How to reform a cannibal into a civilized gentleman – make Crêpes Suzette

Crêpes Suzette are so magnificent that one taste can ‘reform a cannibal into a civilized gentleman’ says chef Henri Charpentier, credited (although disputed) with creating the recipe. 

Henri Charpentier (1880-1961), the world’s first celebrity chef, wrote in his 1934 autobiography Life à la Henri, that he created the French dessert (crêpes with a sweet fruity sauce that is set alight) quite accidentally in 1895 when he was a 14-year-old assistant waiter at the Maitre at Monte Carlo’s Café de Paris on the French Riviera. He wrote that he was preparing a dessert for the Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VII of the United Kingdom. One of the Prince’s guests was a French girl named Suzette. By 1898, it was in the French restaurant called Marie’s.

It was quite by accident as I worked in front of a chafing dish that the cordials caught fire. I thought it was ruined. The Prince and his friends were waiting. How could I begin all over? I tasted it. It was, I thought, the most delicious medley of sweet flavors I had ever tasted. I still think so. That accident of the flame was precisely what was needed to bring all those various instruments into one harmony of taste … He ate the pancakes with a fork; but he used a spoon to capture the remaining syrup. He asked me the name of that which he had eaten with so much relish. I told him it was to be called Crêpes Princesse. He recognized that the pancake controlled the gender and that this was a compliment designed for him; but he protested with mock ferocity that there was a lady present. She was alert and rose to her feet and holding her little skirt wide with her hands she made him a curtsey. “Will you,” said His Majesty, “change Crêpes Princesse to Crêpes Suzette?” Thus, was born and baptized this confection, one taste of which, I really believe, would reform a cannibal into a civilized gentleman. The next day I received a present from the Prince, a jeweled ring, a panama hat and a cane.

Henri Charpentier’s recipe for Crêpes Suzette is provided in his 2001 reprinted autobiography Life à la Henri: Being the Memories of Henri Charpentierwhich includes over 50 recipes. The French recipe, for four persons, includes the crêpes (pancakes) with the famous Suzette sauce of caramelized sugar and butter, zest, and tangerine or orange juice, topped with Grand Marnier, triple sec or orange Curaçao liqueur, and flambéed at the guest’s table.

Crêpes Suzette (4 crêpes)

4 eggs / 3 tablespoons flour / 3 tablespoons milk / a pinch of salt / 1 tablespoon of water.

Stir the ingredients smoothly to a consistency of thick olive oil, or until it will pour back silently and smoothly from a foot or more above the mixing bowl. Heat in a round-bottomed frying pan 2 tablespoons of sweet butter. When it bubbles pour in enough paste to cover the bottom of the pan. Move the pan to spread the paste thinly, and keep it moving. After one minute, turn the pancake upside down, then turn it again and again, until it is nicely browned. Fold the circle in half, and again to form a triangle. 

The Sauce

Small piece of orange skin / small piece of lemon skin / 2 tablespoons vanilla sugar / ¼ lb. sweet butter / 5 ponies of blended cordials – maraschino, Curaçao and kirshwasser [a pony is 2 ounces of liquid]. 

To make vanilla sugar, add a vanilla bean to a mason jar of sugar, cover and set aside for a few days, after which it can be kept on hand, and used as needed. At least a day or two before making Crêpes Suzette, slice a thin piece from the outer rind of an orange, large enough to cover the ball of your thumb, and a smaller piece of lemon rind. Cut both into thin strips, add to 2 tablespoonfuls of vanilla sugar, cover and put away until the sugar absorbs the flavouring oils. 

To make the sauce, melt the butter in a thin silver pan. When it begins to bubble pour in three ponies of the blended cordials. This will catch fire. 

When the fire goes out add the sugar and lemon and orange peel. Then plunge the folded pancakes into the boiling sauce. Turn them, and add two more ponies of blended cordials. When the fire dies down again they are ready to serve.

In his autobiography, Henri Charpentier adds:

… for me there is the excitement of adventure in preparing such as thing as an order of Crêpes Suzette and then watching after a lovely lady has had her first taste, to see her smile and know that actually what I compounded was not Crêpes Suzette but a later stage in its transmogrification, a happy human being. 

I had my authentic Crêpes Suzette at Bistro 1, a small restaurant in 4 Rue de l’École de Médecine, Paris.

Photographs: Martina Nicolls (with the exception of the photograph of Henri Charpentier, an Amazon sourced photo)

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