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.

Overhead view of crepe cake
Serious Eats / Robby Lozano

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.

Side angle view of crepe cake
Serious Eats / Robby Lozano

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.

Overhead view of pouring vanilla into egg mixture
Serious Eats / Robby Lozano

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.

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.)

Overhead view of crepe batter in blender

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.

Two image collage of pouring crepe batter and swirling it around the pan
Serious Eats / Robby Lozano

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.

Two image collage of an overhead view of crepe being lifted off pan and a stack of cooked crepes
Serious Eats / Robby Lozano

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.

Vanilla cooking in cream
Serious Eats / Robby Lozano

In a large bowl, set up an ice bath by partially filling it with a combination of cold water and ice. Set aside.

Overhead view of an icebath
Serious Eats / Robby Lozano

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.

Pouring vanilla mixture while whisking eggs
Serious Eats / Robby Lozano

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.

Pushing mixture through fine mesh sleeve
Serious Eats / Robby Lozano

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.

Folding mixture together with a silicone spatula

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.

Two image collage of assembling crepe cake
Serious Eats / Robby Lozano

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.

Overhead view of torching the sugar on top of the cake
Serious Eats / Robby Lozano

Special Equipment

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

Notes

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.

Cheese Danish

Rich with butter and filled with sweet, tangy cream cheese, these Danishes may convince you that the only ones worth eating are warm, freshly baked ones.

Overhead view of cheese danishes
Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

We’ve all seen the cold, wan Danishes sitting behind the bakery case or forgotten about in a pile of breakfast pastries in some conference room. Pale, stodgy, and cloying, their most attractive quality is that they'll go down easier than the stale croissants next to them. It isn't a new problem—late food writer Mimi Sheraton complained about the state of the Danish back in 1977. She wrote in the New York Times that if Denmark ever broke off diplomatic relations with the U.S., it’d likely be because of our misuse of the word Danish “to describe the leaden, oily, artificially yellow and cloyingly sweet cakes we find in luncheonettes… Compared to the yeasty, buttery, flaky and delicate pastries that Danes know as Vienna bread—wienerbrod—the imposters we produce amount to a national insult.”

She wasn't wrong then, and, sadly, her comments still ring true. So while it may be a labor of love to make your own Danishes from scratch, it’s worth taking the time to do it right. Made with a yeasted dough that’s layered with butter, the pastry is something of a cross between a brioche and a croissant. A great Danish should be tender, flaky, and nicely browned, with a balanced filling of cream cheese, jammy fruit, or pastry cream. These Danishes are rich with butter and packed with sweet, tangy cream cheese—and may very well convince you that the only ones worth eating are warm, freshly baked ones.

Close up of a cheese danish
Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

As with so many origin stories of popular foods, the supposed birth of the cheese Danish sounds a little too cute to be true. According to Jan M. Olsen, who dug into the Danish's beginnings for the Los Angeles Times in 1993, the pastry was accidentally created by a baker named Claudius Gelee, who apparently (and oh, so conveniently!) forgot to add butter to his dough. In an attempt to conceal his mistake, Gelee began “folding lumps of [butter] into the dough.” Much to Gelee and his colleagues’ surprise, the pastry turned out to be a success—what Olsen describes as “the lightest dough ever seen in France.” Soon after, Gelee opened his own cafe in Paris and Florence, and somewhere along the way, Italian bakers brought the pastry to Austria. 

It wasn’t until the late 19th century, according to Sandra J. Weber in the New York Times, that the pastry arrived in Denmark when Danish bakers went on strike. In desperate need of bakers, the country sought replacement workers from Vienna, who brought with them the wienerbrod so beloved in Denmark today. “By the time the strike was settled,” Weber noted, “Danes had acquired a passion and flair for the rich, light pastries.”

Getting Danish Dough Right

Traditionally, Danishes are made with a yeasted, laminated dough enriched with sugar and eggs. While Danishes bear a similar resemblance to puff pastry and croissants, the doughs all differ slightly from one another. Puff pastry is made up of flour, water, and salt; croissant dough consists of flour, sugar, yeast, milk, and salt; and Danish dough is essentially croissant dough that’s been further enriched with eggs. After the doughs are mixed, they are then laminated—rolled and folded over themselves several times—with a chilled butter block. As the dough bakes, the butter between the layers melts and creates pockets of steam, lifting the pastry and creating crisp, flaky layers.

Now, making a laminated dough from start to finish is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process that strikes fear in the hearts of even the most experienced bakers and pastry chefs. Luckily for us, there’s a shortcut we can take that will still result in a rich, buttery dough. Instead of laminating our dough with a butter block, we’re going to take a cue from rough puff pastry (or blitz puff pastry) by incorporating pieces of butter into the dough, then folding the dough over itself three times to create a total of 27 layers.

How to Fold Your Dough Using the Letter Fold Method

The best way to fold the dough is with what's known as the letter fold method. To make a letter fold, you first roll your dough out into a rectangle—in this recipe that’s an 18- by 9-inch rectangle—and bring the right third of the dough over the center, then fold the left third on top to create a smaller rectangle. The dough is then chilled so that the butter can firm up, and then folded in the same way a second time. The whole process is repeated once more for a total of three letter folds.

Overhead view of half folded danishes
Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

Each letter fold creates exponentially more layers; by the time you’ve completed three folds, you’ll have a total of 27 layers. (The first fold results in three layers; the second fold in nine; and the third fold in 27.) Though we aren’t laminating with a butter block, folding our butter-enriched dough will still create the flaky layers we want in a Danish.

Controlling Gluten Development

Each time we roll out our dough, we’re developing gluten, a network of protein molecules called glutenin and gliadin that are responsible for the springy, chewy texture in bread, pizza, and noodles. (You can read more about that here.) While we do want some gluten development to provide structure for our pastry, we don’t want to develop so much gluten that our Danishes become tough and rubbery.

This is a bit of a balancing act, as fats like butter and eggs act as a tenderizer in dough by coating the proteins and preventing them from bonding as easily to each other. Since fats reduce gluten development, and since Danish dough is quite ample with fat, we need to turn to a higher-protein flour (i.e., one that forms gluten more readily) like bread flour to compensate. What also helps limit excessive gluten development is resting the dough between folds, which, in addition to keeping our dough and butter cold, helps gluten relax. The result of this gluten  and fat balancing act is a dough that is tender yet stable, able to hold the high-moisture cheese filling without collapsing under it.

Using European-Style Butter

This recipe calls for European-style butter, which has a higher percentage of butterfat (typically 82-to-85%) and lends the pastries a richer flavor. “These butters,” writes Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, “contain 10-20% less water, which can be an advantage when making flaky pastries.” Is it crucial to use European-style butter? No. But since so much of the pastry’s flavor comes from the quantity and quality of butter used, it’s worth considering using a higher-quality European-style butter, which is also often cultured and thus more full-flavored.

If you can’t find European-style butter, don’t fret—it may be some consolation to know that American and Canadian butters are required to have a minimum of 80% butterfat, so if you’re choosing between a butter with 80% butterfat and another with 82% butterfat, it’s highly unlikely it will make or break the recipe.

Making a Balanced Cream Cheese Filling

What sets a truly superb Danish apart from a mediocre one isn’t just the dough—it’s also the filling. It may be tempting to beat cream cheese together with an ungodly amount of sugar and an egg yolk, but taking the time to make a few low-effort additions can mean the difference between a spectacular pastry and a subpar one; here, a little lemon juice adds brightness and acid, while vanilla brings a delicate floral note. Seasoning with just the right amount of salt highlights these subtle flavors.

Baking and Finishing the Pastry

Dusting danish with sugar
Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

After all your hard work, it’s time to trim, proof, and bake the pastries. You’ll portion the dough into four-inch squares, then pipe two tablespoons of cream cheese frosting into the center of each. Filling the pastries before they’ve proved allows the dough to puff around the cream cheese and lets us squeeze a bit more filling into each Danish. It’s crucial to properly proof the pastries before they bake—this helps to further develop both flavor and dough strength, resulting in crisp, flaky pastries with plenty of layers. Baked until golden brown and topped with a sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar, these Danishes will be the first you’ll actually want to try while they’re still fresh…and maybe even with a cup of coffee. You’ll have to put in the work to make them from start to finish, but you’ll also never be sad at the sight of a Danish again.

For the Danish Dough: In a medium bowl, whisk together warm water and the 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar until the sugar dissolves. Whisk in yeast until well-combined; let stand, uncovered, at room temperature until foamy, 5 to 10 minutes.

Overhead view of dough mixture in a bowl
Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat together bread flour, salt, and remaining 6 tablespoons granulated sugar on low speed until combined, about 15 seconds. Add egg and 84g (6 tablespoons) butter; pulse mixer between low speed and off until mixture resembles coarse crumbs, about 3 minutes. Add remaining 168g (12 tablespoons) butter; pulse mixer between low speed and off until butter is coated with flour, about 10 seconds. Stir cold milk into yeast mixture, then slowly add yeast mixture while pulsing mixer between low speed and off, until a shaggy dough forms, about 2 minutes. (There will be pieces of dough that have formed together, but it will not be a smooth or homogeneous dough.)

Two image collage of mixing dough batter in stand mixer
Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

Using a silicone spatula or a dough scraper, scrape dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Gently shape into a 7-inch square about 1 1/4-inch thick; the dough will be slightly sticky. Tightly wrap in plastic wrap; freeze until chilled, about 30 minutes.

Overhead view of dough ready to be chilled
Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

On a lightly floured work surface, roll dough into a 18- by 9-inch rectangle (1/4-inch thick), with the long sides parallel to the counter edge. Fold the dough like a business letter: Fold dough into thirds (each section should be 6-inches wide) like a letter by bringing the right third over the center, then folding the left third over to create a smaller rectangle. (Use a bench scraper or the flat side of a chef’s knife to lift dough if necessary.) Transfer to a lightly floured 9- by 13-inch rimmed baking sheet. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 45 minutes. Repeat rolling, folding, and chilling process 2 more times for a total of 3 folds. After the final fold, refrigerate dough for 1 hour 30 minutes or overnight.

Four image collage of dough rolled out on floured surface, being lifted up with a bench scraper, being folded like an envelope and placed on a tray
Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

For the Cream Cheese Frosting: In a medium bowl, whisk together cream cheese, egg yolk, powdered sugar, lemon juice, vanilla, and salt until smooth. Using a silicone spatula, transfer the frosting to a pastry bag and secure the top with kitchen twine, a rubber band, or a chip clip; set aside at room temperature.

Overhead view of filling a piping bag with cream filling
Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough into a roughly 13-inch square (1/4-inch thick). Using a sharp chef’s knife or pizza cutter, trim edges into a 12-inch square; cut into nine 4-inch squares. Working with 1 square at a time, brush each corner of the square with beaten egg. Fold each corner into the center of the square (all corners should touch in the center) and press down gently to seal. Repeat with the 8 remaining squares of dough. Transfer to prepared baking sheets, placing each square 2 to 3 inches apart.

Overhead view of folding dough squares
Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

To Bake the Pastries: Cut tip off the pastry bag to form a 1/2-inch hole. Gently press down in the center of the dough squares to create a small indentation; pipe the frosting in the center (about 2 tablespoons each; it’s okay if the mound of filling is taller than the dough.) Loosely cover with plastic wrap; let rise in a warm draft-free area (75°F or 24°C) until slightly puffed, about 45 minutes.

Overhead view of piping icing onto pastry squares
Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

Preheat oven to 425°F (220ºC) with racks in upper third and lower third positions. Remove and discard plastic wrap. Gently brush tops and sides of dough with beaten egg. (For best results, try not to get egg wash on the cut edges of the dough.) Bake until puffed and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Rotate baking sheets from top to bottom; reduce oven temperature to 375°F (with baking sheets in oven), and bake at 375°F until Danishes are puffed and deep golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes longer. (Keep a close eye during the last few minutes of baking; 1 tray may be ready before the other). Let cool slightly on baking sheets for 15 minutes. Garnish with additional powdered sugar; serve warm or at room temperature.

Overhead view of dusting danishes with sugar
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

Stand mixer, silicone spatula, rolling pin, whisk, pastry bag, sharp chef’s knife or pizza cutter, two 18- by 13- inch rimmed baking sheets

Make-Ahead and Storage

The pastries are best eaten the day-of.