Ya Gotta Have a Gimmick

Crepes

Is this dessert...or breakfast? Yes.

I have nothing against gimmicks, especially when they involve food. That’s the good news. The bad news—if you can call it that—is that I may be about to insult someone by calling fondue a gimmick. Does acknowledging that this is just my opinion take the sting off that statement?

I actually like fondue, especially the chocolate variety. I also happily admit that I may be practicing a bit of food snobbery. So sue me. As much fun as fondue can be to eat, the preparation is too easy. Cut up some chocolate (or cheese) (or both), slice some fruit, or cake, or bread, and light a match. Done. I like a bit more of a challenge even if the end result lacks polish. But that’s me.

Up until a few years ago fondue was considered a relic of postwar foodies, or at the very least, a culinary tourist trap for folks visiting Switzerland. Suddenly it was back, rediscovered by gen-x’ers the way they rediscovered the Lava Lamps downstairs at Urban Outfitters. Granted a lot of this has to do with the fact that fondue is so easy to prepare that even a kitchen-less dorm dweller can make it.

As I said, I like something that requires a bit more skill. I don’t want to make food that requires a bit of skill just so I can show off. Like so many home cooks I also want to learn new tricks and techniques. Even if the end result isn’t very good I can still eat it, or in the case of disaster, throw it away. (How many folks have had…uh… “trouble” baking a pie and ended up calling it a “crumble” instead? Yeah, I’m on to your tricks.)

Recently my Baby Niece (“BN”), an angelic, attractive, fashionable fashionista (and gen-x’er), planned a casual family meal. She texted me a request for crepes as dessert – she was having a craving for them paired with some fresh fruit and Nutella. And speaking of gimmicks…

Crepes were huge in the 60’s and 70’s. Flaming Crêpes Suzette was synonymous with fine dining dessert for the first three quarters of the twentieth century. The latter part of that period showed the rise and fall of American chain-crêperies like “La Crêpe” and “The Magic Pan.” Remember those names? If you are a certain age chances are you were towed to one of those early theme restaurants by your parents.

We’ve all heard of Crêpes Suzette but many folks are a bit vague about what this fussy dessert was all about. The gimmick was simple: get a sauté pan, throw in a few thin pancakes and some sugar, pour in some highly alcoholic, therefore extremely flammable orange-flavored liqueur, light a match, stand back and pray you won’t singe your eyebrows. The result—hopefully—was that the flame would caramelize the sugar, and burn off the alcohol, leaving a delicately-sweetened orange-scented pancake. Naturally results varied according to the skill level of the “garçon” waiting on you.

“La Crêpe” and “The Magic Pan” took the gimmick a step further by wrapping the complete meal in a crepe. “Seinfeld” fans may remember an episode where Kramer hired some guys he thought were Cubans to roll the crepes at “The Magic Pan.” Turned out they were Dominicans who rolled the crepes too tightly, a funny “Seinfeld-ian”riff on cigar snobbery.

Prior to BN’s request I had never made crepes, and that is what made the request perfect for me. Gimmick or not, this was a chance to learn something new. After doing a bit of research about recipes and techniques I got to work in the kitchen.

Most crepe recipes require that you refrigerate the batter for an hour before using. The usual explanation for this is that letting the batter rest allows any air bubbles evaporate. I suspect that there is more going on there: the longer you let the batter sit, the more hydrated the flour will get, the advantage being that the crepes will retain a bit of flexibility in the sauté pan, making them easier to flip.

The great mystery of crepes is their reputation for being difficult to remove from the pan; in fact most recipes recommend that you use a nonstick pan. I don’t have any nonstick pans, and didn’t want to buy one just to make crepes, so I used a plain 8” sauté pan. As an alternative to Teflon I used what we’ll call the oil painting method: I poured a bit of canola oil into a small bowl, folded a paper towel into a small square (approx 2” x 2”) and using my tongs, grabbed the folded towel, dipped it in the oil and “painted” a very thin layer of oil in the warm pan. I then ladled slightly less than ¼ cup of the batter in the pan before swirling it around to cover the bottom. The crepes cook very quickly (less than a minute for the first side, even shorter for the second side) and I quickly developed an assembly line rhythm (“oil, ladle, swirl, flip”) that produced about twenty crepes in about twenty minutes.

After letting the crepes cool for a few minutes, I stacked them, wrapped them tightly, and stuck them in the freezer. A few days later: I warmed them in the oven (still wrapped) for ten minutes and they were ready for their Nutella and fruit treatment.

“BN” was delighted. I was inspired. I can see serving the crepes exactly the same way (including Nutella) for breakfast. I don’t see myself making Crêpes Suzette – I am a flame-o-phobe, especially in my small kitchen. But as gimmicks go, crepes are fairly versatile, somewhat easy, and cheap (although I did see some incredibly expensive pre-made ones at the supermarket.) They’re a great make-ahead special weekend breakfast, letting you sleep later.

That’s a gimmick I really, really like.

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Click here for the recipe for Crepes.

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