Food, for those of us who love eating and making it, has to be gorgeously delicious, ravishingly beautiful, and, well, easy enough to prepare. And while French food definitely fits into the first two categories, those not used to making it day in day out often see it as being an intimidating test of patience and skill. All that marinading, julienning, chiffonading, friseeing, sauteing, flambeing...mais non!
But then again, we cooks do love a challenge.
Thanks to other wonderful Foodbuzz bloggers who voted for me and the support and prayers of my incredible readers, I advanced last week into the second round of Project Food Blog, Foodbuzz's contest to select the next online food blog star. This week, Foodbuzz wants contestants to cook something that's out of their comfort level, and from a cuisine they don't usually cook from.
As a vegan, stepping out of my comfort zone is something I am used to. Over many years as a cook and as a blogger I've experimented, substituted and tested eggless, dairyless and meatless versions of dishes I used to love when I did eat meat and other animal products. A lot of these recipes have been family favorites, like my Dad's Not-Mutton Mushroom Curry, or my husband Desi's favorites like Mushroom Biryanithat are rich and packed with flavor without any meat or animal fat. At other times I've created vegan versions of breads seemingly impossible to imagine without eggs and butter fat, like my Vegan Whole Wheat Challah Breadand my Avocado Brioche.
But blue-ribbon-worthy French cuisine...now that's a challenge for the hardiest cook. And who can resist it? On this blog you'll find French recipes I've made or veganized, like the brioche, or my Vegan Tarte Tatin my Whole-Wheat French Bread, and my coriander and sweet potato quiches. But there is one cookbook that has always challenged my courage as a cook, and one I've never dared to veganize from. Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
I had picked a copy of this classic years ago at a yard sale and all these years it has just stood there on the shelf, pretty much useless. Just about every recipe required a dozen pounds of butter, a side of beef, or 20 dozen eggs. Or so it seemed to me.
Then along came the Foodbuzz challenge, and I thought, do I dare?
And I did. I picked a recipe that looked complicated enough to be a challenge, but simple enough to veganize without taking away its true character. Gateau de Crepes a la Florentine. In plain English, a giant stack of crepes layered with a creamy white mushroom stuffing and a verdant spinach and leek stuffing.
All of it then gets smothered with bechamel sauce and baked in a hot oven until it's ready to devour.
Now before I give you the recipe, here's a confession and, perhaps, a warning: this recipe is a test of patience. There's all that crepe-making-- 24 in all-- and the two different kinds of stuffing to make, and the bechamel sauce. Top it all with the layering and the baking and there's a whole weekend afternoon absolutely lost.
But when you dig your fork into all those layers and they just melt on your tongue, you'll know it was well worth it!
Here you go, all. Enjoy!
(Adapted from 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking')
1 cup cold almond milk
1 cup cold water
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
4 tbsp flax meal
12 tbsp water
4 tbsp melted vegan "butter," like Earth Balance
½ tsp salt
Place all the wet ingredients in the blender, add the dry ingredients, and blend until mixed, no more than a minute. Scrape down any flour stuck to the sides and blend again for a few seconds until well-mixed.
Refrigerate for two hours.
To make the crepes, heat a crepe pan or a 5- or 6-inch cast-iron skillet.
Brush very lightly with oil. When the pan starts to smoke a little, take it off the stove with one hand (be sure to wear mitts if using cast-iron), and pour ¼ cup of the batter into the center.
Very quickly, tilt the pan around so the batter spreads thinly and evenly and coats the bottom of the pan.
In about 60 seconds, you should see the edges start to brown a little. Gently, with a spatula, lift to see if golden-brown spots have appeared. If they have, flip over the crepe and heat on the other side for about 20-30 seconds. Remove the crepe to a rack to cool.
Repeat with the remaining batter. You should get around 24 crepes from the batter, but if you get more or less don't panic. You're going to layer it all and no one will know the difference.
Bechamel Sauce with "cheese":
5 tbsp all-purpose flour
4 tbsp melted vegan "butter"
2 ½ cups soymilk, heated to boiling
½ tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
A generous pinch of cinnamon or nutmeg
1 cup grated vegan cheese, like almond cheese
Cook the flour and the "butter" in a heavy saucepan for about 3 minutes over medium-low heat until well-mixed
Turn off the heat. Add the heated soymilk, whisking all the time, until you have a smooth sauce.
Return to the heat. Add the seasonings and the cheese and whisk until the sauce is smooth again. Bring to a boil and turn off.
1 16-oz package of frozen, chopped spinach. Place in a microwave-safe bowl with 2 tbsp of water and zap for about 7 minutes until the spinach is quite tender.
3 tbsp minced leeks
¼ tsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil
Heat the oil. Add the leeks and saute for a minute. Drain and add the spinach and saute for another 2-3 minutes to let the moisture in the spinach evaporate.
Stir in ½ cup of the bechamel sauce and cover. Cook for another 8 minutes. Turn off.
1 cup minced button mushrooms
3 tbsp minced leeks
1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup vegan cream cheese, like Tofutti or Sheeze.
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp almond milk
Mix the vegan cream cheese and almond milk until smooth. Add salt and pepper.
In a skillet, heat the oil and saute the mushrooms and leeks about 5 minutes or until softened.
Add the vegetables to the cream cheese and mix well.
To assemble the gateau:
Use a glass baking dish wider than your crepes. I just used my pie dish.
Oil the bottom of the dish. Then place 1 crepe on it and smear on some of the mushroom sauce.
Place another crepe above this and slather with the spinach mixture.
Continue to layer, alternating the spinach and mushroom stuffings, until you have used up all but one crepe.
Place the last crepe on top and pour over the bechamel sauce.
If desired, sprinkle with 3 tbsp of grated cheese.
Place in a preheated 350-degree oven and bake 30 minutes or until it is just starting to brown on top.
Remove from oven, cool for five minutes, then cut in and serve.