By Rosie Hawthorne on November 15, 2011
When you think of your Thanksgiving meal, what comes to mind? For me, it’s all about tradition — from the dishes served at the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians — the turkey, berries, fruit, pumpkin, and squash — to my own family traditions.
At Thanksgiving, we have a turkey, of course. Sometimes, I’ll debone the bird, stuff the cavity, and truss it back into its original shape. Carving that turkey is like cuttin’ through buttah.
In addition to turkey, we always have a ham with a pineapple, brown sugar, and honey glaze, studded with Maraschino cherries and cloves. We have mashed potatoes. We have a giblet and mushroom gravy. We have potato salad. We have a sweet potato casserole, sectioned for those who like pecans and marshmallows and for those who don’t.
We have a corn pudding casserole. We have Maggie’s Potato Rolls, which I’ve never made as well as Maggie, but golly, they’re wonderful. We have a green pea and water chestnut casserole, one of Sister Hawthorne’s recipes.
And we have pies — pumpkin and apple. The Hawthornes feast. We celebrate our family. We count our blessings and we are thankful.
One traditional dish I make for my family each year is Julia Child’s Gâteau de Crêpes. For me, it’s a very special dish, and the fact that I make it once a year only adds to its allure.
I learned to cook by watching Julia Child on TV in the late 70s. I would close up shop early on Saturday afternoons and run home in time to watch Julia on my little 7-inch black-and-white TV, hastily scribbling down her every word on my legal pad. The first time I watched her make the gâteau, I knew it would be in my Thanksgiving repertoire, and it has been ever since.
Basically, the gâteau de crêpes is a layered vegetable dish — carrots, mushrooms, and broccoli — bound with a cheese custard and separated by crêpes, which are those thin French pancakes, and baked in a crêpe-lined mold. It’s one of the heartiest vegetarian meals I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.
I will admit this recipe is labor-intensive, but the end result is worth every second. First, some advice. Never try to make this in one day, unless you plan on eating at midnight. I always take two days.
The first day, I make my crepes and I prepare the vegetables. The second day, I prepare the cheese custard and assemble and bake the dish. If you wanted to you could use store-bought crêpes, available in the produce section, but I like making my own. And I always make a double batch of crêpes, freezing what crêpes I don’t use in the gâteau for later — say a chicken, asparagus, and almond crêpe with a cheese sauce, or a seafood crêpe in a sherried Mornay sauce, or a dessert crêpe with strawberries and blueberries in a crème Anglaise. The possibilities are endless.
If you ever need ideas, help with any of my recipes, or have any culinary questions, please feel free to email me at email@example.com. I’ll do my best to help you.
Now, for the gâteau.
2 cups flour, instant-blending (I use Pillsbury’s Shake and Blend. Comes in a canister.)
1 ⅓ cups milk
1 ⅓ cups water
6 large eggs
1 ½ tsp salt
6 TB butter, melted
To measure dry ingredients, scoop dry-measure cup into flour until cup is overflowing, then sweep off excess with the straight edge of a knife. Blend milk and water into the flour, beating with a whisk until smooth. Then beat in eggs, salt, and butter. Let rest for at least 10 minutes so that the flour granules can absorb the liquid. This makes for a tender crêpe. If you’re using regular all-purpose flour, let the batter rest for 1 – 2 hours.
To cook the crêpes, heat frying pan over medium-high heat. Add a little butter (usually only necessary for the first crêpe) and pour 3-4 tablespoons of the batter into the center of the pan, turning the pan in all directions to spread the batter evenly over the surface. This may take a few times until you get the hang of it. It’s all in the wrist.
Cook for 30–60 seconds or so, until when you lift an edge, you see it’s nicely browned. Turn and cook for about another 30 seconds, until slightly browned. This second side never cooks evenly and is kept as the bottom side of the crêpe. Set the crêpes on a rack to cool and dry. Stack crêpes, wrap in foil, and place in plastic bag. To freeze the extras, package them in stacks of 6-8.
Vegetables and cheese for filling
1 pound carrots
6 TB butter
Freshly ground salt and pepper
1 TB fresh dill
1 pound mushrooms
4 TB minced scallions or shallots
1 bunch broccoli
2 cups grated Swiss cheese (Wait to grate until you’re ready for assembly.)
For the carrots, trim, peel, and cut into julienne matchsticks. Sauté in 3 TB butter in large frying pan, swirling and tossing until carrots are tender. Do not brown. Season to taste with freshly ground salt and pepper and dill. Let cool and set aside. I put them in a Tupperware container and refrigerate until the next day, when I’ll assemble my gâteau.
For the broccoli, trim and wash. Cut bud ends off stalks and peel skin of stalks. Cut into small pieces. Drop the broccoli into boiling salted water and boil uncovered for about 3 minutes, or until just barely tender. Drain immediately and plunge into ice water to stop the cooking and set the fresh bright green color. Chop into ¼ inch pieces. Salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate until ready to use.
For the mushrooms, trim, clean, and mince. A food processor is handy here. Place a handful of minced shrooms in a clean towel and twist to extract as much juice as possible. Mushrooms have a lot of moisture. Heat 3 TB butter over medium high heat and sauté minced mushroom with the shallots or scallions until the mushroom pieces begin to separate. If you want to throw in a splash of sherry here, be my guest. Season to taste with salt and pepper. This is now officially known as a mushroom duxelles. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Custard mixture for filling
1 package cream cheese, softened
6 large eggs
1 cup heavy cream
Freshly ground salt and pepper
Pinch of nutmeg, to taste (I prefer freshly grated.)
In a processor or blender, blend cream cheese with the rest of ingredients until smooth.
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
I use a 2.5-liter CorningWare round baking dish for assembly. Smear butter over inside of dish and line bottom with buttered wax paper. Fit 1 crêpe, good side down, in bottom of the dish, and space 4 crêpes, good sides out, along the sides. Fit 4 more crêpes, good sides out, overlapping the first 4 crêpes.
Spread ¼ of the freshly grated Swiss cheese in the bottom of the dish, cover with the carrots, pressing into place. Top with ⅓ of the remaining cheese. Ladle in enough custard mixture to come just to the level of the carrots and cheese. Set one crêpe on top and spread the mushrooms over top and custard to cover. Top mushrooms with another crêpe and spread ½ of the remaining cheese on top. Add the broccoli and the last of the cheese. Pour on the rest of the custard mixture. Fold the first layer of overhanging crêpes up over the filling. Cover with a crêpe, then fold the outside layer of overhang up over it. Cover with 1 or more crêpes. Place a round of butter wax paper over the dish and cover with a sheet of foil.
Bake immediately in case the custard leaks against the sides and bottom of the dish, sticking the crêpes to it and making a mess when you try to unmold.
Bake in 350=degree oven, with a pan on the rack below to catch any possible spillage. When the gâteau starts to rise in about 1 hour, turn heat up to 400 degrees. It will eventually rise an inch or more. The gâteau is done when a thermometer inserted in the center reads 160 degrees. Remove from oven and let rest at room temperature for about 15 minutes to allow the custard to set and settle. Then run a thin-bladed knife around the inside of the dish and invert onto a warm platter.
Whatever you do, do NOT let the baked gâteau sit in its baking dish. The cooking liquids will leak into the bottom and glue the crêpes to the dish. To serve, cut into wedges. This makes for excellent leftovers, when the custard has time to set and chill.
Happy Thanksgiving to you all.