The French Basics

10 Oct

Most days we focused on food in the morning and Arte de Vivre in the afternoon. However, on Mondays we often started our week off with a bang through a couple doses of cooking lessons. On those days, we began with our normal three-course lunch (hence the reason why my jeans kept “shrinking”), but in the afternoon we got rid of our Monday crankiness by stuffing our faces with even more food, usually a traditional base for other recipes we may get to later in the week.


Used as a textural layering device in complex dishes like the kulibiac (refer to post A Snowfall in Russia) or as an envelope-like dessert or snack, les crêpes are an integral part of French life. Savory or sweet, these thin pancakes take a touch of finesse but are quite satisfying once you get it right

What’s in them:

(makes about 16 small crêpes)

  •  125 grams flour
  • 1 whole egg
  • 2 yolks
  • 1 tbs sugar
  • 2 cups milk
  • 50 grams butter
  • 50+ grams butter (for greasing pan)

How to make them:

  1. Place half of your flour in a food processor
  2. While keeping the mixer going, add whole egg
  3. Add a small amount of milk
  4. Then add the rest of the flour
  5. And the yolks
  6. Add some more milk
  7. Slowly add sugar
  8. Add the remaining amount of milk and process until there are no more lumps
  9. Once fully mixed, remove contents from processor and strain
  10. In a saucepan, melt butter and add to mix
  11. In the same saucepan, melt more butter and set aside for greasing
  12. Over high heat, warm a cast iron frying pan
  13. Once hot, pour a small amount of melted butter onto pan, swish around so that the whole pan is covered, and discard excess butter into the saucepan from which it came.
  14. Immediately ladle a small amount of crêpe batter into pan, swirl so that there’s a thin even layer of batter covering the entire surface of the pan, and cook over high heat for about a minute or so.  *Note: each crêpe will cook differently depending on the exact amount of batter, the heat of the flame and the size of the pan. Watch carefully and use your judgment.
  15. Flip the crêpe when ready, cook on the other side for a short amount of time and then place the finished crêpe on a dish to start your pile.
  16. Re-grease your pan, ladle more batter on it, and start all over again.
  17. Once your crêpe pile is complete, either use them right away or wrap in tinfoil to save for later.

Traditional toppings:

  • Butter and sugar
  • Lemon and sugar
  • Cinnamon and marmalade/jam
  • Melted chocolate

Pâte à Choux:

Pâte à choux is that puffy hollow ball you can find as the outer crust of profiteroles or other doughy spheres with a delicious surprise inside. Most commonly made with cheese for the savory appetizer of gougère or rock sugar for the sweet snack of chouquette, pâte à choux is a lovely looking little bite-sized treat perfect the amuse bouche of a dinner party of an easy goody for children and adults alike.

What’s in them:

(makes about 2-3 dozen depending on the size you choose)

  • 120 grams butter
  • 150 grams flour
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 egg for glazing
  • Pinch of salt
  • ½ cup water

*Note: for sweet chouquette, sub the ½ cup water for a mix of ¼ cup milk, ¼ cup water. Also sub in 1-2 tbs of sugar for salt and pepper, and stone sugar for a garnish before baking. For cheesy gougère, add a pinch of nutmeg, a small handful of grated emmental, and pepper with the salt to taste

How to make them:

  1. Preheat oven to 210˚C
  2. Cut butter into small pieces
  3. Boil water with butter and remove from burner as soon as it boils
  4. Pour flour into butter/water mix and stir vigorously
  5. Place back on stove and stir for 20 counts
  6. Place mix in food processor and slowly add eggs one at a time
  7. Add pinch of salt
  8. Process until well combined and smooth
  9. Grease cookie sheet with butter
  10. Place mix in a pastry bag and make small circles or balls on cookie sheet, making sure they are spaced accordingly (at least an inch a part)
  11. Glaze with whole egg
  12. Bake for about 20 minutes (depending on oven), or until they are golden brown

Pâte Feuilletée:

As you’ve seen from my posts, pâte feuilletée (or puff pastry) is an integral part of French cooking. Whether it’s a savory pie (like the Gateau de Saumon en Feuiletageor sweet tart (like the tartes aux fraise), it’s clear that the French like their food wrapped in carby goodness, and I don’t blame them! But as much as this buttery basic is a staple in French cuisine, it’s probably one of the most difficult and tedious things to make if done correctly.

There are two elements to a puff pastry: the dough and the butter-block. And to make and then combine them takes a series of difficult steps that require, precision, focus and time – three things you might not have in abundance when planning a huge dinner party or trying to throw together a meal for your family after a long day at work. So my suggestion (and encouragingly the suggestion of our master chef teacher), don’t waste your time! Just buy it pre-made from the grocery store. The manufacturers have machines and robots that do all the work for you and probably do a better and more perfect job in the process. You can buy already rolled out sheets of puff pastry dough, which is perhaps the most agreeable, or you can get it in other forms that may better suit your needs. But if you do feel like braving the long floury road of the puff pastry procedure, then make sure you have a lot of space in your fridge and on your counter (preferably marble), and a large bottle of wine waiting for you at the end to sooth the stresses of what will probably be a 3+ hour endeavor. Good luck – you may need it. And while you’re doing that, I’ll be sticking to my President’s Choice packages and will join you for the wine at the end of your no-doubt exhausting day.

A popular brand from France

Something perhaps a bit more accessible in North America


One Response to “The French Basics”


  1. The Art of Living « Shortt and Sweet - 11/10/2011

    […] (champagne and crème de cassis) and may sample a simple amuse bouche of gougère (refer to post The French Basics), for example. The actual eating time is a surprisingly short 45 minutes or so with the main focus […]

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