02 February 2011

Candles, crêpes, and corn meal

Today, February 2, is La Chandeleur. It's the Catholic celebration of the presentation of the baby Jesus at the temple by his mother, Mary, 2000 years ago. Candles were lit. That's where the name comes from: chandelle is an old French word for candle, derived from the Latin candela, that gave us La Chandeleur in French and Candlemas in English.

The more modern, generic French term for candle is bougie, which is the "frenchified" name of a town in Algeria that exported great quantities of wax to Europe for candle-making in the Middle Ages. The older chandelles were made with tallow (fat, suet), according to the dictionary. And the name of the candles that the faithful burn in churches is cierges, which are typically long and thin. The name cierge derives from the same word as "wax" in French, which is cire.

These are cierges, in a picture Walt posted on his blog in 2006.

But back to La Chandeleur. By tradition, everybody makes crêpes today in France. In England, those are called pancakes, but in America we use the word crepe (with or without the accent over the E) to describe the typically thin French-style pancake. I think our American pancakes, thicker and more floury, came to us from Scotland. Crepe batter is very liquid and the crepes can be almost paper-thin, and therefore not so filling.

Walt and I have decided to make cornmeal crepes today and fill them with savory rather than sweet ingredients. It's a recipe I came across on the Internet when I was looking for recipes for making Mexican-style corn tortillas.

This is the cornmeal we are using for our crêpes today. Just to
confuse things, it's labeled « farine de maïs » — "corn flour" —
but it is definitely a meal, not a flour, of corn (or maize). It's
French (Moulin des Moines) and organic (biologique).

Meal is also an interesting word. It's typically American, I think. When I look it up in the English-French dictionary, the translation given for "meal" is farine, or flour. I've had a hard time explaining what meal is to people who speak British English. They immediately think of "corn flour," which I think is what we call "corn starch" in America.

In Great Britain, for example, oatmeal is called porridge, and the oats you use to make it are called porridge oats. In America, we buy oatmeal or Quaker oats (a brand name) at the supermarket and we cook them to make the oatmeal we eat for breakfast.

Actually, I bet most Americans don't know what "porridge" is — a soup or gruel of some kind, they might think. In fact, the word is evidently a corruption of "pottage" or the French potage, meaning a creamy vegetable soup, under the influence of an older term like porreie or poree, which is a form of the French name for leeks, or poireaux. How about that? Nowadays, in England, porridge is oatmeal.

I went down to the freezer and I found these two bags of cornmeal,
one American (from North Carolina) and white; the other
Italian (purchased at the Paris Store in Blois) and yellow.

But back to corn (or maize). We don't have any everyday product in America that we might call "corn flour." Flour is automatically wheat for us. And by the way, corn in American means "maize" in British. (In the British Isles, the word "corn" means, or used to mean, any grain — wheat, barley, oats, etc. Maize is "Indian corn," the grain the Amerindians used. In Québec, I've seen and heard it called blé d'inde, "Indian wheat.")

So when we say just "flour" in the States, we mean wheat flour, and when we say just "meal" we mean, at least in the U.S. South, cornmeal. Cornmeal (also written corn meal, as two words) can be white — made from white corn — or yellow — made from yellow corn.

Rummaging through the freezer, I also found this bag of
"instant" masa harina
that I had completely forgotten
we had. Now we can make Mexican tortillas.

But I shouldn't mention corn "flour" without mentioning Mexico's masa harina. That's what you make corn tortillas with, and it's more and more widely available in the U.S. nowadays. It's called masa harina, which is, literally, farine de maïs or "corn flour." It is not at all the same thing as cornmeal. It's made by a different process (which includes a step called "nixtamalization"), and it is much more finely ground, resembling wheat flour rather than cornmeal.

Corn is made into meal in the U.S., or into starch. In French, the word for "starch" in this sense is fécule, and you can buy, for example, fécule de pommes de terre, or potato starch, at the market and use it to thicken your sauces. You can also buy fécule de maïs, cornstarch (or corn starch), but nobody ever calls it that. It is always referred to by a brand name, Maïzéna (pronounced [mah-ee-zay-NAH]).

Cornstarch (Am.) or, I think, "corn flour" (Br.),
or fécule de maïs (Fr.) is called Maïzéna in France.

In fact, the English-French dictionary gives both farine de maïs (corn flour) and maïzéna (with a lowercase M but marked with an ®) for "cornstarch" — and that's what I think our British cousins call cornstarch: "corn flour." That is not at all the same thing as cornmeal.

In the American usage, a "meal" is a coarsely ground grain — coarser than a "flour." The word "meal" is obviously related to the word "mill." I don't know if British English uses the word "meal" in this sense. Somebody will tell me. The terms "corn meal" and "cornmeal" are absent from the (British) English-French dictionary.

Masa, polenta, and meal

In French, a grain that is coarsely ground is called une semoulesemoule de blé, semoule de maïs. I just looked, and the French-English dictionary actually does give "corn meal" as the translation of semoule de maïs (at semoule). Semoule is also translated as semolina and is the term used to describe the couscous "grain" we've all become familiar with. I put "grain" in quotation marks, because couscous is actually a form of pasta, not a grain, meal, flour, or semolina.

So if you say "corn meal" to speakers of British English, they are often not sure what you are talking about. And if you say semoule to speakers of French, they think either of couscous "grain" or semoule de blé dur, which is "durum" wheat semolina. Semoule means a sort of farine granuleuse, a coarse flour, according to the dictionary, and sucre semoule is a coarse-grained sugar. Durum wheat semolina is used in the manufacture of pasta, including couscous.

At the end of the day (as the British say), what you look for in France if you want to make American corn bread (a.k.a. cornbread, cornpone, etc.) goes by an Italian name: polenta. How's that for convoluted? But you need to find finely milled polenta. The coarser varieties, which resemble what we call "grits" (or the older form, "hominy grits") in the American South, won't do for cornbread. Coarse polenta resembles grits in texture, but not it color — it's yellow, not white. You boil it and eat it as a kind of porridge.

Here in France, I can buy finely ground polenta, or corn meal, at the shop in Blois called Paris Store, which specializes in products imported from China, Vietnam, Japan, and other Asian countries. What's up with that?

Oh, back to the corn meal crêpes. They are made with equal quantities wheat flour (farine de froment in French) and corn meal (semoule de maïs). There's no British corn flour (maïzéna) in the mixture. Otherwise, they are just like the standard French crêpes.


  1. My head is spinning.
    On a positive note, I now know a lot about Corn.

  2. My head spins like that most of the time. It's something about living between — among — at least three cultures: North American, British, and French. There's a lot to try to sort out.

  3. In Ireland people call porridge oats 'flake meal' corn meal is known as 'indian meal' and older people would refer to porridge as 'stirabout'. Cornflour in the UK and Ireland is the same as what, in the USA, is known as corn starch. Semolina is course ground wheat, used as an old fashioned milk pudding or in shortbread and other baking.

  4. Oh dear, I meant 'coarse' not 'course' ground!!

  5. I think the word you want in BrE is 'pulse'. That should approximate the right texture for cornmeal.

  6. In Scotland you get Oatmeal [kibbled oats] and Oat flakes [rolled oats] and Flour [wheat flour]... and you can get Maizena Sauceline... a very useful kitchen thickener [like the UK's 'Gravy Flour' it doesn't lump if you add it late in the cooking!]
    And Ken, what does unbolted refer to on the American packet? I've never seen maize bolt... which was my first thought...? We grow a sweetcorn that is both white and yellow grained... superbly sweet and very pretty on the plate too.
    You aren't short of cornmeal are you?

  7. Hi Tim, I found this definition:

    “Unbolted cornmeal is where all parts of the corn are left in the "flour" produced when the corn is ground. It has less additives and is ground less than medium and finely processed cornmeals.”

    I guess that means the germ and hull, as well as the endosperm (not sure what that means) are part of the mixture.

  8. Isn't it all so interesting? I love the evolution of language, and how different such seemingly simple things can be in countries that use the same language :)

    Can you tell me about sugar? Is sucre en poudre the same as sucre glace? And is sucre semoule what we Americans know as granulated sugar? Is that the same thing as castor sugar?


  9. Ken, you've given us a masterclass in corn, wheat, oats, etc. Buckwheat next?

  10. Its seems, these days, the only word that comes to my mind is WOW! Les faux amis?

    I'll be making French crêpes today in SoCal, using that white stuff I bought at the store!

  11. Judy - the answer to all your questions is no.

    Ken - I made your cornpone the other day - at least, I used your mother's recipe as a jumping off point. I used a third polenta (quite fine), a third yellow cornflour (farine de maïs jaune, from 'alléchant', very fine and what you would call cornstarch)and a third locally milled organic wheat flour. For liquid I used a mixture of milk that had gone sour, yoghurt and whey from some faisselle. I also halved the sugar. It was really good.

    I agree with Carolyn - a treatise on buckwheat (sarrazin) now please :-))

    Syd - pulse doesn't sound right to me. A pulse is a pea or bean, like lentils or chickpeas, and has nothing to do with milling.

  12. PS. For me, the difference between flour and meal is that flour is fine and meal is coarse.

  13. I am surprised that you found masa in France - it is so very traditional Mexican cuisine. I'm sure your tortillas will be good - will you use lard to make them?

    Also, I didn't know there was potato starch as a thickener, but I'm not much of a cook...

  14. I can tell you that the pronunciation of "meal" and "mill" is often the same in Alabama.

    We also like our cornbread made from white corn with no sugar added.

    I saw many oat fields in Scotland and had many tasty foods fortified with oats- oats are added to so many foods, haggis included, at least I think so.

    VF: "moofueni" all this talk must have made the cows hungry;)

  15. You've set heads spinning on two continents at least today!
    First I thought of the lyrics of Au Clair de la lune, the line about "ma chandelle est morte". Then it skipped to Hungarian palacsinta (crepes) which can have sweet or savory fillings. Hortobagyi palacsinta is the best...Then various past confusions about "meal" and also masa harina danced about and befuddled me! Not to speak of cornflour. I had that problem about cornflour and corn starch when I lived in Hungary because -especially during communist times - the few brands I ever found were English. (But it wasn't as bad as trying to figure out how to explain cream of tartar to Hungarians.) And let's not forget "Pease porrige hot, pease porrige cold, pease porrige in the pot nine days old." I'm not sure if the word "porrige" (potage)came into English via the Scots who have a number of words from French because of "the Auld Allaince", like calling a leg of lamb "gigot", but this is just speculation on my part, brought about by my currently spinning mind.

    In Ohio, at least northeast Ohio, if you just say "meal" no one will think of corn.And how about that Cream of Wheat sold under the name of Farina? Germans call it Griess and Hungarians call it dara. They both use it to make dumplings and Hungarians also fry and then steam it to make a starchy part of a dinner. (I just can't say "of a meal" at this point!) Oh, Ken, your blogs posts give me too much to think about!

  16. By the time I got to the last paragraph I had forgotten that we had started out reading about crepes. Very informative though.

    I second Susan's request regarding sugar. It would help when trying to translate some of Mathiot's recipes.

  17. Susan, thanks for the NO :) However, can anyone give me further sugar-words clarification? Because in the U.S. powdered sugar is the same thing as confectioners sugar, and my dictionary (wordreference.com) translates sucre en poudre as powdered sugar and sucre glace as confectioners sugar. So, what, then, is the difference?

    I'm imagining that castor sugar is granulated, but is just more finely ground? I know that we have a sugar in the U.S. that is called, I think, Superfine sugar, so I get that one :) But, again, sucre semoule is translated as both granulated and castor.


  18. Thanks, Susan. I guess some things don't translate at all!

    @Judeet: Powdered or confectioner's sugar is glace, sucre en poudre is similar to caster sugar, which in the States is usually called superfine (but is not powdered, it's just small crystals).

    I use sucre en poudre for most sugar things, because the crystals in the other sugar (crystal) are too large for my tastes.

  19. Most people I know (southern USA) do not know about Candlemas (La Chandeleur)... I made crêpes yesterday, flipping the crêpe with my left hand while holding a coin (0,20€) in my right... We enjoyed them filled with bananna and Nutella with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side (miam-miam)

    Do you know about the "coin" and did I do it right?


  20. Thanks, Syd! That clears that up for me! I'll have to make a slight change to the vocab list for that class unit for next year ;)


    Genie, I just learned about the Candlemas tradition with the coin last year :)

  21. Great post, Ken. And great comments from the readers. Gave me lots of "food for thought".

    VW: monsh, as in, I'm going to go monsh on come crepes. :)

  22. Genie, tell us more about flipping crepes and holding a coin- is that a little like putting a tuppence in one's shoe for good luck before a marriage?

    Those nutella/banana crepes are definitely in my future!

  23. Definitely head spinning stuff Ken...and we all think we speak English!
    Kristi, I'm pretty sure that the nursery rhyme pease pudding hot....etc refers to porridge made with dried split peas, like you would use for pea and ham soup. Lost in the mists of time huh 9 days old yuck!
    Ken, now I sort of know what grits are. Could you explain a bit more please, because I thought they were something green like the tops of a vegetable.
    Sorry to go anon, but I can never remember Leon's passwords.

  24. The idea behind flipping the crepe while holding a coin [preferably gold, but a regular coin will do] is, if you don't mess with the crepe in the process, you'll have money all year round. That is until next Groundhog's day. A la Chandeleur, l'hiver finit ou reprend rigueur.

    The flipping has to be done with the pan itself and not with your fingers or some sort of spatula! It is somewhat tricky, but with some practice it works out.

    I would not miss my crepes on "Chandeleur day" for an empire. You see, I'm not superstitious because it brings bad luck.

    Right now, the batter is resting in the refrigerator and I will enjoy crepes for my diner. Can't wait. I just sprinkle on them a little [a lot in fact] sucre en poudre which is the granulated sugar that I buy here in the US and roll them. Sucre cristalisé would be a little coarser. Sucre glace is like cornstarch.

  25. I popped in for a quick look and I've been here for half an hour! :)

    Thanks for the post and for all the comments, very educational.

    Ken, is that the bag of cornmeal that I brought you or are you now able to buy it in France?


  26. Thank you for all this detail! I've been learning to use polenta, or corn meal, or whatever other name, and knowing more about what it is and isn't in different cultures is fascinating.

  27. Sorry Judy :-) but I knew my comment was going to be quite long and I knew someone else would give you chapter and verse.

  28. Ken - brilliant post and fascinating stuff. I always thought you meant cornflour when you said cornmeal. I have some polenta but I think that's too coarse for your recipe and I don't know if you can get fine polenta=proper corn meal here.

    I feel a trip to a more cosmopolitan supermarket than our local coming on ..... Waitrose here we come !!

  29. Just to confuse the issue, another option is Staffordshire oatcakes, which are crepe-style, but made with oatmeal (=(I think) ground oat bran - you need it fairly fine for this), flour and water (no egg to bind, which is a bit counter-intuitive). Or Breton buckwheat crepes, which is a whole nother thing....

  30. In the US, corn flour, corn meal, corn starch, and masa harina are all different things.

    Corn meal is coarsely ground whole corn.

    Corn flour is finely ground whole corn.

    Corn starch is made from the endosperm of the corn kernel.

    Masa harina is flour ground from corn that's been treated with lime or lye.

  31. Castor sugar is superfine sugar in the US. It's granulated sugar, but a finer grind. Often used in confections like meringues where its ability to dissolve faster is useful.

    Confectioner's sugar is powdered sugar. The supermarket variety has corn starch added to keep it from clumping. Real powdered sugar (without corn starch) is very hard to find for home use.

  32. Lots of info, but I came looking for the recipe of the crepe.... care to post? I have corn flour and would like to make the crepes this weekend... now I know a whole lot about corn....haha

  33. Pamela, the crepe recipe is in this post from 02 February 2009. The only difference is that you use equal quantities of wheat flour and corn meal in the recipe instead of the equivalent quantity of just wheat flour. Hope you enjoy it. Ken


What's on your mind? Qu'avez-vous à me dire ?