Gateau de Crepes a la Florentine (or, Drowning in Butter a la Julia Child)
It is time to Master the Art of French Cooking.
The dish noted in this post’s title (which I cannot pronounce, having elected to take Spanish from 7th grade through college) means Mound of French Pancakes Filled with Cream Cheese, Spinach and Mushrooms, according to Julia. Oh Julia, what to do if your significant other doesn’t eat mushrooms?
I’ve grown increasingly adept, over the years, at finding interesting substitutes for mushrooms. It’s easy in some cases, where I can just use a can of cream of celery soup instead of the dreaded cream of mushroom. In a situation like this, where the mushrooms are a prominent part of the dish, I must get creative.
So our entree this evening will be Mound of French Pancakes Filled with Cream Cheese, Spinach and Sun-Dried Tomatoes. And no, I don’t know how to say that in French either. Hopefully Julia (R.I.P.) is not rolling over.
There’s a lot to say about this dish, because it involves the making of crepes, two different fillings, and a Mornay sauce, layered into a casserole dish and baked. So let’s get to it!
The Cookbook: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child, Alfred A Knopf, Inc. 1961.
The Recipe: Gateau de Crepes a la Florentine (substituting sun dried tomatoes for mushrooms)
Cooking It Up:
Crepes make one feel very exotic when creating and serving them in a small American kitchen. However, they’re a staple in most French households. They’re cheap, versatile and really not that difficult, though they do take a certain amount of time and commitment. I’m not sure I’ve ever made anything that filled me with such a sense of accomplishment.
They can also be made ahead of time – simply layer them between sheets of wax paper and refrigerate until you’re ready to use them.
I was able to get a rather impressive two-pan system going while making the crepes. I recommend making a few and getting accustomed to the process before trying this.
Julia says, in her infinite wisdom, “As soon as you are used to the procedure, you can keep 2 pans going at once, and make 24 crepes in less than half an hour.” Of course, Julia also has great confidence that I can learn how to completely de-bone an entire chicken or duck while keeping the meat and skin intact. I made closer to 48 crepes in 2 hours, but that’s just me.
Pate a Crepes (Crepe Batter):
This recipe is supposed to make 12 crepes, 6 to 6 1/2 inches in diameter. I doubled the recipe, and was using a pan with a diameter of about 4 inches, so I ended up with quite a few more crepes than expected.
Put 1 cup cold water and 1 cup cold milk in the blender. Layer in 4 eggs and 1/2 tsp salt. Add 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour and 4 TB melted butter. (According to Julia, this order of ingredients is important.) Cover and blend at high speed for 45 to 60 seconds. Stop blender and scrape sides with a rubber spatula to get any stuck flour to incorporate. Blend for about 10 seconds more. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
Brush a 6 1/2 to 7 inch skillet (preferably nonstick, in my opinion) with canola oil. You can also use a piece of fat bacon or pork rind, but I was not fortunate enough to possess either of these delicacies. Heat the pan over medium-high heat until it barely starts to smoke.
For the size pan listed above…remove pan from heat and, holding it with one hand, pour in about 1/4 cup of batter and swirl it around in the pan so it covers the bottom. The film should be thin, and you’ll assume that you’ll never get it to flip, but do not despair. If you’re using a smaller pan, as I did, you want closer to 1/8 cup of batter for each crepe.
Set the pan back over the heat for 1 to 2 minutes until the bottom side is golden brown. Then you get to flip the crepe, which can be achieved by several different methods, depending on your level of experience and courage.
I like to give the crepe a few good shakes back and forth in the pan to loosen it. Then, summoning all my bravery, I flip it up in the air so it lands other-side-down in the pan. This is fun…I also found the magic number of shakes I needed to complete before I could do the flip. This number probably varies from person to person – mine just happens to be eight. I imagine Julia’s going something like “shake-a shake-a flip”. Mine is more like “shake-a shake-a shake-a shake-a shake-a shake-a shake-a shake-a, wince, cringe, flip”.
This method really is more forgiving than you might imagine. Several of my crepes folded in half, and a couple landed on the edge of the pan, but I just kept flipping until I got them where I wanted them. And with no casualties, I’m happy to report.
Of course, you can also gently turn the crepe with a couple of spatulas, or probably easiest, with your fingers grasping one edge.
You only need to cook the other side for 30 to 45 seconds. As Julia says, “This second side is rarely more than a spotty brown, and is always kept as the underneath or non public aspect of the crepe.”
Slide crepe onto a sheet of wax paper (if you’re serving them later). Brush skillet with oil again, and reheat until almost smoking. Repeat process until your batter is gone.
Sauce Mornay (bechamel with cheese):
Melt 4 TB butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir in 5 TB flour and cook for about 2 minutes, but don’t let the flour brown. Meanwhile, bring 2 3/4 cups milk to a boil.
Remove sauce pan from heat. Whisk in the boiling milk, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/8 tsp pepper and a good-sized pinch of nutmeg. Return to heat and stir for 1 minute. Mixture should thicken fairly quickly.
Reduce heat to low and stir in 1/4 cup whipping cream, a tablespoon at a time. Remove from heat and stir in about 3/4 cup shredded Swiss cheese. Pour a very thin layer of milk over the top, and set aside. The milk actually keeps a skin from forming on the sauce – brilliant!
This, by the way, is the best Mornay sauce I’ve ever made.
Saute 1 TB minced onion, shallots or green onions in 2 TB butter in a medium skillet. Add 3 to 4 cups of chopped spinach and 1/4 tsp salt. Cook, stirring, over medium-high heat to allow some of the moisture to evaporate. Stir in 2/3 cup of the Mornay sauce. Cover and simmer over low heat for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Set aside.
Cheese and Sun-dried Tomato Filling:
Mash 8 oz softened cream cheese in a bowl with salt and pepper. Beat in 1/2 cup of Mornay sauce and 1 egg (I used an electric hand-held mixer for good results).
Saute 1 TB minced onion, shallots or green onions in 1 TB butter and 1/2 TB olive oil for about 3 minutes. Stir in 3/4 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes (coated with the oil from the jar). They’re pretty gooey to chop, so I ended up using my kitchen shears, which worked beautifully. Cook for about 5 minutes longer to meld the flavors. Add this mixture to the cheese mixture and stir well. Taste and correct salt and pepper if necessary. You can go relatively easy on the salt since the sun-dried tomatoes are salty.
(Have you been tallying up the butter used in the various components of this meal? I do NOT recommend it!)
Assembling the Gateau de Crepes a la Florentine:
You’ll need a baking dish, preferably round, that’s about 9 inches in diameter. It’s best to go a little larger than you think you’ll need, because it gives you room to slice the dish later.
Butter the baking dish. Place one crepe in the bottom of it. Spread it with a layer of the sun-dried tomato filling. Put another crepe directly on top and press it lightly. Spread that crepe with a layer of the spinach filling. Continue this process, alternating between the two fillings, until you’ve used about 24 crepes and/or your fillings are gone.
Pour the rest of the Mornay sauce over the top and sides of the crepe mound. Sprinkle with 3 TB grated Swiss cheese and dot with 3 or 4 small pieces of butter.
Only from Julia would I receive instruction to dot cheese with butter.
Bake at 350 until heated thoroughly and top is lightly browned, about 30 to 40 minutes. Cut into pie-shaped wedges to serve, so you’ll see the delightful layering of crepes and fillings throughout.
Folks, this is a DECADENT, DECADENT meal. We were high on butter for a good hour after eating it. We were, in fact, absolutely giddy.
You do not want to make this every day, or even every month. But if you’re very lucky, I might bring it to your party some time. That way, Chris and I won’t have to feel guilty about eating the entire thing.
Until next time,