Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Desserts

Did I ever tell you about how I came to work at a French creperie? Well, it all started when I graduated from High School in Singapore a year ahead of time. We knew we were moving back to India but the Indian Government had been up and down about Dad’s posting dates, so we didn’t know exactly when we’d be back. So I’d taken extra courses and graduated early and now I was underage for college in India so I had nothing to do. One day when mom and I were out at a mall, she spotted a sign asking for assistance at a French bakery so she egged me on to put in a one-line resume and our phone number. The next thing I knew, they called me for an interview and I was hired as the girl manning the crepe stand at the food court in the Metro mall on Orchard Road.

The crepe stand was a new venture by two young Frenchmen in their mid-twenties. I of course only remember the name of the one on whom I had a crush – Bruno. His partner used to be the manager of the stand I worked at. We had about 6 square feet of space at a small supermarket, and it consisted of a table with a crepe machine sitting on top and space below to store paper plates and so on. My job was not only to make the crepes but also to wander around the food court giving samples out to entice customers into buying them, because they were new to Singapore.

When I began working there, Bruno and his partner had exactly three fillings for the crepes – butter and sugar, butter and jam and jambon – ham. They asked me to try and come up with new fillings, so my friend from school, Ginger - who worked at the yogurt stand next door that summer - and I used to brainstorm to come up with new flavourings. Cinnamon was one flavor I remember Ginger coming up with. We came up with banana, and chocolate (Nutella), then banana-nutella, granola…Ginger and I used to have a lot of fun coming up with these during our lunch breaks.

I remember all kinds of funny things happened at that crepe stand. First, one day the batter finished and when I called my boss to tell him that, he just said, “Well, buy it from the supermarket”. I was flabbergasted and spent a good hour wandering around in search of the batter before it occurred to me that language may have gotten the better of us and called him to say it was the batter – crepe mix – that I was talking about and not the butter – le beurre. It got so confusing for him that I wrote out the old tongue-twister, Betty Botter bought some butter and gifted it to him. Another time, I noticed that every day by about midday, the batter, if it had been left over from the previous day, would start smelling bad and then the crepes would start coming out spoilt – they wouldn’t spread easily but drop out in little gobs and stick to the crepe machine surface. At first my boss thought I was doing something wrong, and then we both started getting puzzled about it. Then one day my boss figured it out – the supermarket manager used to turn off all the electricity at night, including for the refrigerator where the leftover batter was stored.

It was fun working at that stand, and I got to make a decent amount of money. The crepe machine was a doddle to operate – you filled the batter in a little rectangular pan that stood at one end and ran on wheels. You brushed some butter on the hot surface and then pulled the rectangular pan from one end of the hot plate to the other, applying pressure evenly to a pair of handles – kind of like pliers’ handles – that stuck out from the long sides of the rectangular pan, and that meant that a small crack opened up on the floor of the pan and poured out an even thickness of crepe batter along the hot plate. Brush a little more melted butter onto the crepe, dust caster sugar/ jam or jambon onto the crepe, roll it up using the spatula and serve up with your best French smile!

I even learned to make crepes flambé, which was spectacular, especially in the relatively bland environs of the food court – douse a butter and sugar crepe in rum and set it alight. The showmanship came in folding up the crepe even as flames were shooting out – you had to be really fast – and serving it up onto a plate. Every time a large crowd was in the food court, I’d flambé a crepe and then the next hour or so be flooded with orders.

We didn’t end up having crepes too often while we lived in France. I think we were so starved for spicy snacks and food, that sweet stuff just didn’t appeal to us at that point. And I’d never made crepes from scratch by myself. But the thought of making crepes suddenly occurred to me yesterday morning as I was debating what to make for Christmas lunch. I usually put on a spread that involves a fair degree of work, mostly because I have a tiny oven so any meal that involves baking more than one dish becomes a production and a masterclass in timing. And I like making what I think of as typically continental fare for Christmas – though vegetarian – baked vegetables, quiches, pies, potatoes dauphinoise – that sort of thing. But this year I’ve been so exhausted lately and last night we were out late for our anniversary dinner and then up early for Christmas present-opening with the kids so I was making a simple meal. Crepes seemed like the perfect way to end it – simple yet flamboyant and exotic.

They were surprisingly easy to put together from scratch, and very easy to make. Even better, they need really careful monitoring of the amount of butter used – my kind of recipe! Too much and they won’t come out right. I started out with butter and sugar ones, then for the kids I made two with Nutella. But I really wanted the flambé, reminiscent of Christmas pudding, so I cut up some oranges in half and made one crepe with sugar and orange halves, folded it up, smothered it in Benedictine and set it alight. That was a spectacle, alright, with flames shooting high up.

I don’t have great pictures, because you get the best effect with the lights turned down low, which means I’m groping in the dark for the matches and by the time I’ve found them half the liqueur has caramelized away and so on. But I’d highly recommend this super-easy dessert for a small gathering. It looks incredibly complicated and oomphy, tastes great and, like all my favourite recipes, you can ring in your own changes. For instance, tonight we had some batter left, so in remembrance of an amazing liqueur we’d bought at Freiburg once, I made crepes Flambé with orange peel and kahlua – truly delicious. I wouldn’t be surprised if crepes made with Nutella topped with Frangelico taste fabulous – an adult chocolate experience – or ones doused in Godiva…the possibilities are endless!

1 cup plain flour
1 egg
3/4 cup of milk
For flavouring:
Caster sugar
Orange peel/Cut oranges/Thinly sliced Apples/ Nutella/ cinnamon powder
Tablespoon of liqueur for flambeing - you can use any clear liqueur, from Kirsch to Frangelico, Kahlua...

Make a paste of the egg and flour and gradually add in the milk, whisking slowly to avoid forming lumps. Keep aside for half hour.

Use a nonstick pan for making the crepes. Take 2-3 paper towels and dab a bit of butter on them, and rub the paper on the frying pan. Be careful to use only the minimum butter needed to grease the pan.

The batter should be pouring consistency - use a few more teaspoonsful of milk to thin it out if needed - it should pour easily from a jug. Pour some batter into the frying pan and swirl the pan around to coat completely.

Pour off excess batter if any.

Sprinkle some caster sugar on the crepe.

Add oranges/ orange peel/ whatever. Fold over the two sides towards the middle.

Douse in the liqueur and, working quickly, set it alight and serve up.

With practice, you can serve it up while flames are still shooting up, which looks phenomenal. You should turn the lights down before you flambe so it looks even more spectacular!

1 comment:

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