Ann Costlow stood inside Sofi's Crepes, her vest-pocket-sized storefront on Charles Street, giving a pri- vate tutorial the other day on crepe-making. After ladling batter onto what she calls a crepe "stone" but is actually cast iron, she swirled a small wooden T-bar through the sizzling blob, expanding its shape to that of an LP record album.
"See? When the surface loses its shine, that's when you know to flip 'em," she said.
A few seconds later, she maneuvered two long spatulas under this paper-thin disc and turned it over.
"She who hesitates is lost," Costlow joked to a visitor who'd been trying, mostly in vain, to follow her lightning-quick movements. "Now it's your turn."
What resulted wasn't pretty. It looked like a cross between a burned pancake and a soggy potato chip.
Later, things went slightly better at Crepes du Jour, a charming little restaurant and outdoor garden in Mount Washington. Lessons here continued under the watchful eye of chef and owner Mustapha Snoussi, who is originally from French Algeria, but grew up in Paris.
"Moving quickly and high heat is key," he said, as his student tried again. And yet again. Whew! Apparently, there's no such thing as beginner's luck when it comes to making crepes.
However, because today is Bastille Day, a national holiday in France that honors those brave souls who in 1789 overturned a corrupt monarchy and established a new government, it seems an appropriate time to try. Though Marie Antoinette is supposed to have said, "Let them eat cake," before being hauled off to the guillotine, her subjects might well have replied, "Actually, ex-queen, we prefer crepes."
Deriving from the Latin crispus, meaning crisp, the word crepe in its French pronunciation has a short e, as in best. Though they now seem an exquisite delicacy, crepes were originally the staple of a much humbler diet. Until a hundred years ago, all crepes were made of buckwheat flour mixed with a small amount of egg, water, olive oil and sea salt and were called sarrisins.
Indigenous to Russia, buckwheat thrives in poor soil and can be harvested every three months. The Dutch introduced buckwheat into northwest France's Brittany region, and by the 15th century, crepes were a food of the poor. Used as bread, they were rarely eaten with any fillings.
More recently, a variety using white flour was invented: crepes de froment, a rich recipe that uses more eggs, milk and butter. Today, buckwheat crepes (sarrisins) are usually served as a main course when stuffed with seafood, chicken or meat, while froment crepes are offered as dessert when filled with fresh fruit, spread with jam or simply spritzed with sugar and lemon juice.
In France, crepes are still made on holidays to celebrate family life and a hope for good fortune ahead. A superstition has it that wishes will be granted if one touches the pan's handle while the crepe is being flipped.
Worldwide, Crepes Suzettes are probably the single best-known recipe. Of this dessert, Craig Claiborne in his book Food Encyclopedia (1985) tells the legend of famed French restaurateur Henri Charpentier, who was once a hapless young assistant waiter at the Cafe de Paris in Monte Carlo. Charpenier was nervous during a tableside preparation of crepes for the Prince of Wales, and his clumsy addition of orange liqueur caused the dish to ignite. The rest is culinary history.
When asked what he thought of Crepes Suzettes, Baltimore writer H.L. Mencken is said to have replied, "What do they taste like? They taste like more."
The secret of a great crepe - crisp, yet flexible enough to roll or fold - is that its batter should be the texture of heavy cream and pour easily. To attain this smooth consistency, the batter needs to rest for two to three hours before cooking, because this allows the flour's gluten to "relax" and expand as it absorbs the liquid.
For a dish this simple, however, there are a surprising variety of ingredients that different chefs swear by. Some believe a splash of beer added to the batter just before cooking makes the crepes lighter. Others recommend a final swirl of melted butter, vanilla or lemon zest.
While chefs like Costlow and Snoussi use professional crepe stones made by companies such as Krampouz, for the home cook all that's required is a nonstick pan that can maintain an even high heat. Staub, a French manufacturer of cast-iron cookware, makes an excellent one that's sold at most Williams-Sonoma stores.
Dominique Tougne, a spokesman for Staub and owner and chef of Bistro 110 in Chicago, says that no matter what pan you use, it's absolutely essential to be fully prepared before any cooking begins. "Once you pour the batter, if you have to stop to search for something - a platter, a spatula - the crepe will definitely burn. You have to be right there, ready to go."
Tougne also recommends keeping handy a paper towel that's been rubbed with softened butter. After lifting a finished crepe from the pan, give it a quick swipe with this paper towel to prevent the next one from sticking. Sounding a welcome note of realism, he said, "You can't make crepes the first time you try. It's not an immediately natural process, but the more you try, the more comfortable you become."
Then again, maybe you'd like to see how the experts do it before you attempt making crepes yourself. In that case, you're in luck, because both Snoussi and Costlow will be working their magic around Baltimore tonight.
"In France, when you go to a crepe restaurant, there are long tables set up like for a picnic. People go in families and large groups, and it's a party atmosphere," Snoussi said.
He's planning for a similar ambience at Crepes du Jour, which is celebrating Bastille Day by featuring buckwheat-crepe recipes such as his Provencale, filled with tomatoes, scallops, shrimp and creme fraiche.
Costlow will be at a fete jointly presented by Ma Petite Shoe and Bastille Antiques, both in Hampden. In addition to her signature crepe bursting with ham, Gruyere and imported Maille mustard, Costlow will fill dessert crepes with French fruit preserves as well as Michel Cluizel dark chocolate.
"I serve crepes like they do all over Europe, as a grab and go. All I ask is that people try to learn to eat them with their bare hands," she said. "Trust me. It holds together better, and stays hotter this way."
Basic Crepe Recipe
Makes ten to twelve 9- or 10-inch crepes
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
1/8 cup water
1 cup all-purpose flour, preferably bleached
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter, melted, plus 2 or 3 teaspoons butter for coating the pan
In a blender or food processor, blend the eggs, milk, water, flour, salt and 2 tablespoons melted butter for 5 seconds, or until smooth. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours, or up to 24 hours.
When ready to make crepes, gently stir batter. Heat 9- or 10-inch pan over medium-high heat until it is quite hot. Coat pan lightly with butter.
Pour in 1/4 cup batter for each crepe, tilting and rotating pan to coat the surface. Cook until surface is almost dry on top (or loses its sheen), about 1 minute. Loosen edges with a spatula and flip crepe. Cook other side for about 15 seconds.
Remove crepe from pan, and fill with ingredients of your choice.
--"Crepes," by Lou Siebert Pappas (Chronicle Books, 1998)
Per serving: 96 calories; 3 grams protein; 4 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 11 grams carbohydrate; 0 grams fiber; 44 milligrams cholesterol; 85 milligrams sodium
For more information about tonight's Bastille Day parties, contact:
Crepes du Jour, 1609 Sulgrave Ave., Baltimore, 410-542-9000
Ma Petite Shoe, 832 W. 36th St., Baltimore, 410-235-3442
Sofi's Crepes, 1723 N. Charles St., Baltimore, 410-727-7732
Make your own crepes
For information about crepe pans, contact:
Staub Cast Iron Cookware - www.staubusa.com