18 October 2009

savoury cousins

Two of my strongest childhood impressions concerning food are, once again, deeply connected with my family's vacations in France.

One of them is the image of 'Aunt' Odette, making crêpes in front of her caravan on a farm somewhere in rural France. I can vividly remember her lurid yellow frock, her long, pink-lacquered fingernails and her huge earrings, while she made the crêpes in a single pan on a camping gas burner. She challenged us kids to try and pick the crêpes out of the pan with our bare fingers like she did, but we never managed. Probably her long, artificial fingernails gave her quite an unfair advantage in that particular discipline.

There was a whole gaggle of kids waiting in line for her treats, orderly like you'd have never guessed only a few minutes before. And those crêpes were the best in the world right then. Filled with nothing more but sugar or jam, those filigree pancakes pacified a whole bunch of unruly children better than anything.

The other image is a memory of me sitting in the cool farmhouse kitchen of Mémé Bréard in Brittany, with with her short, smiling husband sitting next to me. At that time, my French was rudimentary at best, and Mémé needed gestures and a lot of smiles to teach me how to wrap my buckwheat crêpe, a 'galette', around a small, fried sausage and dip it in a 'bol' of buttermilk to eat.

It was an assembly of foods that was so very alien to me I could hardly believe it tasted so good. Her husband's gap-toothed grin made clear he was proud to have such a good eater with him at the table.

Those images are among the first memories of foreign food making a seriously positive impression on me, and probably are to be credited for making me (at least partially) the curious eater that I am today.

Crêpes and their savoury cousins, the buckwheat 'galettes', were among the first things I learned to poperly cook on my own. At least, that is how I remember it, they definitely were the first dish that no-one else at home knew how to make, the first dish I really 'owned'.
And the memory of Aunt Odette flipping the crêpes right in the pan with her bare fingers irked me for so long that I learned how to flip them without touching them at all. It took me a few years, admittedly, but now I look like a real pro handling several pans at the same time.

What I actually want to say is - crêpes and galettes have always been part of my cooking life, and can be everything from simple treat to a truly eye-catching, show-off dessert. I still smile when I think of that HUGE burning platter of Crêpes Guadeloupe, filled with caramelized banana and flambéed with rum, that I carried onto a dinner table one evening... I love them, and my wife loves them, and almost anyone I know agrees.

Though what astonishes me every time, though, is how many people think they're terribly difficult to make or that you need a special pan and whatnots to make them. You do need a little practise, right, but apart from that - nothing you don't already have in your kitchen.

So I decided not only to write down a recipe this time, but also to add a little tutorial for those who have never made crêpes at home, or galettes, for that matter. I'll put the tutorial into a separate post, as I do not want to clutter up the recipe and keep the tutorial as streamlined as possible. If you already know how to make crêpes, you can just skip the tutorial, I do not presume to be able to add anything to your method. But if this all seems very daunting, have a look, maybe I can help you make your first crêpe. It's well worth it.

I can only repeat how lovely and versatile both crêpes and their savoury cousins are. Variantions are almost endless, and range from simple sugar or jam to nutella and straberries, orange butter and cointreau or said caramellized bananas and rum for the sweet version alone.
The galettes are mostly eaten warm, with a bit of salted butter or some cheese and a bit of bacon inside, or a fried egg and ham. The classic way of eating them in Britanny (at least as I got to know it) is to shred then into small bits and then have them cold in a bowl of buttermilk for breakfast, pretty much like a cereal. If you roll up the galette and cut it into very fine strips, you end up with something like a cold buckwheat noodle soup, wich doesn't merely look nice but also tastes pretty amazing.

galettes bretonnes
(crêpes du sarrasin dit blé noir)
(generously serves four)

250g buckwheat flour, sieved
3 eggs

500ml milk
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1 teaspoon salt
a pinch of sugar

some neutral oil for the pan

In a large bowl, mix the flour, the eggs, butter, salt and sugar and a tiny bit of the milk, about 50ml. Mix with a wooden spoon until you get a smooth but still stiff batter.

To get the crêpes as thin and smooth as possible, you'll need a very liquid batter with as little incorporated air as possible. A wooden spoon or a dough whisk seem to be the only option, here, as all appliances I have tried so far gave me a foamy batter that yielded mostly failures.
You can try to work with a little more milk at the beginning to make the work easier on your arms. But as soon as the batter gets too moist, the flour will remain lumpy, and no beating and kneading will get 'les grumeaux' out again.

Add about 100ml of the remaining milk and mix until well incorporated. Then repeat with about 200ml first and then the rest of the remaining milk.
The batter should be very liquid, like a light creamy soup and barely cover the back of a spoon.

Leave to rest for at least half an hour, two hours would be best.

Start baking the galettes one by one following these instructions.
If you already know how to make your crêpes in a common non-stick pan, just make them as you always did. I do not presume to be able to add anything to your method. But if you are still convinced that making crêpes (or galettes, for that matter) calls either for a) some mythical skill or b) any equipment you don't already own, have a look. I learned how to make crêpes over a single gas burner on a camping site in 'la France profonde' when I was 10, and it really is that simple.

Stack them on a plate nearby and continue until you have used all your batter.

Serve hot with salted butter, or bacon and cheese, or cheese and a fried egg or even a fried sausage inside. Cold, the go very well with cream cheese, or smetana and smoked trout or basically anything you can come up with.
In Britanny, they were traditionally served in shreds in a bowl of buttermilk, the local lait ribot, as a breakfast, which is actually one of my prefered ways of eathing these.

The classic drink to accompany the galettes would be a nice, dry cidre, a sparling apple wine, though a crisp, cool beer works almost as well.

They keep very well in the fridge as long as they are tightly wrapped, but don't freeze well.

(Probably needless to say, but if you substitute the buckwheat flour with all-purpose wheat flour and add a lot less salt but much more sugar, you end up with a classic crêpe batter.)


David said...

nice looking crêpes! may need to drag out my non-stick skillet...

shiao-ping said...

Just got back from my travel and found your new post. These crepes look awesome. Thank you for taking the time to post your recipe.