Ah, Paris in spring. What could be more glorious? Strolling the boulevards abloom with horse chestnut trees. Taking a boat ride down the Seine. Climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower or gazing rapturously at the Mona …. Wait a minute. What’s that delectable aroma? What are those people consuming with such gusto? Yes! Regard the street vendor deftly creating that culinary perfection. Lo and behold, it’s the inimitable crepe!
There’s perhaps no food more associated with France than the crepe. This Friday, May 6, is National Crepes Suzette Day, and we at AntiquityNOW hope you will partake with the recipe below. But first, as we are wont to do with our explorations of ancient/modern connections, let’s look at the origins of the crepe.
The word crepe is French for pancake and is derived from the Latin crispus meaning “curled.” The origin of the French crepe is believed to be in Brittany, where it was originally called a galette or flat cake and was made from buckwheat. Buckwheat was introduced to the region around the 12th century and fortunately thrived in the dramatic and unforgiving landscape of the Breton moors.
Buckwheat has ancient roots. The oldest known archaeological remains are from China dated around 2600 BC, although evidence of buckwheat pollen in China has been traced back to as early as 4000 BC. “It is the world’s highest elevation domesticate, being that it was either domesticated in Yunnan on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau or on the Plateau itself.” As trade was established, buckwheat as a domesticated product spread. Some researchers believe that buckwheat was introduced to Europe along the Silk Road, possibly between 1300-1400 CE.
Buckwheat is from the polygonaceae family that also includes rhubarb and sorrel. It is not a true grain. Its nutritive value was an important source in ancient times and continues to be today. It is gluten free and high in fiber. One significant feature is that of being an easily digestive protein containing all eight essential amino acids.
At the turn of the 20th century white flour crepes became popular due to the growing affordability of white wheat flour, which previously had been “as expensive as sugar, honey or meat.” White flour crepes were wafer thin as the buckwheat crepes, but had a lighter feel and taste because of the addition of more eggs, milk and butter.
But how did crepes suzette become one of the most famous dishes in the world? There are a number of competitors for the title of le créateur. A story that caught our fancy concerned a 14-year-old assistant waiter named Henri Charpentier. In 1895 young Henri worked at the Maitre at Monte Carlo’s Café de Paris. One evening he was preparing a dessert for the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII (1841-1910) of England.
Now in a restaurant, the crepes suzette dessert as we know it today is prepared in a chafing dish in front of the diners. The crepes are served hot with a sauce of sugar, orange juice and liqueur such as Grand Marnier poured over the crepes and lit. This is how this combination accidently came about according to Charpentier’s recollection in Life A La Henri – Being The Memories of Henri Charpentier:
“It was quite by accident as I worked in front of a chafing dish that the cordials caught fire. I thought I was ruined. The Prince and his friends were waiting. How could I begin all over? I tasted it. It was, I thought, the most delicious melody of sweet flavors I had ever tasted. I still think so. That accident of the flame was precisely what was needed to bring all those various instruments into one harmony of taste . . . He ate the pancakes with a fork; but he used a spoon to capture the remaining syrup. He asked me the name of that which he had eaten with so much relish. I told him it was to be called Crepes Princesse. He recognized that the pancake controlled the gender and that this was a compliment designed for him; but he protested with mock ferocity that there was a lady present. She was alert and rose to her feet and holding her little skirt wide with her hands she made him a curtsey. ‘Will you,’ said His Majesty, ‘change Crepes Princesse to Crepes Suzette?’ Thus was born and baptized this confection, one taste of which, I really believe, would reform a cannibal into a civilized gentleman. The next day I received a present from the Prince, a jeweled ring, a panama hat and a cane.”
And as they say, Voila!
As we see with most recipes, contemporary culinary tastes owe a great deal to ancient ingenuity. The crepe is no exception. Whether sweet or savory, this palate-pleasing dish is redolent of a storied history. So this AntiquityNOW Month, enjoy National Crepes Suzette Day on May 6 with one of France’s great claims to fame. Bon Appetit!
NOTE: Some people may find that making the crepes can be tricky. View this master of crepe making for some helpful tips.
Recipe courtesy of Alton Brown
Total Time: 36 min
Prep: 10 min
Inactive: 1 min
Cook: 25 min
Yield: 4 servings
- Sweet crepes, recipe follows
- 1/2 pound butter, softened
- 4 tablespoons sugar
- 4 ounces of your favorite liquor
- 4 scoops of vanilla ice cream
- Sweet Crepes:
- 2 large eggs
- 3/4 cup milk
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 cup flour
- 3 tablespoons melted butter
- 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons of your favorite liqueur
- Butter, for coating the pan
- Fold your crepes in half twice, so they are in the shape of a triangle. In a non-stick pan over medium heat, melt half of the butter. When it begins to foam remove from heat and add 2 ounces of the liquor and 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Always add alcohol off of the heat to avoid a jumping flame. Use tongs to gently lay crepes into the pan. Turn the crepes to coat. Lay the crepes out on a plate and top with ice cream. Pour remaining sauce over the ice cream. Serve immediately.
- In a blender, combine all of the ingredients and pulse for 10 seconds. Place the crepe batter in the refrigerator for 1 hour. This allows the bubbles to subside so the crepes will be less likely to tear during cooking. The batter will keep for up to 48 hours.
- Heat a small non-stick pan. Add butter to coat. Pour 1 ounce of batter into the center of the pan and swirl to spread evenly. Cook for 30 seconds and flip. Cook for another 10 seconds and remove to the cutting board. Lay them out flat so they can cool. Continue until all batter is gone. After they have cooled you can stack them and store in sealable plastic bags in the refrigerator for several days or in the freezer for up to two months. When using frozen crepes, thaw on a rack before gently peeling apart.