04 February 2010

Crispy crepes

February 2 is the date of a Catholic celebration called La Chandeleur — it's Candlemas in English. The main thing people in France know about La Chandeleur is that it's the day when you are supposed to make and eat crepes, the thin French pancakes that are served with either savory or sweet fillings.

The word "crepe" in French has a circumflex accent on the first E — crêpe. When a vowel in French has that accent mark on it, it often means that in old French there was an S following the vowel in that word. Over the centuries, the S sound was dropped in the standard pronunciation — languages evolve over time — and at some point centuries ago the spelling was "modernized" so that it better reflected the way the words were actually said.

Crepes have crispy curly edges.

For example, the French word château is the same word as the English word "castle" — but with several changes typical of French pronunciation over the centuries. The hard C, pronounced as a K, became a hard CH sound and eventually a softer SH. The S after the A was dropped in pronunciation and finally replaced by an accent mark. And the LE of the end weakened into a very soft L and finally an unstressed O sound — just as it can in English in everyday pronunications of words like "bottle" or "little" when the final L sound is not really pronounced.

So where did the word crêpe come from? It derives from the Latin word crispus. In other words, French crêpe and English "crisp" come from the same root word. Both include the notion of curliness. The edges of a crepe get crisp and curl up a little when you cook the batter. The French word used to be crispe, probably, and evolved into crespe, which became crêpe.

Lay a thin slice of ham over a crepe and sprinkle on
some grated cheese. Roll it all up and cook it in a
medium oven until the cheese melts. It's lunch.

When we made our Candlemas crêpes day before yesterday, Walt and I were saying to each other that their edges got a little crispy, and we weren't sure why. It's just the recipe we used, which I posted here a year or two ago. But now I realize that the edges of the crêpe should be exactly like that. You don't want doughy crepes — they really aren't "pancakes" as we make them in America, thick, soft, and bread-like. They are "crisps."

Sometimes crepes are made with buckwheat flour, as I described in this blog post. Buckwheat crepes are called galettes in Brittany and all around France, are are usually served with savory fillings.

As for the origins of Candlemas — La Chandeleur — Februrary 2 was an ancient celebration of the mid-point of the winter season. We would call it a pagan holiday, and it was based on the weather and the seasons. By early February you can really feel the days getting longer. Spring is not far off. The Christianized Romans turned this pagan holiday into a Catholic celebration.

For dessert, put a crepe back in the pan it was cooked in,
spread on some jam or jelly, and then fold or
roll it up one way or another.

In most of the English-speaking world, but not in the U.S., there's a different holiday called "Pancake Tuesday" — or more properly, Shrove Tuesday. Most Americans know it better by the French name, Mardi Gras. It's a feast day that falls on the day before Lent, the Catholic period of fasting and denial.

In the U.S., most of us don't celebrate "Pancake Tuesday" because we don't have the old Anglican tradtions, which derive from Catholic tradition. Our brands of Protestantism did away with all that. But the fact is, any day is a good day to make crêpes.


  1. Before I met Sue, I was only aware of pancakes and of course when I spent a summer in California I became a pancake freak.
    Sue made crepes and I couldn't understand why she got it wrong - these pancakes suffered from a severe case of anorexia.
    As time went by I came accustomed to her crepes and now on our vists to France - well say no more, and yours Ken make my mouth water. (as did your cabbage rolls)

  2. Thank you Ken for that fascinating history of our humble pancake.

    When I was a little girl I adored pancake day - Shrove Tuesday - coming home from school and sitting to the table with my brother and cousin, pancakes being made one at a time by my mother and us taking it in turns to get the next hot one out of the pan. We always had them sprinkled with sugar and orange juice, plus, occasionally, a slice of orange to make them look posh !

  3. Leon, I forgot to mention in the post that it was Walt who made the crêpes. I didn't mean to take credit.

    That one confiture-filled crêpe with the blackened edge was about the best. The jam ran out and "burned" or caramelized in the pan...

    Jean, so English pancakes are like French crêpes? I wonder where the American pancake/flapjack kind of pancakes came from. They are leavened and soft. They soak up a lot of syrup (usually maple syrup) and they are oh so filling.

  4. Ken - English pancakes are usually just ever so slightly thicker than the crepes I have had in France, but they're the same idea.

    We also have "scotch pancakes", which are usually smaller, thicker and more doughy than normal pancakes. When I made these at school they were also called "drop scones"

    Ah, the world of food and its endless variations - must be one of the most joyous research projects known to man !!

  5. The now defunct restaurant in Cincinnati called "Le Maisonette" made wonderful seafood crepes. I have their recipe, but haven't made them in many years. They call for shrimp and lobster and have a champagne sauce.

    I guess our Groundhog's Day is sort of a pagan holiday also;-)

  6. Although not celebrated in church proper, most Episcopal communities have a pancake supper on Shrove Tuesday. Of course, they usually serve American pancakes (flapjacks) rather than English pancakes.

    My mom always made English pancakes on Shrove Tuesday (with fresh-squeezed lemon and sugar). As soon as I could reach the stove, I took over the duties. The recipe is exactly the same as that for Yorkshire Pudding: 4 oz flour, 1 egg, pinch of salt, 5 ounces milk, 5 ounces water.

  7. In the Catholic church, at least in the old days, Feb. 2 was the feast of St. Blaise and the custom was to get your throat blessed by the priest in church to ward off winter colds.

  8. The only crêpe I ever had was in Toulouse. It was made with Grand Marniér.

  9. I have always made crepes for our boys on Pancake Day. Last year I forgot about it and our 22 yr old was most aggrieved when he realised he had "missed out". Your crepes look delicious - might have to make some tonight.
    Ken, you mentioned that you're heading to the US in Spring. When are you away? We will be in your area on 25 and 26 March, and would love to catch up.

  10. I totally missed Chandaleur AND Ground Hog Day this year!!! Thanks for your YUMMY post!!!!

  11. Hello Simon, interesting about Yorkshire Pudding and English pancakes having the same recipe.

    Jean, now that you've mentioned it I remember that Scottish pancakes are the kind we have, mostly, in America. Flapjacks.

    Hi Gabby, I have a sore throat this morning. I should have gone for a blessing on Tuesday.

    Starman, how could you eat just one?

    Leesa, it's never too late to make crêpes.

    Sue, I'm afraid I'll be in America at the end of March. I plan to get back to Saint-Aignan in early April. I'll be sorry to miss you.

  12. What a lovely history of the crepe. We enjoy crepes but haven't made them in ages. Maybe I'll just have to get out that crepe pan and start tossing.


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