The French love crêpes. So much so, they reserve a special day just to honor them. If you missed the “Day of the Crêpe,” which was 2 February, don’t fret. It’s customary to appreciate them once more just a few weeks later on Fat Tuesday.
Not that eating crêpes is only limited to this time of year, au contraire. The crêpe is the nation’s second favorite dessert (coming in just behind chocolate lava cake).
Crêpes were traditionally eaten by candlelight on Candlemas (40 days after Christmas) and once again on Shrove Tuesday (40 days before Easter). As in many Judeo-Christian rituals, the blending of pagan beliefs entered into their traditions. It is thought the round shape of the crêpe symbolizes the sun, so these observances are also meant to recognize the lengthening winter days and growing anticipation of spring.
In times past, French children would dress up and knock on doors around the neighborhood requesting eggs, sugar and flour for celebrations during Carnival. The ingredients were used to make crêpes (and sometimes beignets or waffles). This practice was meant to help residents get rid of fatty products they still had in their homes in preparation for the fasting period.
If you are confined to the house during Mardi Gras this year, why not try a crêpe soiree with your family? Children can easily participate in making them and the bold members of the family may enjoy trying to flip the griddle cakes in the air. A fun activity to add to your crêpe soiree is to have each person hold a coin in their hand while making their crêpe. French wisdom says that by doing so, prosperity is assured for the rest of the year.
Setting up your crêpe soiree
Grab some candles and get your mise en place (set up your ingredients). Crêpes can be served as a main course as well as dessert. Some cooks make the batter in advance then store it in the fridge. That way they have it on hand to whip up a meal when they’re in a pinch for time.
For a savory course:
Combinations are practically endless, but here are a few to get you started: sautéed mushrooms with béchamel, bacon & eggs, braised spinach with garlic, ham & cheddar, smoked salmon & capers, crème fraîche & chives, shrimp & avocado, crab meat & mascarpone.
For a sweet ending:
Classic dessert combinations are a dusting of powdered sugar, nutella & banana, chocolate shavings & liquor, cider & caramel, fresh fruit & cream, honey & ground spice, crème de marron or the classic: confiture. The most common way the French eat crêpes is with a sprinkling of granulated sugar (and perhaps a squeeze of lemon).
Upon comparing recipes from four sources: The Cordon Bleu and Le Grande Livre Marabout, Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, I found they all list the same base ingredients but the proportions of eggs vary greatly.
• All start with one cup of flour, but as few as one and as many as four eggs. After digging into this, I discovered the French sources seem to believe the more eggs used, the richer the batter.
• Cooking temperature and batter thickness are major factors in crêpe quality.
• The one thing they all had in common was that the batter should be THIN like cream. This may seem contradictory to Americans who are used to making thick pancakes. But, the end result is more like a thin wrapper for your food, not a fluffy stack. All sources advise making the batter in advance (at least an hour or up to a day).
• They also stress the use of a non-stick, well-heated pan. For those who are not fans of heating Teflon to high temperatures, consider using a cast iron skillet. Many folks use an electric crêpe machine, which works well for a soiree since each participant can make his or her very own at the table. Finally, tipping the pan at an angle while pouring the batter is suggested to get an even coat of the mixture on the surface of the pan. After a bit of practice, you will find this trick to be quite useful.
My curated crêpe recipe
This crêpe recipe was adapted from Jacques Pepin. It uses a middle range of eggs. Much of the process in making the batter has been adapted from Julia Child.
• 1 cup flour
• 1/8 tsp salt
• 2 medium eggs
• 1 egg yolk
• ¾ cups milk
• ¾ cup water
• 1/3 cup butter – melted (for added flavor, brown the butter)
NOTE: for dessert crêpes, 2 tablespoons of sugar may be added to the batter
Extra: 2 tablespoons of melted butter, or coconut oil for brushing the pan
- Mixing by blender: Just put all the ingredients in the blender and blend for one (solid) minute. It seems like an eternity, but blend the entire minute. If mixing by hand: Put the flour and salt in a bowl and mix. Make a well and add the eggs. Whisk while slowly adding the milk and water. Continue to whisk until all the ingredients are well combined. If batter is not thin like cream, add a little more liquid to adjust. Stir in the melted butter.
- Pour batter into a jar, tighten the lid, and store in the refrigerator for at least an hour before using. Ideally, the batter should be made the night before and used the next day.
- Cooking the crêpes: Put the pan on the fire or turn on the electric crêpe machine. Coat with a small amount of butter or coconut oil and pour off any extra. Heat pan until drops of water dance on it.
- Whisk the batter well and ladle about ¼ cup onto one side of the pan and swirl to cover the bottom with a thin layer. You can use a crêpe rake if you have one to spread out the mixture. Fill any holes or bare spots with a few drops of batter.
- Cook over medium to high heat until the crêpe comes away from the rim and the edges are cooked. Lift up an edge and peek under to see if the bottom is lightly browned. It should take about 45 seconds to 1 minute.
- Loosen the crêpe with a spatula and flip it to cook on the other side for 30-45 seconds. The second side will not come out brown like the first. It will be much lighter and will probably have dark brown spots on it. This is the side on which you put the filling; the brown side is the one that will be showing after you fold thecrêpe.
- If the pan is non-stick, you can skip adding butter or oil after making each crêpe, but if the crêpes begin to stick, re-coat the pan.
- Crêpes may be stacked on top of each other without risk of their sticking together. Crêpes store well: Simply wrap them in plastic and refrigerate for a few days or freeze for several weeks. If you plan to eat them right away, you may add the topping as soon as they are taken off the griddle. Fill, fold (or roll) and serve. They may also be made, stacked and re-warmed. Simply place on a dinner plate and guests may choose which toppings they prefer.
Mardi Gras is a movable feast, which means the date changes. It does this because it follows the lunar calendar. The next day, Ash Wednesday, begins the 40-day fasting period for Christians that ends on Easter Sunday.
About the author:
Alice Verberne is a freelance artist and writer who purchased the École des Vatelottes in 1999. The historic building is located three hours southeast of Paris in the rural hilltop village of Bourmont, France. Her mission is to create an atelier as a meeting point to connect visitors to local artisans. She works as a consultant for GB Marketing Research Solutions writing feasibility studies for entrepreneurs.
Alice Verberne is a contributing writer for Dispatches Europe. She has worked in print journalism and magazine production in the United States and Europe throughout her career. She currently resides in France where she enjoys visiting former French speaking colonies and discussing history with the locals.