julia child, mastering the art of french cooking, julie powell, french cuisine

Catch Ya on the Flip Side

 

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“Every French household makes use of crepes, not only as a festive dessert for Mardi Gras and Candlemas Day, but as an attractive way to turn leftovers or simple ingredients into a nourishing main-course dish.” – Julia Child

I decided it was time to delve into a chapter of MTAOFC I haven’t really explored yet…crepes. The idea of crepes doesn’t really worry me. I mean, they’re basically really thin pancakes – and even I can make pancakes. When I read the recipe for Gateau de Crepes a la Florentine, I envisioned a thin pancake wrapped around a creamy spinach and mushroom mixture. Add a couple of those to a plate, and voila! A light dinner of fine French cuisine. 

So when I rolled up my sleeves and really started reading through the recipe, I was surprised to find that this was actually more like a casserole. The finished product would be a dish with layers of crepes, spinach spread, mushroom spread, and Sauce Mornay (a cheese sauce). Say…what was Julia trying to pull? 

Making crepe batter

While I wouldn’t call this recipe difficult, it does have several steps and takes some time to prepare (and dirties a lot of dishes…be sure all of your pans are clean ahead of time to save you the headache of doing some serious equipment juggling). The first step was to make Pate a Crepes (the crepe batter), which was simply a combination of cold water, cold milk, eggs, flour, salt and melted butter. I used a hand mixer to blend it together until smooth, then covered my mixing bowl and put it in the fridge for two hours. 

I took a little break to watch some MTV (note to self: maybe “I Used to Be Fat” isn’t the right show to watch while preparing a Julia Child meal), then headed back to the kitchen to prepare the fillings while the batter set. 

This dish consists of four parts:
• crepes
• Sauce Mornay
• spinach filling
• mushroom filling 

Adding cream to Sauce Mornay

I began with the cheese sauce, cooking flour and butter in a skillet until the mixture was a frothy foam. Off heat, I added in some boiling milk and a pinch of salt/pepper/nutmeg. I boiled it a bit more, then slowly added in a quarter cup of whipping cream, watching the sauce begin to thicken. I removed the pan from the stove and tossed in a cup of grated Swiss cheese (which really wasn’t very much in comparison to the amount of cream in the pan). I set the sauce aside and focused next on the spinach filling. 

This was easy – I cooked some minced shallots in a bit of butter, then added blanched/chopped spinach and salt to the pan until most of the excess moisture had evaporated. Next, I used a big wooden spoon to ladle about ½ cup of the sauce into a measuring cup, then poured it into the spinach pan. I let the mixture simmer for a few minutes before removing it from the stove and setting aside. (There’s a lot of “setting aside” in this recipe. Clear off some counter space beforehand!) 

Mushroom filling

Next came the cheese and mushroom filling. I mushed 8 oz. cream cheese in a glass bowl with salt and pepper, added a ½ cup of the cheese sauce to this bowl, and finally beat in an egg. Meanwhile, I sautéed some minced mushrooms and shallots in some butter/oil in a pan until they were nice and soft, then scooped them into the cream cheese mixture.

It was at about this time that I realized the crepe batter was probably ready. I pulled the bowl out of the fridge and used a spoon to pour ¼ cup of batter into a measuring cup. I heated a stainless pan (whose bottom was about 6” in diameter) and brushed the bottom with cooking oil. I turned the stove on high heat and waited for the pan to almost smoke. When it was ready (and with a mitt on my hand), I picked up the skillet in my right hand and held it off the heat. With my left hand, I poured the ¼ cup crepe batter into the bottom of the pan and swirled the pan around so the entire bottom was coated in a thin film of batter. It began to cook instantly, and I only had to set it back on the heat for a minute before the crepe was ready to flip. The second side only cooks for a few seconds before the crepe should come out of the pan and it’s finished. 

Finally! A perfect crepe!

This whole crepe cooking process happens really quickly. The pan is so hot, the batter cooks almost instantly, and the delicate crepes can burn easily – so you really have to keep an eye on what you’re doing. Julia mentions a technique where, once the batter is in the pan and you’ve set it back over the heat, you give the pan some violent thrusts to loosen the crepe from the bottom. I had zero luck with this, as my crepes kept falling apart when I tried it. So I just used a large spatula to flip mine, and that seemed to work fine. 

This recipe needed five crepes, and it only took six tries to finally produce a perfect example. I saved the rest of the batter to use in the next couple of crepe recipes and moved on to assembling the dish. 

The top wasn't browning but the edges were...oh, well. Let's eat!

I buttered the inside of a casserole dish, then layered the following:
• crepe
• cheese & mushroom spread
• crepe
• spinach spread
• crepe 

I had enough to make two sets of these layers, and finished with my perfect crepe on top, then poured the remaining cheese sauce over the top and around the sides. Topped with a little grated Swiss cheese, I put the dish in the oven (350 degrees) for about a half-hour. The top was supposed to brown, but mine never did. No matter! After about 35 minutes, I took the casserole out of the oven and dinner was served. 

You can see the layers in the plated portion. See? It's like a French lasagna!

Julia suggests cutting the dish into pie-shaped wedges to serve, but mine didn’t turn out so neatly. I used a large slotted spoon to scoop helpings onto our plates, which worked just fine. I hadn’t been too sure about this recipe from the beginning – a crepe casserole? – but was pleasantly surprised. It was delicious! The seasonings were just right, the cheese sauce was creamy (like an alfredo sauce) but not too heavy, and the crepes were light and perfect. The dish actually tasted just like a vegetable lasagna – the crepes were like noodles, and the spinach and mushrooms inside melded together and weren’t weighed down by the cheese at all. Ben and I both went back for seconds, and he doesn’t even like spinach. (Which reminds me… for some reason, my spinach-to-mushroom ratio seemed a little off. Next time I would make more of the mushroom filling.) 

To be honest, I hadn’t been sure before I started, but all the preparation steps were worth it. In the end, this meal was really terrific. Can’t wait for leftovers tonight! 

Later this week…more crepes, a whole chicken, and another crack at ladyfingers. 

Happy cooking!
– Jessica

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