On Mother’s Day morning, millions of dads and children will be in the kitchen, whipping up a predictable breakfast in bed for Mama. Usually, the biggest surprise for the Mom is the mess they leave behind. Wouldn’t it be nicer to give her a more pleasant surprise with something that’s elegant and wholly unexpected, yet not difficult to make and easy for the children to cleaned up after—such as good, old-fashioned crepes?
You might be surprised to hear them called “old-fashioned,” since most assume Americans only discovered crepes after Julia Child starting flipping them on her groundbreaking cooking show in the sixties, but they’ve actually been around a long time—at least since the early days of the American Republic.
How, you may ask, did we miss that? As is so often the case in food history, it’s a simple case of mistaken identity. Until the early twentieth century, Americans didn’t know crepes by their elegant-sounding French name, but called them “pancakes,” a name that today is used for the fat breakfast cakes they would have known as “griddlecakes.”
This recipe, flavored with wine and nutmeg, is right out of the pages of history—Mary Randolph’s 1824 classic The Virginia House-Wife, one of the earliest cookbooks known to have been penned by a Southerner. Mrs. Randolph called it a Quire (Choir) of Paper Pancakes, because they were served in a stack with jam spread between them, an old-fashioned presentation that is rarely seen today.
For breakfast, you’ll want to omit the wine, but it is a handsome addition to dessert crepes at dinnertime.
Old Fashioned Crepes with Fresh Strawberry Compote and Grand Marnier Whipped Cream
Makes 12-16 5-to-6-inch crepes, serving 6-8
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature, or scalded and cooled to room temperature
3 large eggs, at room temperature
About ¼ cup water (or for dessert crepes, dry white wine, sherry, cognac, or kirsch)
2 ounces (4 tablespoons or ½ stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus a little more for making the crepes
2 ounces (a generous ½ cup) unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 recipe Fresh Strawberry Compote
Confectioners’ sugar, optional
1 recipe Grand Marnier Whipped Cream
In a 4 cup measuring cup or mixing bowl marked with volume measurements, whisk together the milk, butter and eggs together until smooth. Add enough water to make 2 level cups, or if making the crepes for dessert, add ¼ cup of wine and then enough water to bring it to 2 cups.
In a separate mixing bowl, sift or whisk together the flour, a generous grating of nutmeg, sugar, and salt. Gradually whisk the liquids into the dry ingredients, being careful not to let the flour lump. The batter will be quite thin. Let it rest, covered, for at least 20 minutes, or refrigerated overnight.
Heat a seasoned crepe pan or 8-inch non-stick pan and over medium-high heat. Brush lightly but evenly with butter. Pour in just enough batter (about ¼ cup) to thinly coat the bottom of the pan, swirling until it covers the entire bottom, and cook until the edges are well browned, the underside is golden-brown, and the top is set and opaque, about 35 to 45 seconds.
Loosen the edges, carefully flip the crepe, and cook until the second side is beginning to color. Invert the pan over a warmed plate. The crepe will fall out into it. Carefully flatten it and keep it warm while repeating with the remaining batter, separating each crepe with a sheet of wax paper.
The crepes can be made ahead up to this point. Let them cool and stack them with a sheet of wax paper separating them, transfer to a plastic storage bag and refrigerate until needed. Re-warm each crepe for a few seconds in the pan over medium heat.
Using a slotted spoon, put a little of the compote to one side of a warm crepe, roll it up, and drizzle with a little of the compote sauce. Dust with powdered sugar if liked and add a dollop of whipped cream. Serve immediately.
Fresh Strawberry Compote
Makes about 3½ cups
2 pints fresh strawberries, washed, hulled, and quartered or thickly sliced
2 tablespoons sugar
½ cup strawberry preserves, forced through a wire mesh strainer
2 tablespoons orange juice
2 teaspoons grated orange zest
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur, optional
Combine the berries and sugar in a glass, ceramic, or stainless steel bowl. Toss well and let stand until the sugar dissolves and the berries throw off their juices, about 10 minutes.
Stir in the preserves, juice, zest, and liqueur. Let stand 30 minutes. May be chilled before serving, and can be made up to 4 hours ahead and refrigerated until needed.
Grand Marnier Whipped Cream
Makes 2 cups
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
Whip cream until it is thickened. Sprinkle in the sugar and continue beating until it holds soft peaks. Fold in the zest and liqueur. Chill until needed.
Damon Lee Fowler is a culinary historian and author of six cookbooks, including Classical Southern Cooking, Damon Lee Fowler’s New Southern Baking, and The Savannah Cookbook. His work has also appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Relish. He lives and eats in Savannah, Georgia.
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