Mardi Gras in Paris is not celebrated as wildly as in, say, Louisiana or Brazil. Children may wear costumes to school, but that’s about it. France is a secular country and Lent is a religious observance, so festivities are muted — with the exception of a few restaurants that serve Cajun cuisine.
The tradition of serving pancakes arose from the need to finish up things like butter and sugar before Lent began. The French have two kinds of pancakes — crêpes and galettes. Crêpes tend to be thinner and made with white flour and cooked in a special crêpe pan or on a griddle. They may have a sweet or savoury filling. Galettes are thicker pancakes or even flattish cakes made with buckwheat flour. Galettes are associated with Breton cooking and often have a savoury filling.
Crêpes are one of the few real street foods in a city that does not much indulge in street food. Many markets have a crêpe stand where you can get a crêpe in a little paper pouch filled with something simple — Nutella is a perennial favourite, and so is chestnut cream. Wonderful on a chilly day.
Crêpes Suzette is much fancier, with a hot sauce made of caramelized sugar, grated orange peel, orange juice, and Grand Marnier, flambéed in a chafing dish. Legend has it that the dish was first made in 1895 for the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII of England) when he was dining with a companion called Suzette in Monte Carlo. History has recorded nothing further of Suzette than this fact. One wonders if she had some quite different name, perhaps a well-known one, but offered this one as a pseudonym to avoid publicity.
Here’s a simple crêpe recipe, translated from Mon Cours de Cuisine (My Cooking Course) by Keda Black, an illustrated guide to the techniques of making traditional French dishes, from omelettes to blanquette de veau.
– 1 cup (120 g) all-purpose flour
– 4 eggs
– 1¾ cups (400 ml) milk
– Put the flour into a large bowl and add a pinch of salt. Make a dent in the middle of the flour and crack one egg into the dent. Mix with a wooden spoon. Gradually add the other eggs one at a time and blend them in.
– Add the milk a small amount at a time and keep mixing until the batter is smooth. Cover the bowl with plastic film and put it in the fridge to cool for at least an hour.
– Heat a non-stick frying pan on high heat and melt a generous dollop of butter in it. Lower the heat and add a small dollop of batter. The underside is cooked when the crêpe detaches itself from the pan; it usually takes about a minute. Flip the crêpe and cook the other side for half a minute. Slide it out onto a plate, add a bit more butter and keep cooking the crêpes until you have used up all the batter.
– The recipe should make enough crêpes for about four people. Serve with lemon juice and sugar, or honey, or Nutella, or jam, or anything else that appeals to you.
– The word for batter is la pâte. You can use a ladle (une louche) to dole out la pâte. A non-stick frying pan is une poêle antiadhésive. The recipe tells you to cool la pâte in the frigo – the informal French word for refrigerator.
Mon Cours de Cuisine (My Cooking Course)
By Keda Black (Author) and Fred Lucano (Photographer). Marabout Publishers (2007). French.
Sugar and Spice
By Keda Black. Hamlyn Publishers, Octopus Publishing Group (2008). Keda Black is a passionate cook and the author of Sugar and Spice. She lives in Paris, France.
Vocabulary: French to English translations
Blanquette de veau: Ragout or stew of veal in white sauce.
Crêpes: Very thin pancake usually made from wheat flour.
Crêpes Suzette: Typical French dessert, consisting of a crêpe with a hot sauce of caramelized sugar, orange juice, grated orange peel and liqueur (usually Grand Marnier) on top, which is flambéed.
Flambée: (also flambé) To drench with a liquor, such as brandy, and ignite.
Frigo: Informal French word for refrigerator.
Galettes: Flat round pancake-like pastry usually made with buckwheat.
Omelette: (also omelet) A dish consisting of beaten eggs cooked until set and folded over, often around a filling.
Ragout: Well-seasoned meat or fish stew, usually with vegetables.
Philippa Campsie teaches part-time in the urban planning program at the University of Toronto, and runs her own writing and research business, Hammersmith Communications. Before starting her own business, she was editor-in-chief at Macmillan Canada. Philippa lived in Paris as a student and regularly travels to Paris and Normandy.
She is interested in stories of famous Parisian women throughout the ages and how they influenced the Parisian style we have come to love and know.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® blog, Wherever you go, you always meet a Breton, by French woman from Breton, Bénédicte Mahé, who is in her mastère-spécialisé final trimester doing an internship in Paris. Bénédicte asks us to take out our notebooks and pens and get ready for a lesson on Brittany. Recipe included for Far Breton (with prunes), a crêpe for your sweet tooth!
La Chandeleur – Le Jour des Crêpes, by Michelle Hum who introduces us to the celebration of Chandeleur, also know as Le Jour des Crêpes, and her new found favorite spread, Crème de Châtaigne (Chestnut Jam). Recipe included for crêpes by Ginette Mathiot from her book, Je Sais Cuisiner.
Julia Child: French Cooking for North Americans, by Canadian writer Philippa Campsie who writes about the challenge of making a simple birthday cake in Paris, from finding the familiar whipping cream, measuring cups and spoons, to the search for birthday candles to top the cake! Recipe for Yogurt Cake by Sophie Dudemaine, cookbook author and French TV star, from her cookbook titled, Les Cakes de Sophie.
Smell and Taste, Sensation and Pleasure, by French writer Laurence Haxaire who explains the “smart” education of the French child who is taught to recognize and describe the flavours, the feeling of taste, and most importantly, why they liked it or disliked it. Her introduction to the world of flavour is all about sensations and pleasure. She urges to “tell what you feel.”
Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.