What is a Crêpe?
These delicate pancakes are known as ‘crêpes’ in France. Their name comes from Old French ‘crespe’ which traces back to the Latin ‘crispa’ or ‘crispus’ which means curled. This probably refers to their often slightly ruffled edges. A French café that specializes in crêpes is known as a crêperie. Crêpes are usually of two types: sweet crêpes and savory galettes. In Brittany, they still prefer crêpes made with local buckwheat flour and use the slightly derisive ‘crêpes de froment’ to refer to crepes made with white flour.
What Is The Difference Between a Crêpe and a Galette?
The Breton galette is made with buckwheat flour and is associated with the region of Brittany, where historically, it has been more of a staple food than bread. Buckwheat was introduced in the 14th century as a crop capable of surviving on the impoverished soils of the region. The French are very particular over the distinction between a galette and a crêpe and one should never be called the other. The savory filling added to galettes can include anything from cheese and cut vegetables to eggs, meat or fish. One of the most popular varieties consists of grated Emmental cheese, a slice of ham and an egg on top. In Brittany, this cheese, ham and egg mix is known as a galette complète and is something of a regional treasure. While French cuisine is usually accompanied by wine, the galette is traditionally enjoyed with cider but I personally prefer a nice cold beer!
French crêpe batter typically consists of flour, eggs, and milk or water, with butter, sugar and salt as optional ingredients. No matter the recipe, a brisk whisking for removing most lumps is required. Crêpes differ from typical American pancakes in that they don’t contain a leavening agent causing the batter to rise, hence the flat outcome.
The crêpe is thinner, smaller, and made with white wheat flour. You can fill or top it with whatever sweets you like. Try it with Nutella, fruit, nuts, and/or cream. Typically, crêpes are smaller in size than Breton galettes, partly since they tend to be enjoyed for dessert (galettes are served as a main meal).
WHERE TO TRY A CRÊPE OR GALETTE IN FRANCE
You’ll find crêperies throughout France. Do your research to find which ones the locals (not just tourists) think is the best. Over a lifetime of traveling in France (as well as making them at home), I have eaten my share of crêpes and enjoyed many of them. One of my favorites, to give you an example, would be Breizh Café. Breizh serves high-quality crêpes and galettes using all fresh, local, and organic ingredients. They have 5 locations in Central Paris and 2 locations in Brittany (Saint-Malo and Cancale).
The History of Crêpes (Breton Roots)
Nearly every cultural cuisine on earth lays claim to some kind of pancake, made from a liquid batter on a hot, flat surface. Those we know well from hearty American breakfasts have near and distant cousins: Dutch poffertjes, Indian dosas, Russian blini, Japanese hirayachi, Chinese jianbing among others.
In French folklore, there is a tale that crêpes were born of a “happy accident,” when a 13th-century housewife in Brittany accidentally spilled some buckwheat porridge from a kettle in the fireplace onto a flat cooking stone, but other sources put crêpes much earlier on in the timeline. As to whether Brittany, the Northwesternmost region of France, lays any actual claim to the origin, the fact is that savory crêpes are still traditionally made with buckwheat flour, a crop that performs well in Brittany’s wet climate, where normal wheat does not.
While we know much about British involvement in North America through the 1700’s, France controlled a large swath of land from Northeastern Canada, through the American Midwest, and down to Louisiana, until much of the latter part was ceded to Great Britain in 1763. French influence lingers in American city names such as Detroit and New Orleans, and especially in Quebec, which has remained a new world French mainstay, and through that heritage, crêpes became part of my Midwestern upbringing.
February 02: Day of the Crêpe
Historically known as the Virgin Mary’s Blessing Day, February 2 in France is now better known as le jour des crêpes (‘the day of crepes’), and is more of a familial custom than a religious celebration. Le Jour des Crêpes (“the day of crêpes”), is believed to have begun in the year 472 when crêpes were offered to French Catholic pilgrims visiting Rome for Candlemas by Pope Gelasio I. Also named La Chandeleur (‘the return of the light’), the date commemorates the winter’s decline and the coming light of the spring. Families celebrate this moment with a meal of crepes together.
According to legend, if you hold a coin in your writing hand and a frying pan in your other, flip a crepe and it lands flat, your family will be prosperous that year.
Sweet, savory, or plain?
Lemon and sugar were the traditional simple filling used in sweet crêpes. Now, you’ll find them with an amazing array of fillings. Nut spreads, jams and preserves, berries, nuts, cream cheese, whipped cream, ice cream, salted caramel, and poached pears drizzled with dark chocolate are all popular fillings.
The traditional ham, egg, and cheese filling in savory crepes is still popular. However, now you’ll also find asparagus, avocado, spinach, mushrooms, bacon, chicken, smoked salmon, steak, turkey, Swiss cheese, goat’s cheese, and a variety of other vegetables, meats, and cheeses filling crepes.
Crêpe Suzette History and Recipe
Crêpes Suzette is probably the most famous crêpe dish in the world. In a restaurant, a classic Crêpe Suzette is often prepared in a chafing dish in full view of the guests. The crêpes are served hot with a sauce of sugar, orange juice, and liqueur (usually Grand Marnier). Brandy is poured over the crêpes and then lit (which I enjoy doing for guests). Crêpes suzette were made famous in elegant Parisian restaurants at the turn of the twentieth century and have become standard French dessert fare. The dish was created out of a mistake made by a fourteen year-old assistant waiter Henri Carpentier (1880-1961) in 1895 at the Maître at Monte Carlo’s Café de Paris. He was preparing a dessert for the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII (1841-1910) of England.
Crêpe Suzette Recipe:
- 2 cups of all purpose flour
- 1 tspn sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 2/3 cup milk
- 2 tspn vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup of sugar superfine
- 1 cup orange juice
- 1 tbspn grated orange zest
- 2 tbspns of brandy or Cognac
- 2 tbspns of Grand Marnier
- 3 1/2 tbspns of unsalted butter, diced
Crêpes Suzette Instructions:
- Crêpes Batter: Using a wooden spoon, whisk or if you prefer a blender, blend the eggs, flour, milk. Place the crepe batter, covered, in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. The batter will keep for up to 48 hours.
- Cooking the Crêpes : Heat a frying pan, crepe pan, or cast iron griddle (if not using a crêpe pan add 2 tablespoons of sweet butter (do not use too much butter or the crêpes will be greasy). Once the pan is well-heated, pour in enough batter, to cover the bottom of the pan. Tip the pan from side to side to spread the batter thinly, and keep it moving. Do not worry if the is not perfectly round or has uneven edges, as it will be rolled or folded and the imperfections will not matter. The finished crêpes should be very thin.
- After one minute, turn the pancake upside down, until it is nicely browned (the crêpes should be spotted brown with a smooth consistency).
- Fold the crêpes in half, and fold again to form a triangle. As the crêpes are finished, stack them one upon the other. Proceed to make the remaining crêpes. NOTE: Also, as when making other types of pancakes, expect that you may have to throw away the first 1 or 2 crepes until you get the pan temperature just right.
- Storage of Crêpes: The crêpes may be made hours ahead of time and kept, covered with plastic wrap, at room temperature. Crêpes may be frozen for up to 2 months. When using frozen crêpes, thaw on a rack before gently peeling apart.
- Prepare Sauce Suzette: Melt the sugar in a large frying pan over low heat and cook to a rich caramel, swirling the pan so the caramel browns evenly. Pour in the orange juice and zest and boil for 2 minutes. Put the crêpes in the pan and spoon the sauce over them. Add the brandy and Grand Marnier and flambé by lighting the pan with your gas flame or a match )stand back when you do this and keep a pan lid handy for emergencies). Add the butter and shake the pan until the butter melts. Serve immediately and enjoy!
TIP: In case you want to emulate the French, make sure you fold your crêpes rather than rolling them. I like to roll my savory filled ones, and fold my desert ones.