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Crepe Night: Gluten-Free Edition

Crepe Night: Gluten-Free EditionOne of our favorite special-treat meals is crepe night. We whip up a few batches of crepes and make an entire meal of them, starting with savory ham-and-Gruyere crepes (perhaps topped with a fried egg, called a “complete” crepe in French) and finishing with sweet versions — either lemon, butter and sugar, or the classic chocolate-hazelnut with sliced banana. In a throwback to our pre-kids life in Paris, our crepes are all served “street-style,” folded into large triangles and slipped into some parchment or laid on a paper plate. The family gathers around the kitchen island on barstools, and I play the short-order cook, serving crepes as they are ordered.

One of my daughters has become gluten-intolerant, however, so over the past year I’ve had to navigate the waters of a gluten-free world — learning swaps, and testing and retesting my old recipes in new gluten-free versions. And I’ve learned when to let go and accept that I simply cannot re-create a credible version without gluten (yes, I’m talking to you, croissants). Crepes fell into a category somewhere in between. We could make a passable version, but since the kids were on spring break and I was taking most of the week off to spend time with them, I figured I had the time to (finally) nail the gluten-free crepe. And I did.

If you had asked me a year ago how to modify a recipe like crepes to make them GF, I would have blissfully thought that it would be as simple as swapping in gluten-free flour. Sure, many companies out there distributed their own “gluten-free flour,” but how different could they be? The answer is: incredibly. While standard all-purpose flour has a specific, reliable percentage of protein, gluten-free versions are all over the map. Garbanzo beans and rice, for instance, are both gluten-free and can be turned into flour, but you can imagine that the protein content (and flavor) in the resulting flours is completely different. Lots of companies will use starches in their GF flours to help bakers deliver light, fluffy textures (potato starch, corn starch and tapioca starch, for instance), but the price for that fluffiness is lack of structure. Try making a crepe out of a highly starchy flour blend and you will have a heck of a time getting that thing to flip in one piece. Starch and protein behave wildly differently in recipes, which is why I am confused anytime I see a GF recipe that just states “gluten-free flour” as an ingredient. We absolutely need more information than that for 90 percent of recipes — different flour blends will work best for different types of recipes.

Here are the monkey wrenches with crepes:

1. Too much protein and they will be rubbery, not to mention they will taste off — probably “bean-y” or strongly grain-y, since many high-protein GF flours are bean-based (garbanzo or fava, for instance) or grain-based (such as sorghum or amaranth).

2. Too much starch and they won’t hold together. (Note: A pancake recipe can be fairly starchy since the pancakes will be thicker and fluffier due to leavening.)

3. GF flours will absorb liquid over time, which means the batter will thicken over time, making it hard to judge when you first make it.

I needed to the find the perfect balance between protein and starch, so I played around with various ratios of protein-based and starchy flours. (To determine whether a flour is protein-based or starchy, I check the nutrition label. For every 1/4 cup serving, if there are three or more grams of protein, I usually consider that a protein-based flour; two grams and below I consider starchier.) Also check the label to see if xanthan gum is already added to the flour mix, as it acts as a thickener or binder, which helps in the absence of gluten.

Here are my tweaks and solutions:

1. I increased the egg ratio in my recipe, which improved structure without imparting an off taste.

2. I made the crepes just a tiny bit thicker than my regular wheat crepes and created my off-burner cooking trick (see below).

3. I used half milk and half water to bring more lightness into the crepes.

4. I let the batter sit for 30 minutes after mixing, which gave the flour time to absorb the liquid.

Recipe: Gluten-Free Crepes

2 large eggs
3/4 cup milk (not skim)
3/4 cup water
1 tablespoon melted butter or melted coconut oil
3/4 cup protein-based gluten-free flour mix (such as Bob’s Red Mill GF All-Purpose or Buckwheat for a Brittany-inspired crepe)
1/2 cup starch gluten-free flour mix (such as Pamela’s or a mix of rice flour, potato starch and tapioca starch)
1/4 teaspoon xanthan gum (omit if your flour mix already contains)
Pinch salt
Optional extras: If making savory crepes only, add chopped herbs. If making dessert crepes only, add 1 tablespoon sugar, orange zest or cocoa powder. We use same batter for both savory and sweet, so we leave out the extras.

In a small bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients. In a clean, large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and whisk until smooth. (The batter will be thin.) Place bowl in the refrigerator and let rest for 30 minutes. Once rested, the batter should be just slightly thicker than heavy cream (which means it will be slightly thicker than regular crepe batter). Add a tablespoon or two of water if needed. Heat a nonstick skillet or crepe pan on medium heat. Spray with nonstick spray just before pouring in the batter each time. Pour in just under 1/4 cup of batter into the hot, greased pan, and swirl the pan around to coat the entire bottom of the pan with the batter, using the back of spoon if needed to help it spread quickly. After the swirling, place the pan back on the burner and let it cook for about 30-60 seconds, or until the top of the crepe looks partially dry. Then pull the crepe off the burner for another 30-60 seconds (I cook on the back burner and pull to the front burner.). This off-burner cooking trick is what makes my GF crepes perfect — totally worth the extra seconds of cook time. The extra (low-heat) time let the crepes settle into shape, so they flipped easily without falling apart, while not over-browning them. As the crepes cook, stack them on a large plate. Then fill with anything you want, from ham and cheese to chocolate-hazelnut spread. Fold and enjoy.

Anyone else out there with gluten-free family members? What recipe struggles and triumphs have you experienced?

Posted by FN Dish Editor

3rd April, 2014

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