Tower of crepes layered with spinach, cheese

November 2, 2018

I was leafing through a fine-food mail-order catalog last week and saw an appealing dish. They called it a “spinach gruyère crepe gateau.” Translated from the French, a gateau is a rich cake, typically one containing layers of cream or fruit. Perhaps they chose this name because it was made from a tower of crepes, layered with spinach and gruyère cream sauce.

The text described the the dish as “a seemingly endless stack of delicate crepes,” but upon closer inspection of the photo, it looked as though they had used about 10 or 12 crepes. Bits of chopped spinach poked out from between the crepe layers, and the only evidence of cheese was delicately browned on the top.

When I saw that this 6-inch diameter “gateau” could serve up to 10 people, I was slightly skeptical. And, with shipping and handling, the price totaled close to $100. After doing those calculations, I decided I would try making it myself. Of course, after a few keystrokes, I found dozens of similar dishes on various websites.

The most likely comparable was a Martha Stewart “Spinach Gruyère Gateau de Crepes.” In this, she makes creamed spinach from a white sauce blended with gruyère cheese. Each crepe is spread with the spinach-cheese mixture and layered until the tower reaches a total of 12 crepes. The last of the sauce is spread over the top and the gateau is baked until browned.

Whenever I want to build a recipe for something I haven’t tried before, I do my research, paying attention to ingredients and techniques to decide how I might assemble the dish. In this case, there were two basic styles, one based on Julia Child’s complex custard-based, vegetable-rich creation and the rest imitating the Martha Stewart recipe. There are also a few quiche-like variations that omit the crepes.

What continues to astonish me is how shamelessly websites assert their recipes are original, when they are actually word-for-word copies of someone else’s (complete with typographic errors). Many of the Julia Child copies did include “adapted from” to acknowledge the source, but very few of the Martha Stewart copiers confessed they had found the recipe on her website or in her magazine.

I referred to the Martha Stewart recipe to make my tower, but need to clarify a few things. She calls the sauce a Bechamel, even after the addition of grated cheese, which is incorrect. One of the five “mother sauces” in French cuisine, Bechamel is a basic white sauce made from flour, butter and milk. The addition of gruyère or white cheddar cheese turns it into a Mornay sauce. 

In her recipe and others just like it, there are no instructions for making the crepes. They are simply listed as one of the ingredients, without specifying if they should be sweet or savory. To help you build the spinach-crepe tower in the photo, I’ve included a recipe for savory crepes.

When I made this, I substituted white cheddar for the gruyère simply because it was on hand, adding a little mustard powder for some punch. I didn’t combine the steamed spinach with the cheese sauce, but spread the cheese on each crepe followed by a dollop of spinach. This left me much more cheese sauce for the top and sides, which browned nicely under the broiler.

Next time I make this, I would add thinly sliced sautéed mushrooms to the spinach and substitute shallot for the onion in the sauce. And, just as now, 1 would be sure to give Martha Stewart credit for the idea.

Spinach Crepe Tower*

1 T olive oil
3 pressed garlic cloves
6 C baby spinach
pinch red pepper flakes
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt & pepper, to taste
1/3 C minced onion
2 T butter
2 T flour
1 1/2 C milk, warmed
1 1/4 C grated gruyère cheese, divided
10 6-inch savory crepes

Preheat oven to 450 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or silicone baking mat; set aside. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium. Add garlic and cook about 1 minute. Add spinach and cook until wilted, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in red pepper flakes. Sprinkle with lemon juice and season to taste with salt and pepper; set aside to cool. Combine onion and butter in a saucepan over medium; cook until onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Whisk in flour, stirring constantly, and cook for 2 minutes. Whisk in milk in a slow, steady stream. Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture has thickened, about 5 minutes. Add 1 C gruyère, stirring until cheese melts. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper. Squeeze out any excess liquid from spinach and coarsely chop. Reserve 2 T cheese sauce and mix together remaining sauce with spinach. Place 1 crepe on center of baking sheet and spread evenly with 3 T spinach mixture. Repeat with remaining crepes and spinach mixture, ending with a crepe. Spread top with reserved sauce and sprinkle with remaining 1/4 C cheese. Bake until golden, about 10 to 12 minutes. Let cool slightly, then cut into wedges and serve warm. Yield: 6 servings. *Adapted from Martha Stewart. Note: You can substitute white cheddar for the gruyère, adding 1/4 t mustard powder.

Savory Crepes

1 C flour
1 C milk
4 eggs
1/4 C melted butter
1/2 t salt
1/2 t butter

Whisk together all ingredients in a mixing bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes.

To cook crepes, melt 1/2 t butter in a crepe pan or small nonstick skillet over medium. For each crepe, pour scant 1/4 C batter into the pan, tilting and rotating the pan until the bottom is completely covered with a very thin layer of batter. Cook until bubbly and dry at the edges, about 1 minute. Turn and cook another minute. Slide crepe onto a sheet of wax paper and repeat with remaining batter. Yield: 12 to 15 6-inch crepes. To store crepes, tightly wrap in plastic or aluminum foil; they keep in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours or in the freezer for up to 1 month.