The Comeback Crepe

Someone much better dressed than I once observed that there is a difference between fashion and style. The first is temporary; the second is forever.

Crepes are a prime example. At one point it seemed they had faded as far out of fashion as rayon. Of course, rayon's back--albeit mostly under its French name, viscose. And with the upswing in old-fashioned French food, crepes are making a comeback too.

It's about time. After all, they've always had style. They're a blank slate for cooks--much more of a black dress than a leisure suit. Dress them up however you want; they even can switch from sweet to savory. Best of all, they're simple to make and can be prepared in quantity and frozen until you're ready to use them.

This recipe is a good example of crepes' flexibility. While they're perfectly good merely brushed with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, they also can be spruced up. Here, you've got three kinds of silk going on: the eggy silk of the crepe, the airy silk of the cream and the slippery silk of the tropical fruit.

Most of this recipe is merely a matter of assembly; the subrecipes can be prepared well in advance (except, of course, for whipping the cream).

In fact, making the crepes is the only real cooking required. And while that can be a bit tricky, there are tips that can help. Those and a little practice will have you flipping crepes like a boulevardier.

The trickiest thing is judging the consistency of the batter. The basic beginning crepe batter should be about the thickness of heavy cream. Thicker batters are easier to control when you're trying to swirl them across the bottom of the pan.

But the better you get at making crepes, the thinner your batter can be and the advantage of that becomes obvious once you've used it. Crepes made from a thin batter are finer and smoother than those made with all milk. These crepes are the lightest and silkiest I've made because the batter is half water. (Although all milk is certainly traditional, using water is nothing new--Julia Child did it in 1961 in the first volume of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking.")

Crepes can be made by hand, of course, but using a blender makes the process practically foolproof. You'll need to let the batter rest before using it, though. The intense action of the machine on the combination of water and flour creates gluten even with a thin batter. Pour the batter through a strainer into a sealable container and stick it in the refrigerator. The batter should be usable after 30 minutes, but you'll get the best results with a two-hour rest.

To cook the crepes, make sure your pan is good and hot. The best test is to dribble water on it and see if the drops dance. Add a little butter at this point and after it spreads across the surface, wipe the pan clean with a paper towel. There's an old cook's saw about the first crepe in every batch never working. Food scientist Harold McGee proved recently that this was usually because of uneven butter buildup on the pan.

Return the pan to the heat briefly and then--this sounds trickier than it is--hold it off heat in your right hand at roughly a 45-degree angle while you ladle in about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of batter. The batter should hit the bottom center of the pan right where it begins to turn up at the side. Immediately rotate the pan, pivoting with your wrist and turning it clockwise to distribute the batter across the entire bottom of the skillet. If you need more batter, add it immediately. If you have too much batter, simply pour it back into the workbowl.

That's the hardest part, and it might take you a couple of tries to get it right. Once you've done it, though, it's like riding a bicycle.

Return the pan to the heat and cook until you see the edges of the crepe, where the batter is thinnest, begin to brown. This will take about a minute.

On the first crepe, watch for the appearance of pinpoint holes. It's natural to have some around the edge, but if you have them in the middle, you haven't let the batter rest long enough. The flour needs more time to absorb the liquid thoroughly and smoothly. Just put the batter aside for 30 minutes or so.

When the crepe is done on the first side, flip it. The easiest way is to use a small spatula or a table knife to loosen one edge, then grasp it with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands and give it a flip, like turning a comforter.

If you want to get fancy, once it is freed from the pan, tilt the pan down in front so the crepe slides forward, then give it a quick push-pull jerk to flip it over in the air. Voila!

Since a crepe is so thin, you don't really need to cook the second side so much as dry it out. It'll take about 10 to 15 seconds, at the most. Once the crepe slides free on the pan, it's done. The mark of a well-made crepe is a uniformly golden exterior (first side) and a pale, creamy interior (second side).

When the crepe is done, slide it onto a plate. After it has cooled for a minute, cover it with a sheet of wax paper. This way, you can stack as many crepes as you like without them sticking together. Double-wrap eight to a dozen in tightly sealed plastic bags, and they'll freeze well too. Simply pull out the number you need a couple of hours before dinner.

It's like always having just the right thing hanging in your closet.

MANGO CREPES WITH MEXICAN CREMA

Mexican crema is available in the cheese section of most supermarkets.

CREPES

3/4 to 1 cup milk

1/2 cup water

3 eggs

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup flour

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted, plus 1 tablespoon cold for frying

FRUIT

4 mangoes

1 (1/2-pound) piece red Mexican papaya

1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons orange liqueur

Juice of 2 limes

ASSEMBLY

1 cup Mexican crema Mexicana (not sour or agria)

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon orange liqueur

Pulse 3/4 cup milk, water and eggs 2 or 3 times in blender until smooth. Add sugar, cinnamon, salt and flour. Blend batter until smooth. With blender running, add melted butter. Batter should be thickness of heavy cream. If necessary, add p to 1/4 cup more milk to correct thickness. Strain into covered bowl and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.

Heat 8- to 9-inch non-stick skillet over medium-high heat until few drops of water skitter and dance when sprinkled on surface. Add 1/2 tablespoon cold butter and swirl to distribute it across surface. Wipe excess butter from skillet with paper towel and return to heat.

Holding skillet off heat with one hand, pour in roughly 1/3 cup batter. Swirl quickly across bottom of skillet. Pour excess batter back into bowl and trim ragged edge that is left. Return skillet to heat and cook until edges of crepe begin to brown, about 1 minute. Using small spatula or table knife, lift edges of crepe. Grab edges with both hands and quickly flip to turn over. Cook uncooked side just until crepe slides free in pan, about 30 seconds. Remove to plate and cover with wax paper.

Repeat until all batter is used, using remaining 1/2 tablespoon butter as needed. You should have at least 12 crepes. Crepes can be stored, tightly sealed, overnight in refrigerator.

FRUIT

Seed mangoes by making slightly concave cut with sharp knife parallel to pit. Make diamond-shaped cuts through flesh but not through skin. Invert mango half so it turns inside out and diamonds pop out. Cut diamonds free into bowl. Remove skin from flesh remaining on pit and cut flesh into bowl.

Peel papaya and remove seeds. Grate through big holes in box grater directly into mangoes. Add sugar, liqueur and lime juice and toss to coat well.

ASSEMBLY

Whisk crema until slightly thickened. Beat in sugar and liqueur.

Lay Crepe on dessert plate, browned side down. Spread lightly with whipped crema and top with about 1/4 cup of Fruit. Fold into triangle. Repeat with second Crepe on same plate. Repeat using remaining Crepes. Garnish each plate with some of remaining Fruit and serve.

6 servings. Each serving:

489 calories; 359 mg sodium; 161 mg cholesterol; 27 grams fat; 51 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 1.51 grams fiber.

* Christofle porcelain plates from Christofle, Beverly Hills.

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