Saturday, February 2, 2013

La Chandeleur

Crêpes for La Chandeleur in a Montmartre bakery

When I was a child, I heard of something called Crêpes Suzette.  I didn’t know what it was, other than a dessert (which made it of obvious interest), but I imagined something sweet somehow involved with a woman named Suzette, who was surely dark-haired and very beautiful because she was foreign.  Then one day I learned that crêpes were only thin pancakes - minus the maple syrup - and that Suzette was just the name of the very small girl present when they were served for the first time.  And that the whole thing was, in fact, an accident in which the liqueur-soaked crêpe sauce accidentally caught fire in the kitchen.
     So much for the exotic Suzette and her crêpes!
     Years later I moved to France.  And learned that you could find crêpes at sidewalk stands all across the country.  Their aroma and warmth were welcome in the cold grey drizzle of a Paris winter.  And eating one was always a treat for my children on the way home from school.
     If you travel to some parts of France, crêpes are a way of life.  Especially in Brittany, a poor province where they historically afforded a way of keeping hunger from your door.
A traveling crêpe stand in the countryside of Brittany
Crêpes are so much a part of France that they have been given their own day:  February 2nd.
     That day is called La Chandeleur, aka La Fête des Chandelles - The Festival of Candles.  If I were to be doctrinal, I’d tell you that it coincides with the Catholic celebration of the day baby Jesus was presented to the rabbis at the Temple and Mary was said to have been purified after childbirth.  Or I’d say that the Romans had a similar festival, the Festa Candelarum, where candles personified purification.  But perhaps because I’ve read too many Astérix books, I’d rather link it to the Celtic festival in honor of their goddess Brigit.  It celebrated purification and fertility as winter neared its end, with peasants carrying torches across their fields, asking Brigit to purify the land before they set about their spring sowing.
     The idea of purification runs through all these versions of La Chandeleur, but the Celtic ceremony was held on February 1st, which fits better, calendar-wise.  Besides... Astérix, remember?
Serving up crêpes for those who don't want to "flip their own"

Across the Pond in America, February 2nd is also a celebration:  Groundhog Day.  Punxsutawney Phil, of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, comes out of hibernation to take a look around.  Being of a nervous nature, if he sees his shadow, he disappears back into his burrow and another six weeks of wintery weather are said to be in store.
     Well, I just learned Phil has a link to La Chandeleur, and it has to do with old French proverbs.  One difference:  the French replaced Phil with a bear.  "Si fait beau et luit au Chandelours, six semaines se cache l'ours."  (If it’s sunny on the Feast of Candles, the bear will hide for six more weeks).  An exact parallel, except for the animal of choice.  I guess they had a shortage of groundhogs, whereas bears were far more widespread in the old days; now France has had to reintroduce them from Slovenia, and shepherds in the Pyrenees are not amused... but that’s another story.

Crêpes for La Chandeleur
You may wonder why crêpes are the food-of-the-day for this feast?  Easy.  They’re round and golden (if properly cooked).  A perfect symbol for the sun.  And here we obviously are doubling back to the Celtic feast, with its emphasis on future harvests.  That requires sun.  And there’s bloody little of it around in most of France in February, I can tell you!
     So crêpes it is.  Now how do you make them?
     I got this recipe from my Paris neighbor Nicole, who says, “My recipe doesn’t come from Suzette, but from a certain Janine, a friend of my mother.  It makes 15 crêpes.  One big advantage:  it doesn’t have to be made ahead of time.  You can whip it up at the last minute.”
     But if you want, you can make the crêpe batter up to two hours in advance and then cook the crêpes when your guests arrive.  Or you can cook a stack of them and keep them warm in the oven.  Dress them up with your favorite topping, flame them with a liqueur, or add dollops of whipped or ice cream and a shower of sliced almonds.  This recipe calls for rum but you can use anisette (anise flavoring), Cointreau, vanilla extract or any other liqueur or flavoring you like.  Plus citrus zest to give it some zing.

1 cup all-purpose flour
3 T butter
2 cups milk
3 eggs
2 T water
1 T rum (or lemon or orange zest)
1-2 t sugar (to suit sweet tooth)
pinch of salt

- Heat the milk to a boil.  Take the milk off the burner and add the butter so it melts.  Stir and leave it to cool.
- Put the flour in a large bowl.  Make a “well” in the center of the flour and break the eggs into the well, one by one.  Whisk thoroughly.
- Add a pinch of salt, then the water, then the flavoring (or zest).
- Slowly stir in the cooled milk.  The batter should have no lumps, or else you need to strain them out.
(This is the traditional method.  Julia Child just bungs everything in the mixer for 1 minute and strains any lumps out, but her batter does have to be made 2 hours in advance and left in the refrigerator.)

Now for those of you who have never made crêpes, here’s the drill:
- Stir the batter before making each crêpe.
- Pour a small ladle-ful of batter into a hot, well-greased crêpe or omelet pan, tilting the pan in a circle until just the bottom is thinly covered.  Remember:  these are not pancakes.  The crêpe should look almost like lace.
- When the edges start to brown, which will be almost immediately, run a spatula knife under the crêpe, from the sides in, to make sure it doesn’t stick.
- Toss the crêpe to flip it and let it finish browning.  Or flip it with the spatula knife.
- Don’t cook the crêpes too much.  They should be golden, like the sun that they once represented at this half-way point of winter.

A crêpe-galette restaurant in the Marais, Paris
Most French crêpes are served with just a smear of butter and a sprinkle of sugar, or with jam - usually strawberry or apricot - but sometimes with chocolate or hazelnut spread or crème de marrons (a sweet chestnut spread).
     You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned anything salty.  That’s because these are dessert crêpes.  Savory ones are called galettes and are made with buckwheat flour and obviously have no sugar, rum or other flavorings.  Most often they are served with minced ham, sautéed mushrooms, grated Swiss cheese - or all three - on top.  Sometimes an egg is cracked on the flipped galette and left to cook sunnyside up.

Making a galette
at the side of the road
One last detail:  crêpe-flipping.  Tradition has it that the first crêpe should be flipped with the right hand while holding a coin in the left hand.  (All this is provided you’re right-handed; but of course everyone knows that left-handed people are the Devil’s Spawn anyway.)  Ideally, the coin should be a gold louis d’or, but you won’t have one unless you’re a coin collector because they were last minted in 1789, pre-Revolution.  Some people cheat and use a gold Napoléon but they were last minted in 1914, so...   If you don’t have a louis or a Napoléon, use the highest denomination coin you have.
     The object is to flip the crêpe perfectly, landing it in the skillet (as opposed to on the floor) and not folded over on itself.  If you can manage such a perfect three-point landing, you’ll have money all year long.
     And should you be over-enthusiastic and toss your crêpe too high, don’t worry if it sticks to the ceiling or the cupboards when you flip it.  In the old days, the French said that if it was still stuck there in the autumn, you’d have a good harvest.
     In some regions, the first successfully-flipped crêpe was then wrapped around the gold coin and placed on top of the wardrobe in the master bedroom, probably to remind the Fates to be kind to you.  The crumbs of last year’s crêpe - if the mice left any - were gathered up and the coin was given to the first poor person who crossed your path.
     So Happy Chandeleur.  May your groundhog (or your bear) not see its shadow, may your crêpes be lacy and delicious, and may they flip with grace and land flat in your pan.

In the market in Carnac (Morbihan, Brittany)


  1. Sandy,
    I am delighted as always, and pleased to say I had discerned the significance of La Chandeleur.
    One of my great-aunts was born on Candlemas Day and named Candelaria.
    Good luck to any animal trying to find the way out of the den or burrow today: it's a white-out.

  2. Phil did not see his shadow. May spring be close at hand!

    Loved learning about crepes. I served the dessert kind once, when I was very young and foolish. It was for a party we gave for about 25 people and I spent most of the evening cooking the damn things. Bad idea. Hire someone to cook them or buy a sheet cake.

    Margie --