape of the sides is the most important factor. They will be low and sloping – low, so it’s easy to reach into the pan to turn the crepe and sloping, for the same reason, but also to make it easy to slide the finished crepe out of the pan.

If you’re willing to trade off a bit of difficulty making your crepes against buying another pan, you can use a skillet. The best substitute for a true crepe pan, though, is an omelette or a sauté pan. The sides will be slightly higher but the slope will be pretty much the same. Some people like a non-stick surface; I don’t. If the surface is too slick, the batter will roll around on the bottom of the pan and bunch up. It should catch (not stick) just enough to stay anchored while you distribute the rest of the batter around the surface of the pan. A well-made crepe is thin, not doughy.

You want to make crepes in the size pan you want the cooked crepe to be. Measure across the bottom of the pan, not the top. Don’t try to make a 7″ crepe in a 9″ pan. You’ll have a hard time distributing the batter evenly, and you’ll waste batter if you have to trim your crepes to size. Tiny crepes are usually made for appetizers, and the really big ones are to be folded into a manageable shape. A good all-purpose size is 7″ or 8″, which can be rolled or folded.

Can you just thin pancake batter? No. Pancakes are leavened, traditionally with sourdough or more commonly, with baking powder or baking soda and buttermilk; a good pancake is generally described as “fluffy.” A good crepe is richer and, while strong enough to hold together, delicate. There are more eggs in a crepe batter, it’s never leavened, and it’s much thinner, to spread easily. Although they all have the same characteristics, crepe batters can vary considerably. They can be made with milk, water, or a mixture; beer or other liquids; different kinds of grains in addition to wheat (or no wheat); whole eggs only or with additional egg yolks. But they should all have the consistency of heavy cream. Below is a good basic recipe which is suitable for either savory or dessert crepes.

Basic Savory Crêpe Batter

¾ cup sifted flour
½ tsp. salt
3 eggs
1 cup milk, at room temperature
2-4 TB melted & cooled butter

Mix the flour and salt together in a medium-size bowl. Make a well in it and put the eggs and half the milk into the well. Whisk together the eggs and milk, and then the flour until the mixture is smooth and lump-free. The gluten in the flour should be developed just enough to make the crêpes easy to handle.

Gradually whisk in the remaining milk, and finally mix in the butter. The finished batter will be fairly thin. Strain it to remove any lumps which may be lurking the bottom of the bowl, and allowed it to stand for up to an hour in order to thicken to the consistency of heavy cream. Before using, stir again to avoid any separation.

Makes 18 – 24 crêpes, depending upon size.

To make crepes:

Preheat the pan dry over low heat for about 10 minutes. When the pan is heated, turn up the heat to medium and add a little butter. If the pan is properly seasoned (if cast iron or steel), this is the only time you will need to add butter. If not, add a little oil while the pan heats; wipe the pan dry after it reaches the correct temperature, and then add the butter.

When the butter stops sizzling, lift the pan off the stove and tilt it downward and away from you.For an 8″ crepe, pour ¼ cup (4 TB) batter into the front of the pan, then tilt the pan back toward yourself, tipping it back and forth to coat it with a thin layer of batter. Smaller or larger crepes require more or less batter; adjust accordingly.

Allow to cook 30–45 seconds on the first side (the top will be dry, tiny butter bubbles will form on the surface, and the edges will start to brown), then turn and cook briefly on the other side. Experienced cooks can toss the crepe to turn it or use their fingers, but for safety’s sake, the best tool is a long, thin spatula.

Invert the cooked crepe over a plate or pie pan. This will keep the “presentation” side, which will eventually be the outside of your filled crêpe, down. Continue making crêpes until all the batter is used up. It’s sometimes recommended to separate the finished crepes with wax paper or plastic wrap, but I’ve never found it necessary. Just allow them to cool before handling, or they may tear.

Some pitfalls to be aware of: If the pan is too cool, the crepe will take too long to cook and be pale. If the batter sets too quickly, forms large bubbles, or the edges of the crepes are crisp and break, the pan is too hot. To test the temperature of the pan, sprinkle it with a few drops of water. If nothing happens, the pan is too cold; if the water vaporizes immediately, the pan is too hot. You may need to adjust the burner as the cooking proceeds, to keep the temperature of the pan consistent. If the crepes stick and burn, you need more butter in the pan. If the crepes are lacy – a few tiny holes can be patched with more batter, but too many holes are a defect – your batter is too thin. Whisk in a tablespoon or two more flour and try again. If the batter doesn’t coat the bottom of the pan easily, the batter is too thick; add a little more liquid.

The first one or two won’t be perfect. If a crepe burns and sticks, cool the pan and scrub it completely clean before heating the pan and trying again. Keep at it, and I’ll bet by the time you’ve finished all of the first batch of batter, you’ll have the hang of it.

(Photo: Sanja Gjenero)

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