Crepes suzette is probably the world’s best known crepe dish. Its incarnations are many and varied, and the most common recipe is rather different from the original.
Simply, crepes suzette consists of crepes – extremely thin (not fluffy) pancakes – immersed in a citrus, sugar, butter and liqueur sauce. Traditionally extra alcohol is added at the table just before the crepes are served, and the dish is flambéed.
It is said that history is written by the winners. In this case I’d be inclined to say that the winners are the ones who wrote the history. Several stories exist as to who was the inventor of this classic dessert. The most popular story attributes it to restaurateur Henri Charpentier, and while this may well be fact, I suspect that the wide acceptance of the story is due to Monsieur Charpentier widely publicizing his achievement through his life and in his autobiography.
Henri Charpentier was apprenticed at the age of ten to his foster brother – a Parisian chef. The story goes that at the age of 15 (in 1895) in the Café de Paris, Monte Carlo, Henri was preparing a dessert dish for the Prince of Wales – the future King Edward VII. By accident, the alcohol in the sauce caught fire. The young apprentice had no time to prepare the dish again, but on tasting it found that the flames had melded the flavours into “the most delicious melody of sweet flavors I had ever tasted”. He added more spirits, allowed the dish to flame again, and served it to the prince and his guests. The prince was delighted with the dessert and asked its name. Charpentier proposed to name it after the prince (Crepes princesse – apparently crepes have to be feminine…) but the prince gallantly asked him to give it the name of the only lady in his party – Suzanne. The next day, the prince sent Charpentier “a jeweled ring, a panama hat and a cane.”
Such a nice story. Royalty, serendipity, and gallantry all merged with a good whack of greed (the prince, after all, picked up a spoon to get the last of the sauce from his bowl). There are issues with it, however. Accounts disagree on whether the prince was dining with many friends, or tete-a-tete with Suzanne. Was Suzanne the child of one of his guests, or his own daughter, or a lady friend? The story differs, too, on where the dish was prepared – whether in the kitchen or at the table. The tale could well be true. Charpentier certainly popularized crepes suzette in America, and moved on to become a most successful restaurateur.
Monsieur Joseph, proprietor of the Marivaux Restaurant, was called upon in 1897 to produce crepes night after night for the actors in a scene at the Comedie Francaise. In order to heat up the crepes after their delivery to the theatre, they were served flambée. This also attracted the attention of the audience. Monsieur Joseph named his creation after Suzanne Reichenberg, one of the actresses in the play. The lady possibly went under the professional name of Suzette. Joseph later served the dish in the Savoy, London.
This story carries less in the way of contradictions, but has also been told far fewer times. One can, however, verify that an actress called Suzanne Reichenberg did exist at the time, and performed in the Comedie Francaise. So that’s nice.
…is unfortunately thin on excitement, and simply states that the dish was created by French chef Jean Redoux, who named it after the Princess de Carignan.
As one wise source pointed out, we could spend a long time arguing about the origins of the dish – leaving far too little time for actually eating it.
I’m listing two recipes here – the original as claimed by Henri Charpentier, and my own variation on those taught me by my mother and my mother-in-law. Please note – I haven’t tried making Charpentier’s original. Probably because I don’t have that much alcohol to squander… If anyone makes it – let me know how it goes.
For both of these you need to prepare crepes. There’s two perfectly good recipes here (though I prefer the looks of the second – butter over oil any day). I use crepes made on my sneaky crepe pan because they’re easier, but much prefer crepes made in an ordinary frying pan, as they look a lot funkier. It’s up to you.
Henri Charpentier’s Crepe Suzette:
4 tblspns Vanilla sugar
2 oranges (juice and zest)
1 lemon (juice and zest)
1/8 pound butter
1 tspn Orange Blossom water
Mix the finely chopped zest with the vanilla sugar. In a chafing pan (whatever that is – I use a frying pan…) over medium heat combine this with the orange and lemon juice and the butter. Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring gently, then add the orange blossom water. Add 4 tblspns kirsch, 4 tblspns rum, 4 tblspns curacao, and 2 tblspns maraschino. When the mixture boils, remove it from the heat. Refrigerated, this will keep indefinitely.
When ready to serve the crepes, pour an amount (“the quantity depends on your desire”) of the mixture into that chafing dish again, and heat it till bubbling. Place the crepes in the mixture and sprinkle a small amount of finely chopped zest on each one. In a small saucepan combine 2 tablespoons of each of the spirits used in the original sauce, heat them gently through, then, at the table, flame this mixture and pour it over the crepes. Serve.
(relax - the next one's a lot easier!)
Contemporary Crepe Suzette:
4 tblspns butter
½ cup sugar
1 orange (juice and zest)
1 lemon (juice and zest)
15 mL Cointreau
15 mL Grand marnier
20 mL brandy
Prepare a quantity of crepes. Allow two or three per person.
In a small saucepan, combine the butter and sugar over a medium heat. Stir until sugar is completely dissolved.
(For a much richer sauce, continue to heat until the mixture caramelizes – it will go darker and when a teaspoonful is dropped onto a cool surface it will harden to butterscotch. Be careful not to let it burn on.)
In a frying pan (none of those damn chafing dishes here…) over a medium heat combine the juice of the orange and lemon. If you prefer a sweeter dish, or if the orange is fairly tart, add less lemon juice. You can always add more later. Add about a teaspoon of zest from each of the fruits. To this mixture, add the butter/sugar mix and stir well. Continue heating (the sauce will boil – that’s cool) until the sauce appears clear rather than opaque.
Check here for taste – add more lemon or sugar if required. Remember there’s still sweet liqueurs to add though.
Add the Grand Marnier and Cointreau and stir.
Place each crepe in the frying pan and cover with the liquid, then fold in half and in half again, to form nice neat little triangles. Move each crepe to the side of the pan and continue until sufficient crepes are immersed in the sauce.
Now – decide how you want to serve your crepes. My mother-in-law doesn’t flambée it because it’s a waste of good alcohol. My mum doesn’t flame it because it would give my pyromaniac brothers bad ideas. I flame it in the frying pan after the crepes have been served, then pour the sauce over the crepes. Others flame the sauce when the crepes are in the pan, and still others flame each individual bowl of crepes. Up to you.
We’ll go with the traditional method – flame the sauce with the crepes still in the frying pan.
Keep the pan on the heat, and gently add the brandy to the pan. Turn out a few lights, give the brandy a few seconds to warm up, then apply a flame. I use one of those handy little gas stove lighter things with the nice safe long nozzle. Your crepe sauce should burn nicely – flames dancing all over the surface. Shaking the pan a few times allows a bit more brandy to flare up. Bask for a moment in your guests’ admiration, then either wait for the flame to die out, or blow it out when nobody’s watching.
(This also makes a great "birthday cake" for adults - without humiliating them with shitloads of candles! Oh, and sloebertje notes that you can serve it with vanilla icecream.)
Serve up your crepes in bowls with a generous amount of sauce poured over them. Oh, and provide spoons!