Last Friday was my daughter Emma’s 16th birthday. I always bake the kids (and James) something special for their birthday cake and it varies from year to year. This year, in a rather enthusiastic moment, I showed Emma this crêpe cake and asked her if she would like it. Of course she would. Great, I thought. I’ll prepare it during the day Friday and it’ll be ready to serve at her party that night. Well Friday came and I didn’t feel like making the cake anymore. Once the kids left for school, I steeled myself and found the recipe. The first line said to make the crêpe batter and the pastry cream the day before. Oops. For a split second, I thought of aborting the mission but I felt that I couldn’t let Emma down. I made the crêpe batter, refrigerated it while I made the pastry cream. When the pastry cream went into the fridge, out came the crêpe batter. 25 crêpes later, the batter was gone as was my sanity. Luckily, I needed 20 nice crêpes for the cake and there were only 2 sort-of burnt ones which James happily munched on in his office. God bless him for taking one for the team.
In the early afternoon, I whipped the cream and mixed it into the pastry cream before assembling the cake. The assembly was the fun part – and easier than I thought. I imagined the crêpes all askew with gobs of filling oozing out and the final cake crooked and leaning like an edible leaning Tower of Pisa. Not at all. After every crêpe, I lightly pressed down on it with my hand to even everything up. When it was all assembled, I covered it all with the remaining pastry cream and refrigerated it for several hours. I took it out of the fridge about 30 minutes before serving, sprinkled it generously with raw sugar and took the torch to it to “brûlé” it. It sliced up beautifully, and more importantly, it was so decadently delicious that we ate the whole thing (OK, between 9 of us).
This cake is a real labour of love, but the effort put in pays in dividends. Bon appétit and “bon courage” (loosely translated as good luck in French).
- 6 tablespoons butter
- 3 cups milk
- 6 eggs
- 1½ cups flour
- 7 tablespoons sugar
- Pinch salt
- VANILLA PASTRY CREAM
- 2 cups milk
- 1 vanilla bean, halved and scraped
- 6 egg yolks
- ½ cup sugar
- ⅓ cup cornstarch, sifted
- 3½ tablespoons butter
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon sugar or more
- 3 tablespoons Kirsch (optional)
- Confectioners’ sugar (optional)
- CREPES In a small pan, cook the butter until brown like hazelnuts. Set aside. In another small pan, heat the milk until steaming; allow to cool for 10 minutes. In a mixer on medium-low speed, beat together the eggs, flour, sugar and salt. Slowly add the hot milk and browned butter. Pour into a container with a spout, cover and refrigerate overnight.
- VANILLA PASTRY CREAM Bring the milk with the vanilla bean (and scrapings) to a boil, then set aside for 10 minutes; remove bean. Fill a large bowl with ice and set aside a small bowl that can hold the finished pastry cream and be placed in this ice bath.
- In a medium heavy-bottomed pan, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch. Gradually whisk in the hot milk, then place pan over high heat and bring to a boil, whisking vigorously for 1 to 2 minutes. Press the pastry cream through a fine-meshed sieve into the small bowl. Set the bowl in the ice bath and stir until the temperature reaches 140 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Stir in the butter. When completely cool, cover and refrigerate.
- ASSEMBLY Assemble the cake the next day: Bring the batter to room temperature. Place a nonstick or seasoned 9-inch crepe pan over medium heat. Swab the surface with the oil, then add about 3 tablespoons batter and swirl to cover the surface. Cook until the bottom just begins to brown, about 1 minute, then carefully lift an edge and flip the crepe with your fingers. Cook on the other side for no longer than 5 seconds. Flip the crepe onto a baking sheet lined with parchment. Repeat until you have 20 perfect crepes.
- Pass the pastry cream through a sieve once more. Whip the heavy cream with the tablespoon sugar and the Kirsch (if using). It won’t hold peaks. Fold it into the pastry cream.
- Lay 1 crepe on a cake plate. Using an icing spatula, completely cover with a thin layer of pastry cream (about ¼ cup). Cover with a crepe and repeat to make a stack of 20, with the best-looking crepe on top. Chill for at least 2 hours. Set out for 30 minutes before serving. If you have a blowtorch for creme brulee, sprinkle the top crepe with 2 tablespoons sugar and caramelize with the torch; otherwise, dust with confectioners’ sugar. Slice like a cake.