By thaig in Culture
Mon Aug 21, 2006 at 12:00:00 PM EST
Tags: cooking (all tags)
I would like to think that most families have some special day when they are all
together and there is a degree of peace and happiness. Have we lost that now?
No life is perfect but luckily memory heals many wounds. Bad things are forgotten and only the good is recalled. In my memory Sundays were particularly happy. Amongst other things they are inextricably linked with making and eating pancakes
or what some call crepes. These are my link with a world that is lost.
Tea was at 7am (my chore) and there
was always some bit of Handel, Haydn or Vivaldi playing in the background. My
brothers and I scounged on the carpet reading the newspaper and drinking our tea in the main
bedroom. Peter would be scanning the classifieds for his next money making
initiative and Lexy would tell mum for the umpteenth time what an amazing cook Mrs Shelton was or
what a fantastic garden Mrs Betts kept. Eventually the music had to be
quelled so that we could get the world receiver out, attach the aerial spool to
the window and listen for that
tune which is etched into my mind followed by the pips and then "this is World Service of the BBC..." Clear voices beamed out over thousands of miles from an island - cold and dark and nevertheless a brilliant beacon of civilisation. We were warmed up just to know that it existed and that not all the world was corrupt. "Letter from America" by Alistair Cook was my favorite.
Stress and a bit of minor shouting ensued in the rush to be off to
Nazareth House with all the other Irish expats to listen to the entertaining and
clever sermons of Father ?. I think that the real purpose of going,
though, was for the 1/2 hour of chatting afterwards in the sun outside.
Now that I think about going to church for the first time in years I realise how
much I enjoyed having an excuse to sing. Religion has been washed out of me
leaving only the tiniest germ of unjustified hope - but the music is still there.
The highest point of the day was returning home for a breakfast of pancakes
(crepes). Item number 1 was for my father (who usually
hated what he called "noise") to put on the 1812 Overture. This is all
about Napoleon being defeated by the Russians. It has a feeling of
marvelous happiness at the ending of a great fear particularly when the bells
begin to ring at the end. I would sit looking at a print of The
Officer of the Imperial Guard by Gericault and imagine being in Napoelon's
Grande Armee and how terrible and impressive, proud and bitter it must have
Item number 2 was to start cooking what we called pancakes. There is a lot
of confusion, internationally, about that term so I'll call them crepes.
The batter had been made the night before and all that remained was to whip
cream, make coffee, quarter a few lemons, put soft brown sugar into bowls, warm
the plates, lay the table outside and cook 30 crepes.
There was simply nothing better in the whole world.
I am going to describe how to make crepes here. They have simple ingredients -
flour, sugar, eggs and milk - but it can sometimes be hard to get the desired
result. I have never come across a good recipe that explains how to
work around all the pitfalls - my occasional successes were very unreproducible.
It took a long time to learn how to get my mother's recipe to work with different
equipment and heats and egg sizes and all those things that change when one travels far away.
What I am going to put down are the critical bits of information
that took me about 10 years of gradual experimentation. It seems a bit meagre
when it's down in words but it took a lot of effort to discover it and it truly
will make the difference. I think that I have now surpassed mum in
being able to transfer the knowledge. I hope she wouldn't mind my small
triumph, and I hope that you, having read thus far, will enjoy the same pleasure
that making crepes has given me.
Crepes are thin, soft, discs about the size of a medium plate, made of wheat
flour and are usually filled and rolled up before eating. They differ from
the pancakes that Americans and others might be familiar with in that they are
much thinner and not risen. They can filled with almost anything you
can think of (sweet or savory). They are light, soft and good
ones are slightly elastic.
They may be eaten like a dessert or used in savory recipes like lasagna sheets
to make something similar to canneloni (delicious) or in any way you can think
of. I prefer them with dark brown sugar and lemon juice inside and whipped
cream on top - somehow this seems unbeatable to me but YMMV and maple syrup,
honey or a very sweet orange sauce (crepes suzette) are also good.
What to Aim For
Make the thinnest possible crepes from a thin-cream-like batter in a
Concentrate on the consistency and elasticity of the batter and don't be
fixated on quantities of ingredients.
It must flow over the pan quickly and easily to make a thin pancake so
it must be very liquid.
It must be very strong so that it will not break despite being thin.
It must not stick when it cooks.
If there are lumps (even small ones) the batter will not flow across the
pan and spread out evenly.
Achieve a good flavor.
As I have said, the quantities of ingredients are not what one should
concentrate on because there are too many ways to get a result that isn't quite
right. Eggs vary in size from country to country and flours behave
differently. It is still useful to have a rough guide to quantities for
the sake of the shopping but get a little extra of everything. I am
too lazy to make these things in small quantities so this will make "a lot."
5 large eggs - discard 1 egg yolk otherwise the flavor will be too "eggy"
300g strong flour (roughly 11 oz)
75g sugar (roughly 3 oz)
3 tablespoons of rum. (dark but I don't think it matters) or brandy but rum
between 900ml and 1 litre of milk (somewhere just over 30 fluid oz)
a dessertspoon of oil
Use strong flour - bread flour is best. It is very effective to make the
mixture the night before and leave it because it tends to get thinner whilst
remaining strong - the effect is quite noticeable.
Put everything but the milk into a bowl and mix with some kind of mixer - a
liquidiser would be fine.
Add just enough milk to mix comfortably and add more as you mix till the
batter is is nearly right but still a bit thick (like just-pourable cream)
- this can be corrected the next day when one actually makes it (the batter
thins overnight anyhow). This makes a lot of crepes and cooking them takes
about 1 1/2 minutes each so be prepared to spend half an hour to make 20.
Sieve the mixture after making it - it's the best way to get rid of lumps -
they interfere with the flow of batter across the pan during cooking.
Warm the mixture before cooking to the point where it does not feel cold to
touch. If the mixture has been in the fridge or you have used cold milk and
cold eggs then when it hits the pan it will tend to stick to it and trying
to cook it will be a miserable experience.
The desired consistency is very similar to runny cream. It's hard to get it
right and from one day to the next I use different amounts of milk depending
on the eggs, etc. So just start out being a bit conservative and make a
couple of crepes and then add a bit more milk and try again. When you start
making crepes that stick, wipe out the pan so it's smooth and oil it. Then
mix up some flour with a cup of the now-too-thin mixture and then sieve that
back in to thicken the batter. Next time you'll not push it too far.
Get a pan that you can twist and turn easily with one hand when you are
spreading the mixture - speed is important at this stage and you'll get
tired with a heavy iron pan.
Make sure that the pan has shallow sloping sides - 90 degree angles make it
impossible to get the crepe out.
I like non-stick pans best - with a thick base if possible.
Before you begin to cook, heat up the pan with some oil till it is just
about to smoke and then wipe out the oil carelessly (i.e. don't try to scrub
it all out) with a paper towel. With metal pans this is essential and I
think it's worthwhile with non-stick ones too. Your first 2 crepes will be a
bit oily but after that all will be well.
Cook on a fairly high heat - it tends to make nicer crepes.
This is hard to explain and I haven't perfected it yet but it is not hard to do. Practice will
make you better and you will probably think up a superor method. Try to use the minimum amount of mixture - one will often end
up with a few holes but this is more than compensated for by the wonderful
texture of a soft thin crepe. It should take about 1 1/2 minutes per crepe.
I do have a video of this and I will put it on YouTube or Google video for anyone who asks.
Put the mixture into top right of the pan, tilt to make it run to the lower
left, allow a "wide" puddle to form on the bottom left and then tilt the pan
back to make the mixture run back across to the lower right - basically a
kind of triangle.
If you think of a better method, please let me know.
The crepe is ready to turn when the surface looks matte (i.e. not glistening
with moisture any more) and the edges are brown. Cook briefly on the other
Stir the mixture occasionally because flour tends to fall to the bottom of
the bowl leaving the top part too thin and causing your last crepes to be
Brittle crepes: add an egg to the mixture.
Sticking crepes with thin mixture: these never dry out properly and tend to
stick to the pan whilst being raw on top. There is not enough flour in the
Sticking crepes with cold mixture: Naughty! make sure the mixture isn't
Use less yolks than egg whites - otherwise they will taste too "eggy".
A bit of brandy or rum added to the mixture will make the crepes
Waste no time with butter - it can add flavor but it's just annoying because
it tends to burn and if you keep your mixture overnight it will solidify and
come out of the mixture. Just add a small amount of cooking oil to the
batter to help prevent it from sticking.
That's it - 10 years of experimentation summed up! Good luck and may you
have many happy, lazy Sundays and may your children remember them with love.