These crepes were the perfect example of how simple, humble elements can come together to make something way more impressive and tasty than the sum of its parts. The three elements, from top to bottom:
Thing 1: Cinnamon Apples
If you’ve been following for a while, you may remember the neglected apple crumble I made about a month ago, when I had so many mealy, wrinkled apples that after I’d peeled and diced them all, I realized I had more than I could possibly fit in my baking dish. I threw the extras (about a pound after coring and peeling) in a pot with a cinnamon stick, about a tablespoon of brown sugar, and about an inch of water and let them simmer while I prepped and baked the crumble. I had to add more water a few times—I think I’ve actually destroyed two pots by further neglecting already-neglected apples in my attempt to salvage them. (What did I say about my fruit-neglecting superpowers?) After 20 or 30 minutes, they were soft enough to mash with the back of a spoon.
But I didn’t mash them. The apples were too sweet and mild to make a very good applesauce, although I suspect it would have been better if I’d added some lemon juice like I did in the crumble. I’m not much of a plain applesauce eater anyway, and the more I read about the health effects of sugar vs. fat, the less likely I am to substitute applesauce for fat in baked goods (I’m not actually to the point of avoiding sugar or starch, I just don’t choose them over fat). Instead, I left them chunky with the vague notion that I might use them to fill or top a breakfast or brunch-type object.
Perhaps because the apples were so lackluster, or perhaps because apples always seem more delicious when there’s cheese involved, or perhaps because an episode of Chopped inspired me to try making my own cheese (proof positive that despite what Michael Pollan claims, cooking shows do actually teach people useful skills and demonstrate recipes and techniques they can and do recreate at home), I decided that what my apple crepes needed was fresh ricotta.
Thing 2: Fresh “Ricotta”
Most cheese is made from milk curdled with rennet, acids, salt, and/or heat and aged. Rennet is found in mammals’ stomachs and contains protease enzymes like chymosin, which helps them digest their mothers’ milk.
Ricotta, on the other hand, is traditionally made from whey, which is what you get when you strain the curds out of the milk. I always assumed that making true ricotta must be more difficult, because all the “homemade ricotta” recipes I’d seen call for milk instead, but according to Instructables, it’s an almost-identical process (if you don’t feel like clicking on each of the steps, they’re : 1. heat the whey to 200 F, 2. let it cool to <140 F, 3. strain through a coffee filter).
I imagine the real reason most homemade “ricotta” recipes call for milk, which makes them closer to a traditional paneer or queso fresco, is that most people don’t tend to have whey lying around—at least not before making “ricotta.” Also, what you get when you heat milk with acid and strain it is so similar to ricotta it works for basically all the same applications.
In February, Serious Eats tested most of the primary variables—temperature, acids, and straining time. For temperature, they concluded that heating the mixture to anywhere between 165-180 F works. For acids, they report that vinegar is the most reliable, buttermilk a little fussy, and lemon juice more citrusy. And unsurprisingly, the longer you strain it, the less moist it gets. I decided to go with lemon because “citrusy” sounded just right for my insufficiently-acidic apples and let it drain for nearly 30 minutes while I was making the crepes.
It was drier than it would have been if I’d scooped it out of the paper towel earlier, but still creamy and salty and a lovely foil for the cinnamon apples. Sweetened and flavored with a vanilla bean and/or some cardamom, it would have also made a nice base for a creamy dessert, perhaps topped with fruit. Of course, it would also work as a filling for pasta or lasagna or any of the other standard ricotta applications.
The whey that’s left over can be substituted for the water in a bread recipe, consumed as is—usually chilled and sometimes sweetened, or apparently, used to make more ricotta.
I’m curious enough about the differences between milk “ricotta” and whey ricotta that the next time I go to the store I’ll probably pick up a gallon and make a big batch of “ricotta” and use the leftover whey to make non-scare-quoted ricotta and report back.
The Cat in the Hat: Buckwheat Crepes
I thought crepes were supposed to be difficult. As it turns out, buckwheat crepes—which are confusingly sometimes called galettes, just like free-form tarts—are exceptionally easy (regular ones might be too, I haven’t tried them). Mine didn’t all turn out perfectly round, but the batter was really easy to spread around the pan with an off-set spatula, and basically no matter how thin or evenly I spread it, it cooked into tender, flavorful crepes that made a perfect vehicle for Thing 1 and Thing 2.
Also, since the batter isn’t sweet, they were equally delicious filled with a little sharp cheddar, soft-scrambled eggs, and chives. So that’s all there is to it. Some bad apples and curdled milk and transformed into a beautiful weekend brunch by some flimsy pancakes:
In reverse order:
Recipe: Buckwheat Crepes (adapted from the Los Angeles Times)
- 1/2 c. buckwheat flour
- 1/2 c. all-purpose flour (or 1 T. cornstarch filled to 1/2 cup with bread flour)
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 c. milk (plus up to 1/2 cup more)
- large pinch kosher salt
- 2 T. melted butter + more for the pan
1. Combine flours in food processor and pulse to combine. Add remaining ingredients and pulse just to combine. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hr or overnight.
2. Add enough milk to make the mixture into a smooth, pourable batter (I added the entire 1/2 cup).
3. Heat a large, flat pan until water sizzles and dances when it hits the surface.
4. Add a small pat of butter and spread it around with a paper towel as it melts—so the surface just glistens with oil.
5. Pour about 1/4 cup batter into the pan and swirl it around with a spatula until it forms a thin, even circle (off-set/icing spatulas work especially well). The batter will begin to cook as soon as it hits the pan and little bubbles will around the edges and on top. That’s fine, just keep moving the spatula, spreading the uncooked batter on top of the part that’s cooking towards the edges of the circle.
6. Prepare for and accept the likelihood of an initial failure. In many cultures where skillet breads are common, there are sayings to the effect of “the first pancake goes to God.” And when there’s a canine in the house, the palindrome God-dog is realized in an uncommonly material way. The first crepe may be gummy or misshapen or burned. It happens. You want the crepes to cook through and just begin to brown after about about 3 minutes. If the first one takes longer, turn the heat up. If it cooks too fast and you struggle to get the batter spread around before it cooks through, turn the heat down.
7. Flip and cook just enough to set—less than a minute—and remove to a plate lined with wax paper. Top with another sheet of wax paper in preparation for the next crepe.
8. Repeat, occasionally brushing with the buttery paper towel or another pat of butter if the crepes begin to stick.
9. Serve immediately or keep the crepes warm in an oven on low for up to an hour. Refrigerate any leftovers—they’re not quite as tender when you reheat them, but they’re not bad.
Recipe: Ricotta (adapted from Serious Eats)
- 2 c. milk
- 1/2 t. kosher salt
- 2 T. vinegar or lemon juice, or a combination
1. Combine ingredients and heat to 165-180 F in a saucepan or microwave. If using the latter or if you don’t have a thermometer, just heat until it begins to look curdled and the solids begin to separate from the liquid—perhaps checking in increments of 1 min in the microwave.
2. Strain for 5-15 minutes in a sieve lined with a coffee filter or double-layer of paper towels.
Recipe: Cinnamon Apples
- 1 lb apples, after peeling and coring
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 T. brown sugar
- juice of 1 lemon (optional)
1. Dice peeled and cored apples into 1/4”-1/2” pieces.
2. Place diced apples in saucepan with cinnamon stick, brown sugar, juice of lemon if using and at least 1” water.
3. Simmer until apples are cooked through and soft.