“A crêpe by any other name would taste as sweet.”
So I’ve taken a few artistic liberties with one of the most famous lines in literature. Literary blasphemy aside, crepes do go by a lot of different names around the world. In France where they originated they are of course called crepes, but in England, they’re often referred to as pancakes. In Italy, crespelle; Hungary, palacsintas; Scandinavia, plattars; and of course, Jewish blintzes. It seems crepes have found their way into the hearts and the traditions of most countries.
When I was living in New Zealand I remember making crepes with a boy from Manchester who recited a little rhyme that I still quietly say to myself whenever making them. “Milk, eggs, flour. Pancake power”. It’s not Shakespeare but it stayed with me.
Although the world has come to embrace these thin pancakes they are held in the highest esteem by the French. They originally came from the rather wild and rocky northwestern region of France known as Brittany. The forbidding landscape kept many crops from growing successfully there until buckwheat arrived on the scene in the 12th century. A crop they could finally cultivate, the people were overjoyed and used buckwheat in everything, most notably in the thin flat cakes they called crêpes. Though white flour is a common alternative to buckwheat it is not classic and is sometimes scathingly referred to as “crêpes de froment” by traditionalists. Sweet crêpes are generally made with wheat flour and the savory are still often times made from buckwheat and is a great gluten free option.
On February 2nd there is a national holiday in France dedicated to the celebration of crêpes called Fête de la Chandeleur or le jour des crêpes (‘the day of crêpes’). There is a tradition on this day to hold a coin in your writing hand while flipping a crêpe in the other. If you catch the crêpe your family is said to have a prosperous coming year.
The Crêpe Suzette may be the most widely known and copied employment for the crêpe. It is said to have originated in 1895 at the Cafe de Paris in Monte Carlo by a chef only 14 years old (although some sources say 16). Henri Charpentier had responded to a request from the Prince of Wales who had asked for a crêpe dessert that evening. Henri began to make the crepes in the usual manner adding a brandy blend of his own creation when the liquor caught fire. Pleasing the crowd, Henri played off the mistake with great panache. And the prince, delighted with the dish, complimented Henri who responded by offering to name the dessert after the prince. In a moment of gallantry, the prince said that it should not be named after himself but instead his dinner guest, the beautiful Suzette.
“Thus was born and baptized this confection, one taste of which, I really believe, would reform a cannibal into a civilized gentleman.”
-Henri Charpentier, In reference to his own creation
This cake is a real lesson in patience, but it is not difficult and each of the steps can be broken down and spread out over days. It is important to have a realistic mental idea of the time investment though. When Thomas Keller says “this is one of the easiest cakes” in his book he’s not lying he’s just leaving out the fact that it takes the longest. But cooking and baking are labors of love. You’re probably not making a cake like this so you can sit down to it alone. Manifesting your love and affection for the people in your life in a physical way is very gratifying and it’s something that people can do most easily, and most enjoyably through food. So when setting about making a cake like this remember that the joy is in the act of creating.
This is a recipe inspired by Thomas Keller’s Crepe Cake from the Bouchon Bakery. With its orange Diplomat cream and its boozy crêpes, this is the cake interpretation of the Crêpe Suzette.
Cake Suzette (Gateau de Crepes)
For the Crêpes
2 cups Whole Milk
¾ cup + ½ tablespoon Eggs
1¼ cups + 3 tablespoons All-Purpose Flour
1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons Sugar
3½ tablespoons Grand Marnier
1½ teaspoons Kosher Salt
1 Vanilla Bean (or 1 tablespoon extract)
0.7 ounces Butter, Unsalted
Oil or Butter, For Cooking
Some people combine the elements for their crepe batter in a bowl but I think that doing it in the blender is faster, easier, and integrates the ingredients better than I ever could by hand. With that being said, add all your ingredients except the butter to the blender and mix together thoroughly. Add in your melted butter. Blend again, and pour through a strainer in order to avoid any unwanted lumps of flour or larger pieces of your vanilla pod, if using. Refrigerate overnight.
Bring a large crepe pan or a 10” non-stick pan up to medium heat, I recommend that you do not substitute a large, heavy, high-sided cast-iron pan as I did.
Add your desired fat, be that oil or butter. Butter has a tendency to burn, but if you’re careful it adds a wonderful luxurious quality to your crepes. Using a paper towel, wipe away any excess.
Once the pan is heated thoroughly, lift the pan in one hand and add your crepe batter with the other (a ¼ cup should be enough). Pour the batter into the center of the pan swirling as you do to thoroughly coat the bottom. Cook until the batter is just set and the bottom is a light golden brown, this takes about 15-30 seconds. Using a combination of the spatula and your hands flip the crepe in one swift motion. Cook briefly until golden, transfer to a large plate or a sheet pan to thoroughly cool. Crepes are ready for use ten minutes after they’re taken from the pan.
Pastry Cream (Creme Patissiere)
½ cup + 2½ tablespoons Egg Yolks
1 Vanilla Bean (or 1 tablespoon extract)
½ cup + 2½ tablespoons Sugar
½ cup + 3½ tablespoons All-purpose Flour
2½ cups + 2½ tablespoons Whole Milk
1.2 ounces / 2 generous tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, at room temperature
The zest of 2 oranges
–In most pastry cream recipes you will be directed to heat up the milk separately from the eggs and sugar, having you carefully temper the eggs so as to avoid their scrambling when introduced to the hot milk. This method results in a lot of needless dirty dishes and additional hassles. Combining everything prior to the heating eliminates all that fuss and heightens your chances of making a perfect Creme Pat every time.
Preparation is key to making this an easy and relatively fast procedure so I encourage you to start off by setting out an ice bath. Place a medium bowl in the ice water and a fine mesh strainer over the bowl. You will use these later.
You can do this in a standing mixer or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, either will work.
Put the egg yolks and vanilla bean if you are using it (if using extract do not add it now as the flavor will be lost in the cooking of the cream) into your bowl mixing on medium-low for about 30 seconds. Reduce the speed as you pour in the sugar, bringing it back up after it has been added. Continue to mix until the yolks lighten in color and the mixture starts to thicken. When the whisk is lifted, the mixture should form a slowly dissolving ribbon. Scrape down the sides of your bowl and add your flour mixing again until thoroughly incorporated. Keeping the mixer running pour in your milk. When everything has been mixed completely, transfer all this into a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan and set over medium heat.
Using a whisk, stir constantly to prevent the cream from scorching. Once you see bubbles breaking the surface, cook for five minutes longer or until pastry cream has thickened. Pour the cream through the strainer immediately. Whisk the cream for a moment in the cold bowl to help stop the cooking. Then add your butter, vanilla extract (if using), and orange zest, whisking until the butter has completely melted and everything is thoroughly combined.
I would like to mention here that this is one of the best smelling things in the world and if you’d like to take a moment before storing your cream in which to breathe deeply it is an inclination that should be indulged.
Transfer into a container and press a piece of plastic wrap directly against the surface of the cream. This prevents a skin from forming as it chills.
This cream should be refrigerated for at least an hour and up to 4 days.
Orange Diplomat Cream
2 teaspoons granulated/1⅛ sheet Gelatin
3⅔ cup Orange Pastry Cream
1 cup + 2 tablespoons Heavy Cream, whipped to medium peaks
Place the gelatin in a bowl of ice water to soften and “bloom”. If using granulated add just enough so the gelatin plumps up and softens. The only real difference between gelatin sheets and the granulated variety is said to be in the clarity of the finished product. For something like a molded dessert this may be important but for our purposes it is unnecessary.
Transfer one-third of the Orange Pastry Cream to a pan and add the gelatin, if using sheets squeeze out any excess water before adding just the sheets. Heat on low, stirring until the gelatin has thoroughly dissolved and the pastry cream has loosened up a little.
Meanwhile, the rest of your pastry cream can be transferred to a large bowl and mixed very briefly till smooth. Add the warmed gelatin/cream and mix again. Fold in the whipped cream in a couple of additions. Press plastic wrap against the surface again and refrigerate until the gelatin has had a chance to do its work, and the cream has become firm. This takes roughly 4 hours.
Wrap a 10” cardboard round with plastic wrap and place your prettiest crêpe on her most attractive side.
Fill a pastry bag with your Orange Diplomat Cream and pipe 80g/⅓ cup into the center. Spread with a small offset spatula, being extra generous with the sides. This is supposed to ensure an even cake as the crêpes are thinner around the edges.
I placed my crêpes directly onto my kitchen scale to ensure that I was getting as near 80g as I possibly could. But if you don’t want to be psychotic about it, dumping a 1/3 cup of the diplomat in the center and spreading would work just fine. Do this 12 times topping your final layer of cream with the 13th crêpe. Wrap in plastic wrap, and no surprise, refrigerate for 4 hours.
Unwrap the cake and invert onto a serving platter. Sprinkle the top of the cake with an even layer of sugar and using a propane torch, caramelize the top of the cake and serve it forth.