Is there anything more French than a pile of paper-thin crêpes ready to be slathered in Nutella, squeezed with lemon, or stuffed with cheese then rolled up tightly like a Turkish rug? While the humble crêpe is easy to make from three store cupboard staples – flour, eggs and milk – a sweet version of the dish, crêpes Suzette, is served at grand hotels the world over and lauded as a retro classic. While the origin of the dish is disputed, it’s hard not to be taken in by one particular story involving a 14-year-old apprentice chef and the future king of England.
In his biography, Henri Carpentier claims he invented the dish by accident in 1895 when preparing a dessert for Queen Victoria’s son, the future King Edward VII, at the Café de Paris in Monte-Carlo. Aged just 14 and working as an apprentice chef, Carpentier was making crêpes for the king’s dining party at their table when the orange liqueur he doused them in caught fire. Worried he’d ruined the dessert and terrified of keeping the king waiting, he surreptitiously tried a spoonful of the syrup and found it to be “the most delicious melody of sweet flavours” he had ever tasted, which “would reform a cannibal to a civilised gentleman”.
Confident the dessert was fit for a king, Carpentier served his accidental creation to Edward, who was so taken with it that he asked for a spoon so he could enjoy every last sugary drop of the liqueur-laced sauce. Plate clean, he asked what the dish was called. Thinking on his feet, Carpentier dubbed it ‘crêpes Princesse’. In honour of the French lady in his dining party, Edward suggested the dish be called ‘crêpes Suzette’. Delighted by his dessert, the following day the king sent Carpentier three gifts to show his gratitude – a bejewelled ring, a Panama hat and a walking cane. Whether the story is true or not, it’s a wonderful nugget of culinary history.
Crêpes Suzette will forever remind me of a sublime five-hour birthday lunch I enjoyed at The Ritz last year. My mum and I were seated at 1pm and didn’t leave until after six. At one point the waiting staff began hoovering around us before a few pre-theatre couples sat down for dinner while our lunch was still in full flow. It culminated in Luigi Cagnin, the restaurant’s larger-than-life manager, a charming Venetian dressed in a navy blue tailcoat, theatrically preparing the pudding at our table while telling us the story of the how the dish came to be.
Dousing the pancakes with a generous glug of Grand Marnier, Cagnin worked the flaming pan like a magician, filling the room with the glorious scent of melted butter. Having yet to see my mum or enter a restaurant since lockdown, the memory of that blissful afternoon is all the more precious and poignant. Keen to make the dish myself, I grabbed my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and went straight to desserts. Julia has some sage advice for crêpes Suzette novices: “If you plan to perform in public, it is a good idea to practice on your family until you become adept at folding and flaming”. Luckily for my family, I live alone.
I soon lost patience with Julia’s recipe, as the first instruction involved rubbing sugar lumps over the skin of two oranges. The recipe felt unnecessarily labour intensive, so I abandoned it in favour of Nigella Lawson’s version, who says, “If you’ve ever thought of crêpes Suzette as some amusing vestige from an irrelevant culinary canon, think again”. I quickly set about zesting an orange, which filled the kitchen with a magnificent scent that took me straight to Seville. Nigella’s recipe calls for the juice of two oranges, but, being a citrus fiend, I used three.
The scent of the freshly squeezed orange juice filled me with nostalgia. Perhaps because scent is so closely linked to memory, the fragrant citrus reminded me of the sweet smell of orange peel in an Old Fashioned and filled me with longing for an expertly mixed drink, elegant surroundings and the company of strangers. I digress… Batter made, while crafting the crêpes I put on Christine and the Queens for added French flair. Why is the first pancake always such a disaster?
I managed to make four lace-like crêpes, which I folded into quarters and arranged in a fan shape in a pan where they awaited their orange bath. Nigella’s recipe cuts corners, and sees the orange juice, zest, sugar and almost an entire packet of butter flung in the saucepan at once. Most recipes begin with creating a caramel from the sugar and butter, to which the orange juice is gradually added. Once it thickens into a syrup, you pour it onto the crêpes and let the flavours fuse on a low heat. Bottle of Blood Orange Cointreau in hand, my inner pyromaniac was gearing up for action.
Having deeply enjoyed setting fire to my mushroom stroganoff a few weeks ago, I was looking forward to giving Cagnin competition in the flame department. To my huge disappointment, nothing happened when I added two shots of Cointreau to the pan. Not even a whisper of a flame. The pancakes bubbled away nonchalantly, oblivious to the alcohol onslaught. This may explain why my crêpes were so boozy – I didn’t burn off all the alcohol – but this only added to their appeal.
The sweet syrupy symphony of orange, butter and booze is a delightful one, and I wolfed down two crêpes at lightening speed, making like King Edward and slurping up every last drop of sauce with a spoon. The other two crêpes were left swimming in the saucepan. They looked a little sad there, and were crying out for hungry mouths to devour them. Cooking a dinner party dish at a time like this is bitter sweet. It made me hanker for the chance to entertain again. To break bread with friends and talk until the small hours. I miss the freedoms we all took for granted.