Christian was an odd boy. My brother's best friend when we were in primary school, he had ginger hair, a strange accent and a loud personality. He lived in a slightly eccentric house right next to our school - which I later recognized in one of my first architecture classes - and he had the kindest mother. Still, it seemed like he always came over to our house. Especially on Wednesday afternoons.
I don't remember that much about Christian, really. I can't even remember if I liked him or not. But there's one thing I won't soon forget, and that's his appetite for my mother's crêpes. Somehow, this small and skinny boy could eat crêpe after crêpe after crêpe. I remember being amazed at the amount he ate and the speed at which he did so. I was slightly appalled, too, because his hurry to eat all those crêpes meant there would be less for us and because he tended to throw out his table manners the moment my mother put the tower of crêpes on the table. Christian didn't eat crêpes the way we did - layered with dark brown sugar and rolled up into a giant cigar. Christian ate them in what probably seemed to him like the most efficient way: he rolled them twice, first into a cigar, a second time into something resembling a cinnamon roll, and then stuffed the entire thing into his mouth in a single go. He'd then sit there, cheeks puffed and chewing, all the while trying to keep up an animated discussion with my brother.
I can't blame Christian for wanting to eat as many of my mother's crêpes as he could. I know I'm biased, but these crêpes truly were different than the thick and slightly chewy ones we'd get elsewhere. My mother would make them paper-thin, a soft, malleable and delicate vehicle for whatever kind of sugar we preferred. My youngest brother and I would try for ourselves, fiercely swirling the pan around so as to evenly divide the batter in a thin round layer. Sometimes it worked, but more often than not we ended up with oddly shaped crêpes. With all their drips, they looked like spiders.
What really makes the difference in these crêpes, however, is the addition of a generous splash of dark rum. It's what gives these crêpes their distinct flavor and it's what makes them so incredibly delicious. It's also my favorite part of the recipe. This may sound a little misguided, but the moment when I open up that bottle of rum and its smell comes crawling into my nostrils ... that's the moment that conjures up all these memories. Every single time.
I am still a sucker for a simple crêpe with a thick layer of dark brown sugar, but I wanted to do something more ... I wanted to transform these humble crêpes into a simple but noteworthy dessert. Something you'd serve to friends after a Friday night dinner or a barbecue. After trying out Yossy Arefi's Vanilla Roasted Rhubarb last week, I knew it would make the perfect addition. I was never a fan of rhubarb, really, but Yossy's dish made me reconsider. There is just such a perfect balance between the sour rhubarb, the sweet sugar and the soothing vanilla. Is it ironic that I'm combining one of my absolute favorite childhood treats with something that I refused to eat for so many years?
• After so many years, I consider these crêpes a family recipe. Truth is, however, that it's an old recipe that probably just came with a bottle of Negrita rum. It can be found in my mother's recipe book in the form of a tiny piece of paper, almost falling apart at the folds, with grainy black-and-white photographs and ancient spelling. The Vanilla Roasted Rhubarb is taken from Yossy Arefi's Rhubarb Pavlova recipe in Sweeter Off The Vine. I made only one adjustment to the recipe and that's the use of cane sugar rather than regular granulated sugar. I like how it adds a little extra depth of flavor.
• Baking crêpes isn't as hard as some people make it out to be, but it can require a little practice. To evenly divide the batter into a thin layer, you have to work quickly and swirl the pan in a swift and decisive manner. In the beginning, it might be difficult to make a perfect circle, but don't worry too much about it. The crêpes will taste delicious regardless of their shape.
• Finding the right heat is a crucial aspect of baking crêpes. If you bake them too hot, they will burn yet be underbaked; if you bake them at a low temperature, they will become tough. It's best to use a thin, flat, non-stick frying pan, which responds to the heat of your burners quickly. Use the butter as a guideline: if it burns immediately when it touches the pan, it's too hot; if it doesn't sizzle, it's too cold. Adjust the setting as you go along.
My Childhood Crêpes w/ Yossy's Vanilla Roasted Rhubarb
Vanilla Roasted Rhubarb adapted from Sweeter Off The Vine, by Yossy Arefi
for ca. 20 crêpes
50 gr unsalted butter
250 gr all-purpose flour
50 gr granulated sugar
1 tsp salt
500 ml whole milk, room temp.
4 tbsp dark rum
for yossy’s vanilla roasted rhubarb
340 gr fresh rhubarb
1 vanilla bean
65 gr raw cane sugar
pinch of salt
4 tsp lemon juice (from 1/2 lemon)
for the crêpes
1. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and set aside.
2. In a medium bowl, combine flour, sugar and salt. Make a hole in the middle and add the eggs. Whisk to combine. The mixture will be thick and a little hard to handle.
3. Continuing to whisk, slowly pour in the milk, followed by 3 tbsp of the melted butter and the dark rum.
4. To bake the crêpes, heat a medium frying pan over medium-high heat. Once the pan is really hot, brush it with the remains of the melted butter. It should sizzle, without burning. Pour in a small quantity of the batter, swirling the pan so as to evenly divide the batter across the pan. You want this to be really thin. Bake until the sides of the crêpe start to turn brown, then flip and bake for an additional minute or so, until the other side is golden and caramelized. Flip the crêpe onto a plate and repeat the process for the remaining crêpes, greasing the pan after every third or fourth crêpe.
5. To keep the crêpes warm while you're baking, wrap the stack of baked crêpes in aluminum foil.
for yossy’s vanilla roasted rhubarb
1. Preheat oven to 190˚C.
2. Cut the rhubarb into 5 cm pieces. If your rhubarb stalks are really wide, cut them lengthwise, too. Split the vanilla bean, lengthwise, and use the back of a knife to scrape out the seeds.
3. In a medium bowl, combine rhubarb, vanilla bean seeds, sugar, salt and lemon juice. Stir to combine, then transfer to a baking dish large enough to hold the rhubarb in a single layer. Add the vanilla bean.
4. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the rhubarb is soft and juicy, but not falling apart. Serve warm or let cool to room temperature.
Fold a crêpe into a triangle and generously spoon the rhubarb over the crêpes. Finish with a dollop of whipped cream and a sprinkle of pistachios.
Crêpes can be eaten warm or cold. Cold crêpes can be reheated in the microwave.