Crêpes are so ubiquitous in France in February that one could believe all French people herald from Brittany! While crêperies are favorite eateries year around, just about every French family will make crêpes at home during the few weeks between February 2nd and Mardi Gras.
Crêpe Complète: slice of ham, grated Gruyère cheese and egg
La Chandeleur: Pagan and Christian traditions
Chandeleur is celebrated on February 2nd. The origin of the word comes from chandelle (candle) and has become an amalgam of rites and traditions started by the Romans, observed by the Celts, modified by the Christians, and now celebrated by anybody with an appetite for crêpes. During Roman times, Lupercus (the god of Fertility) was honored around February 15, which was the start of the mating season for birds. For the Celts, February 1st signaled the end of the short winter days and they celebrated the Purification of Water to insure fertility and new beginnings. February 2nd also marks the day the Virgin Mary follows the Hebrew tradition of presenting Jesus at the temple, 40 days after his birth. At the end of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church is anxious to replace the pagan rites with religious holidays. During the 5th century, Pope Gelase 1st replaces the Lupercales, the celebration of light inherited from the Romans, with the Chandeleur, which is observed 40 days after Christmas. In processions, people carry torches, symbols of light. In 1372, with the Pope in Avignon, this holiday officially becomes the Purification of the Virgin Mary. In churches, torches are replaced with blessed candles that are kept lit to repel the devil, death, storms, etc.; bring favorable heavenly attention to the winter sowing; and produce good summer crops. Blessed candles are also taken home to protect the house and its inhabitants. Nowadays, candles are blessed as a reminder that Jesus is the light of the world. It is interesting to notice the parallel between the Chandeleur and Groundhog day: here, if the groundhog sees its shadow on February 2nd, winter is not over yet; in France, if the bear sees clear skies, it returns to its den and hibernates one more month. Of course, it is getting a little bit challenging to observe a French bear's behavior these days,,,
So, where did the crêpes come from?
During the Lupercales, the Romans were already baking pancakes of flour and water, sweetened with honey. Their golden color served as a symbol of the warm sun. The return of the sun was also highly anticipated by the people of Northern Europe and the Celts. Pope Gelase would feed the pilgrims with pancakes when they reached Rome. Crêpes were made with the flour from the previous wheat crop, and that flour could be used somewhat liberally since the new crop was not that far away anymore. Crêpes/pancakes were made all over Europe long before bread was baked; they were not necessarily specific to the Brittany region. But the buckwheat plant, originally from Asia, is introduced in Europe during the 15th century and makes its way into Brittany where it is well-suited to the poor, acidic soil of the region. Because the seeds are black and yield gray flour, buckwheat is also referred to as "blé noir" (black wheat). The Bretons become famous for the galette, which is a crêpe made with buckwheat flour (sarrasin) instead of wheat flour (froment). Originally, galettes and crêpes were made on a "billig", a disk of cast iron set on a tripod directly into the fireplace; later on, the billig was placed on a gas stove; nowadays, electric billigs are more prevalent. One thing that has not changed, though, is the "rozell", the toothless rake used to spread the batter uniformly on the cooking surface. The crêpe is flipped over with a long-bladed spatula but, when using a regular frying pan, it brings good luck and prosperity to flip it unaided while the other hand holds a coin. An old tradition also calls for flipping the first crêpe of the batch onto the top of the hutch: the first crêpe is wasted anyway, and it will never become moldy, but one has to wonder about the purpose of the exercise, besides testing the cook's dexterity!
Tricks of the trade
Making crêpe batter is not a very complex affair: after all, the recipe only calls for mixing basic ingredients like flour, milk and eggs. The buckwheat crêpes batter is a little bit more challenging but yields very tasty results. Many cooks will want to make only one batter and use it both for sweet and savory crêpe fillings: from the basic recipe for sweet crêpes batter omit the sugar and rum, make a few crêpes that will be used for appetizer or main course, then add the sugar and flavoring to the rest of the batter to make sweet crêpes. The basic recipe calls for milk to make a rich crêpe but it can be modified to achieve different results:
- Replace the milk with lukewarm water for thin, extra-light crêpes
- Use half milk and half water: the crêpes will be moist but not quite as thin
- Use half milk and half beer for light, airy crêpes
- Mix the flour first with the liquid, then add the beaten eggs: the batter will spread more easily in the frying pan
- If you whip the egg whites before incorporating them to the mixture, the crêpes will be especially moist
- Adding sugar to the mix make the crêpes crispy, even as they cool down
- Adding melted butter (or oil) to the batter makes for a finer flavor; also the crêpes will require less fat when you cook them
- Rum and Grand Marnier are the traditional flavoring agents. Other liqueurs and eaux-de-vie will work well, along with vanilla, grated lemon zest or orange-blossom water
- Cooking temperature affects the crêpe texture. For moist crêpes, cook them over medium-high heat; a more gentle heat will make them crispier.
- Don't put too much oil or butter in the frying pan or the batter will not spread as evenly. Apply the oil or melted butter with a clean cloth or pastry brush. Or cut a potato in half, pick it with a fork and dip the cut side into the melted butter.
- Crêpes are always at their best when eaten right out of the frying pan but, if you want to make a batch in advance, here are a couple of ways to keep them warm: either set a plate over a pan of simmering water, pile the crêpes up and cover them with another plate; of place them in an oven-proof platter, covered with foil, in a 250º F oven.
- Crêpes will keep two days in the refrigerator or two months in the freezer: make sure to double-wrap them in plastic wrap. Defrost in the microwave oven.
The ultimate crêpe party
With a batch of crêpes made in advance, you can let each guest decide how to fill his/her own crêpes.
Options for savory crêpes include:
Crêpe Paysanne: cooked bacon, grated Guryère, chopped parsley
Crêpe Forestière: diced ham, cooked sliced mushroom, Gruyère cheese
Crêpe aux Fruits de Mer: mushrooms, assortment of seafood (small shrimp, crab meat, bay scallops, mussels, etc.) in a Béchamel sauce
Crêpe Florentine: diced ham, cooked spinach, whipping cream, grated parmesan
Crêpe au Roquefort: Roquefort creamed with butter, walnut pieces, chives
Crêpe Scandinave: shredded radishes, sliced cucumber, feta cheese, lemon juice, smoked salmon
Crêpe Asiatique: beaten egg, diced asparagus, bay shrimp, soy sauce
Options for sweet crêpes include:
Crêpe au Sucre: butter, sugar
Crêpe à la Confiture: jam of your choice
Crèpe au Citron: sugar, lemon juice
Crèpe au Chocolat: chocolate sauce (or Nutella-type spread)
Crêpe au Miel: honey
Crêpe à la Compote de Pomme: apple sauce
Crêpe aux Pommes: poached apple slices with cinnamon (use Calvados in the batter)
Crêpe à la Cévenole: crème de marron (use Rum in the batter)
Crêpe Belle-Hélène: poached pear, vanilla ice-cream, chocolate sauce (use Poire Williams eau-de-vie in the batter)
Crêpe aux Fraises: sliced strawberries in sugar, whipped cream
Crêpe aux Framboises: raspberries, sugar, crême fraîche
Crèpe à la Banane: banana slices, chocolate sauce, whipped cream
Fill your crêpe and fold; or shape the crêpe as a "purse", fill and tie with chives (savory) or strips of orange zest (sweet crêpes). Let your imagination fly and create your own combinations. Cider is a great accompaniment to all crêpes; if serving wine, let the ingredients in the filling guide your selection.
Batter for Buckwheat Crêpes-Pâte à Crêpes de Sarrasin
Batter for Sweet Crêpes-Pâte à Crêpes Sucrées
Crêpe Gateau with Crab-Gâteau de Crêpes au Crabe
Crêpes with Orange Butter-Crêpes Suzette
Cocoa Crêpes with Chocolate Mousse-Crêpes Cacao à la Mousse au Chocolat
Mattress for a Princess-Matelas de Princesse