It’s been an eventful ten days, in the most literal sense: My best friend moved to Seattle. My husband turned 30. My little sister graduated from high school.
Yes, I have a 17-year-old sister. I have a picture of us on a ridge near our parents’ house in Boise, Idaho, taken the week I left for college, the summer a forest fire engulfed the hills around our home. She was six. I like it because the way I’m carrying her, her dark hair blends into the charred earth behind us, and it sort of looks like she’s on fire, too.
It’s appropriate, for such a driven person. When I was in high school, Allison was the kind of kid who would hold her breath until she turned blue, just to beat me.
She’s still tenacious. She has an amazing intellectual wingspan. She’s funny, and remarkably beautiful. And she’s turning into the sort of friend I look up to unconditionally. (But whatever you say, I’m still taller.)
Last weekend, we all gathered around her and clucked. It must have driven her crazy, the way we talked about her like she wasn’t even in the room, all weekend long. (If you think being an only child sounds hard, try fending off two parents and two (much) older siblings, and their significant others.) We chirped about her summer job, what her friends are doing, what she should adjust on her road bike, where she’s going to college. . .
I loved Middlebury, and I’m sure she would, too. (She’ll succeed anywhere.) But when I was back east, I missed Allison’s childhood. I sent twigs for her nest, but I was not always there to help build it. My heart does a little dance when I think of her coming to UW. I’ve been fantasizing about her showing up at our house on Sundays, to have dinner and do her laundry in our basement.
All weekend, the family balanced there, together, in a strange, exciting void between celebration and uncertainty. When Allison wasn’t home, we volleyed the advantages of Vermont and Washington back and forth with equal weight. I can’t imagine the conflict inside her head, but I do think I know, with the advantage of hindsight, that she’ll be happy at either place. And we’ll be happy, too, wherever she is.
On Monday morning, the day before graduation, I volunteered my brother Josh to make crepes. We’ve never been a pancake or waffle sort of family, but crepes – doled one at a time out of a hot, buttery pan – are commonplace.
A crepe is a pancake’s overachieving sibling. The batter pools onto a hot pan and runs across it, instead of plopping down and sitting there, like a pancake would. On a relaxing morning, pancakes watch television. Crepes play Wii.
I don’t make them often in my own home. I have a good blue steel pan, and know how to make the thin, demanding batter skitter across a film of bubbling butter and lace up all pretty. I love how they taste, but I just don’t do it. Crepes are the cornerstone to Howe holiday mornings, and to me, they seem most at home on an oak dining table in the Boise foothills.
Josh left home with a different impression. In San Francisco, he makes crepes weekly, almost, folded up with goat cheese, bacon, and chives, or rolled around chicken and mushrooms for dinner. Though I have every confidence in my own crepe-making ability, it somehow felt funny to step up to the stove with him in the room. He’s a damn good cook, and he’s inherited my father’s status as crepe-maker.
He blended up a batch of all whole-wheat crepe batter, using the local milk my mom has started buying. We inherited the same willingness to tinker in the kitchen; he added pinches of this or that until something inside him determined the batter was perfect.
Crepe batter needs a good rest. Normally, my mother makes it the night before, and it sleeps in the fridge, where the flour’s proteins relax, so it pours smoothly the next day, and the crepes yield easily between the teeth. On Monday, we made another pot of coffee, and put the blender aside for a quick nap.
No one in my family sits still very well. (If you think I’m energetic for someone with lupus, you should meet my mother. You’ll understand how much I have slowed down.) Yet there we were, drinking coffee and sitting, remembering J.R. Simplot on Memorial Day, listening as his giant flag snapped this way and that in the wind, at half mast. (Yes, the king of potatoes has passed.)
May is the best that way, in Boise. The weather’s never good enough to encourage early action, nor hot enough to insist on it. The month just stimulates coffee consumption.
Josh showed me how he knows the batter is thin enough in the blender. After it rested, we had to add a bit more milk, because the whole wheat seemed to swell up a bit. I chopped strawberries, and he started pouring and flipping, topping and serving:
If you’ve made crepes, you know it wasn’t Josh’s fault; the first crepe is dependably ugly. The pan is always too hot, or not hot enough, or not centered over the flame, or perhaps just needs a good therapy session. The longer it’s been since its last use, the more cantankerous the pan is likely to be. (That’s all part of it.)
As soon as Josh unwrapped the butter for the pan, my dad hit his chair, effectively claiming the first one, no matter what it looked like. The rest of the family sat down at the table, waiting for Josh to pick the next recipient, while he tucked strawberries, or bananas and walnuts, inside, and topped each one with a dollop of whipped cream. I held the plates.
When the fruit was gone, I took a turn, filling the last one with walnuts and cinnamon and sugar, and watched as the cream slid down the hot crepe. (If the cream stays on top, there’s a problem. Either the cream is not real, or the crepe is not hot.)
Instead of eating by turn and leaving the table, like we usually do, coming back for the next round when the crepe-maker calls, we all stayed in the kitchen, enjoying each others’ company. And wondering, no doubt, when we’ll be making crepes together next, and where.
Josh’s Whole Wheat Crepes (PDF)
My brother Josh’s more nutritious version of the family’s crepe recipe reminds us of true buckwheat crepes from Brittany, but they’re a lot less fussy. Made with all whole-wheat flour, the batter may thicken a little upon standing; feel free to adjust it as you go. (Josh says the key element to making crepes is using your judgment, instead of staying glued to a recipe. If the batter seems to thick, add milk. Too thin? Add flour. Pan too hot? Cool it down. Crepes not browning? Turn the heat up. Too greasy? Less butter. Et cetera.) You want a batter that’s thin enough to run across a hot pan when you swivel it around in your hand, but beyond that, crepes are much more flexible than you might think. Traditional French crepes are paper-thin, but we tend to pour them a little thicker, so more actually make it to the breakfast table.
Fill crepes with chopped fresh fruit and top with whipped cream, or sprinkle with sugar and lemon before folding. For savory crepes, omit the sugar, and add a bit more salt, plus a handful of finely chopped herbs, if you’re feeling adventuresome.
And for goodness’ sake, don’t make them all at once and keep them in the oven. Serve them hot, the instant they come out of the pan.
MAKES: 6 servings
2 cups milk (plus more, if needed)
2 large eggs
1 stick unsalted butter, melted, plus more for the pan
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 2/3 cups whole wheat flour
Combine the milk, eggs, melted butter, sugar, salt and 1 cup flour in a blender, and whirl until smooth, scraping down the sides of the glass, if necessary. Add all or most of the remaining flour, a bit at a time, until the batter has roughly the consistency of drinkable yogurt (very thin for pancake batter, but not runny). Let the batter sit at least 30 minutes at room temperature, or overnight in the refrigerator. (Bring the batter back to room temperature before continuing.)
Before cooking, thin the batter with a bit more milk, if it seems substantially thicker.
Preheat a crepe pan or large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, grease with a dollop of butter (using a stick of butter to smear some directly on the skillet works nicely), and add enough batter to coat the skillet in a thin, even layer when you swivel the skillet around in your hand. (The actual amount of batter will depend on the size of your pan and the thickness of the batter; we used about 1/4 cup.) Cook for a couple minutes, until you see bubbles in the center of the crepe and the bottom side is nicely browned. Flip carefully and cook another couple minutes on the other side. Fill as desired and serve immediately. Repeat with the remaining batter.