Sweet Suzette and her savoury friends : FOOD & DRINK
Saturday 04 February 1995
Most of us have had some experience of crepes on dank holidays in Brittany, crepes being fairly ubiquitous there as though Celts found inventing any more complex food too taxing. Kids will polish them off all right, but parents should beware of letting them gorge to excess. The modern crepe, which costs next to nothing to make, is a pricey item: you are soon up to the price of a meal and you have not even eaten.
This happened to us in Saint Martin de Londres, which contains a very fine restaurant, and after that, next to nothing. A crepe is basically a sandwich, the equivalent of pitta bread, of pizza: of a dough, baked or fried, in which you stick something else. In Brittany, this usually means a thin slice of ham and some unidentified cheese; ditto Saint Martin. It is not bad; on the other hand, it is not good. A crepe is also the lazy cook's way of keeping a restaurant going without the labour of cooking or shopping for fresh ingredients. And still they socked us for some £7 a person, minus drink: for one crepe! Of course, this has all been explained to me many times by a Breton lady, a white witch and an astrologer with whom I dallied over many years. The crepe is the Breton version of la cuisine pauvre, she explained. You do not object to pouring different sauces on something so simple as pasta. Why should you object to filling a crepe with ... at which point she would buy me one with a splendid white sausage and I would be mollified.
It has to be said she has a point. Many things in our gastronomy consist of putting one thing in another: pies, pasties, stuffed vine leaves, filo pastry around all sorts of ingredients, the great Mexican stone-ground tortilla, or succulent nan bread to dredge the splendid sauces of Indian cooking. In most tropical food, enclosing food in leaves or some form of bread is in part a protection against the violent spices used in cooking and in part a substitute for an utensil.
This is definitely not the case with the Breton crepe, which simply proves that if you put bland in bland, you are going to come up with bland. I am not sure that a crepe does a whole lot for a fried egg.
As I am sure you know, crepes come in several varieties, none of which is a pancake, for a pancake has baking soda in it and is supposed to rise, where a crepe is smooth, silky, broad and luxurious. The standard Breton crepe comes in sweet and savoury, and the latter can be white, froment or sarrasin, depending on the wheat from which the flour is made: ordinary bleached flour, whole wheat or buckwheat. The latter has the advantage in a savoury crepe because it has a powerful taste of its own which blends well with sausage or strong cheese; the white is more commonly used for pancakes involving fish or more delicate flavours. Sweet crepes are always made with white flour.
Ideally, crepes require a special pan with gently rising sides so that the batter spreads evenly and the crepe may be flipped or folded when cooked. For savoury crepes these are generally eight inches wide; for sweet, four.
The basic batter for savoury crepes (eight) is 1 egg, 4oz flour, 6oz milk, 2tbs butter and salt to taste. Half the butter, melted, is added to the batter, which is forced through a sieve with a rubber spatula. The batter is cooked in a lightly buttered pan on a medium heat. Savoury crepes can be filled with anything: leftover chicken, spinach, shrimp, cheese.
Sweet crepes are, however, the only crepe that I will admit to the gastronomic inner sanctum. Yes, I love them Suzette, but I love them best in their Italian guise: powdered with sugar and lemon juice.
People make a big tra-la-la about crepes. They are actually dead easy to prepare. Batter (24 crepes): 12oz flour, 4 eggs, 4 egg yolks, 2 pints of milk, 2tsp sugar, 1/2tsp salt, 4tbs butter. Mix flour, eggs and egg yolks with a wire whisk; add milk, sugarand salt and beat until thoroughly mixed. Be patient! The fancy cook in clarified butter. We do not. We brush the pan quickly with a knob of butter in a paper towel. We ladle the batter in one tablespoon at a time, tilting the pan to ensure it is evenlyspread. Temperature is of the essence. The butter must not be burnt, but must be just hot enough to cook the crepe quickly. A crepe is cooked on the first side when little bumps rise on the surface. At that point the crepe should flip off cleanly.
Crepes can then be folded, in four, conically, or just rolled, and they will keep for some time, though they must be covered and should be staggered on their plate so you do not break them when you lift them off. With any dessert sauce that you wish - from the Suzette (orange juice, butter, curacao, kirsch and the flambe-ing lark that has made generations of head-waiters rich) to the German and Russian versions with ultra-sweet jams, to my own lemon and sugar, they are simply brought back to the heat inbutter and your preferred sauce.
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