Why This Recipe Works
- Allowing the crepe batter to rest helps to hydrate the starch.
- Taking the pastry cream to 175ºF (80ºC) and allowing it to bubble for a full minute deactivates amylase, a starch-dissolving enzyme found in egg yolks.
- Caramelizing sugar on top of the cake results in a glossy, crackling crust.
I remember trying a crepe cake for the first time. With layers of paper-thin crepes and luxurious crème légère—pastry cream with whipped cream folded in—each bite was ethereal and lightly sweet, and I was determined to recreate it at home. Though the elegant dessert is a labor of love that requires both time and attention to detail, it’s worth making for a special occasion. While a project, it is much more manageable if you break the recipe into separate parts: make a batch of crepes; whip up some pastry cream; then stack it all together before brûléeing the top. It’s probably still easier than making and assembling all the components for a layer cake.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of the crepe cake, or gâteau de crêpes. Some say the French chef Auguste Escoffier was the first to make it, but there’s no mention of the dish in his 1903 cookbook Le Guide Culinaire and little evidence elsewhere to suggest that the recipe was part of his repertoire. There is a recipe for gateau de crepes in Julia Child’s 1961 classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but it is a savory version that involves cream cheese, spinach, and mushrooms, and is served with a mornay sauce. The version that most closely resembles crepe cakes today is the one found in Larousse Gastronomique, which calls for stacking crepes with alternating layers of strawberry jam and chantilly cream.
In the past two decades, crepe cakes have exploded in popularity, likely thanks to Lady M, the bakery chain known for their signature crepe cake—what they describe as “the world famous Mille Crêpes.” With locations across the globe, Lady M sells the dessert in different flavors, including green tea, passion fruit, pistachio, chocolate, tiramisu, lavender, and strawberry swirl. A classic 9-inch Mille Crêpes will run you over a hundred dollars, so you stand to save a lot of money by making your own.
Do You Have to Rest Crêpe Batter?
In culinary school, all my French instructors insisted that it was necessary to rest crepe batter for at least an hour (if not overnight) to allow the gluten to relax. This, apparently, was the secret to tender crepes. But is there any truth to this? In their testing, both Daniel and Kenji found that resting the batter made no noticeable difference in how tender their crepes were, since the dilution of gluten-forming proteins in a wet batter is enough to severely limit gluten formation in the first place. If there’s any reason to rest your crepes, it’s to allow the starch to fully hydrate—which, while not necessary, offers a modest bump in viscosity and thickens the batter slightly.
How to Make a Luscious and Light Pastry Cream
Making pastry cream isn’t difficult: You simply whisk together whole milk, sugar, a starch like flour or cornstarch, and eggs in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly until it thickens into a velvety custard before straining into a bowl and allowing it to cool. Making it well, however, does require some precision. When Serious Eats' former editor Kristina Razon developed her pastry cream recipe, she tested every major variable and found that yolks make a richer, thicker pastry cream than whole eggs, and flour produced a heavier result that tasted distinctly floury. Cornstarch, she found, created a pastry cream that had a clean, dairy-forward flavor.
For a pastry cream that sets up properly, it’s essential to take the custard just past 175ºF (80ºC), the temperature at which the starch granules begin to swell with water and gelatinize, thickening the mixture. Bringing the custard to a bubble after that and holding it there for a minute deactivates amylase, a starch-dissolving enzyme in yolks. If you’ve ever made a pastry cream that separated afterwards or began to weep, that’s the amylase breaking down the starch, and it’s likely you didn’t cook it long enough. Don’t worry about scrambling the eggs—there are several factors, including the milk diluting the egg proteins, that make it difficult for them to tightly bond and coagulate.
Next comes the easy part: To finish the filling for the crepe cake, you’ll whip heavy cream with confectioners sugar until stiff peaks form, then fold that into your cooled pastry cream to lighten it up, forming the lightened pastry cream known as crème légère.
Cooking the Crepes
The key to successfully cooking crepes is to tilt the pan immediately after adding the batter, swirling it around to form a thin, even layer. This will minimize (although not entirely eliminate) variations in thickness across the crepe. Unless you have a proper crepe pan and the kind of wooden spreader professional crêperies use to spread their batter, it’s unlikely you’ll have a perfectly even crepe. Once they're stacked and layered with crème légère, those slight imperfections will hardly be noticeable.
How to Stack and Assemble a Crepe Cake
Assembling a crepe cake is more or less the same as assembling any cake…there are just a lot more layers to build. The biggest thing to pay attention to is to build the layers as evenly and level as you can so you don't end up with a slumping tower halfway that looks like it's ready to stretch out on the floor for a nap.
Once stacked, the cake needs a two-hour rest in the fridge to help it set. After that it's ready for its topping—a bruleed layer of sugar that's caramelized with a torch to the point of crackling.
Crêpe Cake (Gâteau de Crêpes)
With layers of paper-thin crêpes and luxurious pastry cream lightened with whipped cream, this is a stunning dessert worth making for a special occasion.
- For the Crêpes:
- 6 large eggs (12 ounces; 330g)
- 3 cups (720g) whole milk
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (7 ounces; 195g)
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar (2.3 ounces; 67g)
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted (2.5 ounces; 70g)
- 1/4 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume
- For the Pastry Cream Filling:
- 1 vanilla bean pod
- 1 cup (240g) whole milk
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar (1.75 ounces; 50g)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch (0.4 ounces; 12g)
- 3 large egg yolks (1.9 ounces; 55g)
- 2 cups (475ml) heavy whipping cream
- 1/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted (1 ounce; 30g)
- Cooking spray
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar (1.3 ounce, 38g)
For the Crêpe Batter: Place eggs, milk, flour, sugar, melted butter, and salt in a blender. Start blender on low speed and increase to high. Blend until smooth, about 1 minute. Cover blender with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours. (Leaving the batter in the blender will help with portioning the batter during cooking.)
After crêpe batter has chilled, line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment. Lightly stir crêpe batter to re-emulsify if needed. Lightly coat a 10.5-inch crêpe pan with cooking spray and set over medium heat. Lift pan off heat and, holding the pan’s handle in one hand, pour 1/4 cup batter into center of pan, swirling and tilting pan immediately to spread batter in a thin, even layer over bottom of pan.
Let cook until top looks dry, about 1 minute. Using a silicone spatula, gently loosen edges of crêpe; slide the spatula horizontally under the edge of the crêpe and quickly flip crêpe. Cook on second side until crêpe begins to turn golden brown in spots and top appears dry, about 1 minute. Slide crêpe onto prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining batter, coating pan lightly with cooking spray between each crêpe and placing additional parchment paper between layers of crêpes to prevent sticking as needed. (You’ll need 20 crêpes for the cake; you should have a total of 22 crêpes.) Set aside crêpes at room temperature, uncovered, until ready to assemble cake.
For the Pastry Cream Filling: In a 2-quart saucepan, combine milk and scraped vanilla bean along with its seeds. Bring to a bare simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat, cover to prevent evaporation, and let steep for 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, set up an ice bath by partially filling it with a combination of cold water and ice. Set aside.
In a medium heatproof mixing bowl set on top of a dampened towel (this serves as a stable base), stir together sugar and cornstarch. Whisk in egg yolks until mixture is pale, yellow, and smooth, about 1 minute. Uncover infused milk and remove vanilla bean. While whisking continuously, slowly pour milk into egg yolk mixture in a thin stream, until all of it has been added.
Return mixture to the same saucepan. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly until pastry cream begins to thicken, about 5 minutes. Once it thickens, continue to whisk, pausing every few seconds to check for bubbles, about 1 minute. Pour pastry cream through a fine-mesh sieve set over the heatproof medium bowl. Immediately place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Transfer bowl to prepared ice bath to chill for 30 minutes, then refrigerate until cold, about 2 hours.
Once the pastry cream has chilled, place heavy cream and powdered sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form, 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk chilled pastry cream until smooth, then gently fold whipped cream into the pastry cream in 3 additions, folding well after each addition to evenly incorporate.
To Assemble: Place 1 crêpe on a cake stand. Using an offset spatula, spread about 3 tablespoons of the pastry cream in an even layer over the crêpe, leaving a 1/2-inch border from the edge. Top with second crêpe, and repeat process with the remaining crêpes until you lay the final crêpe on top. Loosely cover with plastic wrap until the filling has set, at least 2 hours and up to 12 hours.
Sprinkle remaining granulated sugar in an even layer over the top of the chilled cake. Working in a circular motion, use a butane blowtorch to pass a flame over the top of the cake (1 to 2 inches away from the surface) until sugar is caramelized, golden brown, and has melted into a glossy sheet. (See notes.) Slice and serve immediately.
Blender, rimmed baking sheet, parchment paper, whisk, 10.5-inch crêpe pan, silicone spatula, 2-quart saucepan, fine-mesh sieve, cake stand, offset spatula, blowtorch
To prepare the crêpe batter without a blender, place eggs, milk, flour, sugar, melted butter, and salt in a large mixing bowl and whisk until thoroughly combined. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours.
How closely and how long you torch the cake will depend on the strength of your blowtorch.