Basic sweet crêpes

Every year on February 2nd, while people in the US and Canada are worrying about groundhogs, people in France celebrate Candlemas, mainly (these days) by eating crêpes. That sounds like a more worthwhile endeavor to me!

La Chandeleur, or la fête des chandelles is celebrated at church with special services, but in the family home, candles are lit and people determine the luck they will have over the coming year by attempting to flip a crêpe in a frying pan (without a spatula!) while holding a coin in their other hand. If it lands back in the pan correctly, good things will come their way over the next 12 months. I’m not sure, in reality, how many people still engage in this crêpe-flipping tradition, but the crêpe-eating part has been confirmed! Candlemas is also the last feast day of the Christmas cycle, and if you had a manger scene up as part of your decorations, Candlemas is when you’re supposed to finally put it away. I suspect this may also apply to my bouquet of pine branches, which may still (ahem) be in a vase on my table…

And so, in honor of La Chandeleur (coming up in just a few days!), I bring you an easy plant-based crêpe recipe, translated and adapted from this French one.

I happen to own an electric crêpe-maker, which is VERY useful anytime you want to make pancakes of any kind, as it automatically heats to the perfect temperature for that sort of thing, reducing the risk of burning (other electric crêpe-makers may have different settings, however). It came with two essential wooden utensils: a batter-spreader and a spatula or crêpe-flipper. If you’ve ever had a crêpe made at one of those street stands in France, you may have seen these utensils before. My crêpe-maker is second-hand, and judging from the harvest-gold color of its base, may have been made in the 70s or early 80s. If so, planned obsolescence was not factored into its design, as it’s still going strong. You can still get similar devices in France online or at department stores (ask to see the crêpières), and the wooden utensils can be purchased separately too.

My favorite way to eat crêpes is with a little lemon juice and sugar. Right now, bergamots (a citrus fruit similar to a lemon, but darker in color and sweeter) are in season—I picked some up today from my local farmers’ market, the Marché Bio des Batignolles. If you’ve never tried them before, bergamots are quite the experience. They have an indescribable scent that you will recognize immediately if you’re a fan of Earl Grey tea, which is made with essential oil of bergamot. For a touch of sweetness, I added a few sprinkles of coconut sugar, but you can use any sugar you like, or even a liquid sweetener such as maple syrup.

Crêpes are most often served as a dessert but also make for a nice breakfast item if you have servants and own a smoking jacket. Any extras should be packed away in an airtight container (rolled up or folded into fourths) or on a plate covered with plastic wrap.

Basic sweet crêpes

Makes 10-11 crêpes

Ingredients

  • 2 cups (250 g) flour (T65 type in France)
  • 3 tablespoons (30 g) cornstarch
  • 2 tablespoons raw sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons (500 ml) non-dairy milk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract or a packet of vanilla sugar
  • 2 tablespoons neutral-tasting oil such as canola

Crêpe garnishes (see also the variations at the end of this post)

  • 1 or 2 lemons (bergamot or regular)
  • several tablespoons of sugar (coconut, raw or other)

Equipment needed: large bowl, whisk, ladle, spatula for flipping crêpes, electric crêpe-maker or wide and shallow frying pan

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Combine all the dry ingredients and mix well with the whisk to incorporate.

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Add the non-dairy milk, vanilla and oil and incorporate briefly with your whisk, stirring only long enough for it to reach a smooth consistency. Be careful not to overmix. Set the bowl aside and allow the batter to sit for 60 minutes, but (IMPORTANT) no longer than that or it will get too thick and you won’t be able to achieve the thin, somewhat elastic result you’re going for.

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When the resting time is up and your crêpe-maker or frying pan is hot enough, pour one ladleful of batter onto the surface (if your frying pan doesn’t have a non-stick surface, you may need a splash of oil). Working quickly, spread the batter, either by hand with a wooden spreader on an electric crêpemaker or, if you’re using a frying pan, by rotating the pan evenly until the batter covers most of its bottom. I sadly could not get a photo of this step, since I was making these on my own, but it looks a bit like this, though on a smaller scale. Aim for the same thickness throughout the crêpe (avoid having thinner edges, which will become too brown and crisp).

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Once the edges of the crêpe begin to look firm (about 60 seconds with my crêpe maker), gently slide your wooden crêpe turner or spatula underneath it. If the underside is slightly browned, flip it over. Otherwise, give it a bit more time and check again.

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Allow the crêpe to cook for around 30 seconds on the other side (it will need less time than the first side). Slide the crêpe off the heating surface with your flipper or spatula and onto a plate, and repeat until the batter is gone. You will have 10 or 11 crêpes, depending on the size. Consider placing a wide saucepan lid on top of the stack to keep them warm as you work.

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Squeeze some lemon juice on top of the crêpe (the less browned side) and then sprinkle some sugar over that. In the bottom left corner of this photo, you can see one regular lemon next to two bergamots, for comparison.

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Next, either fold the crêpes into fourths as shown above, or roll them up into a long cigar shape. If you are adding ice cream or whipped cream, or other similarly voluminous toppings, you may wish to simply fold the left and right edges of the crêpe together (and eat it with a fork).

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Other yummy things that are nice on crêpes are chestnut spread (called “cream” on this label, but it is always dairy-free) and chocolate spreads (dark chocolate in the center and a chocolate-hazelnut version on the right). The chestnut and dark chocolate spreads are accidentally-vegan items and come from Franprix, while the Nuté+ is a vegan version of Nutella and can be found at most organic shops in France. Try chestnut and chocolate together on the same crêpe—it’s a great combination!

More variations: The possibilities are endless. Consider banana slices (might as well, if you’re already using chocolate!), applesauce, vegan apple honey, cubed fresh mango or pear, berries, white almond butter, jam, poppyseed paste, fresh fig with toasted walnuts. Top with some coconut whipped cream if you want to be fancy.

Short days in Scandinavia

I usually spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve either in Paris or back home with my parents and sister. But this year, for something different, I went north to Denmark, where my brother is now living. To make things more interesting (and give my trip a much smaller carbon footprint), I decided to travel there and back by train rather than flying. This took me through Germany (with stops in Hamburg and Hannover), which was fun as I hadn’t been there for a few years. And as I also spent an afternoon in Malmö, Sweden (only a half-hour from Copenhagen by train), this trip took me to three countries, two of them new to me. I love this about Europe—with these relatively small nations (compared to the US), it’s so easy to cross borders and experience other cultures and languages.

Another excuse for traveling by rail was the chance to take a train that crosses the Fehmarn Belt strait by ferry! Yes, it drives right into the ferry at Puttgarden, Germany alongside the cars and patiently waits for the boat to reach Rødby, Denmark on the other shore 45 minutes later. During this time, passengers must leave the train and go up the stairs to the upper levels of the boat, where a plethora of duty-free shops and pricey food services can be found.

When you get this far north at the end of December, the days are pretty short—the sun sets at about 3:30 pm. I was hoping that it would still be somewhere in the sky for the beginning of our ferry crossing, but some technical delays meant that we couldn’t get started until around 4 pm. So my photos are a bit dark (click on them for a larger view), but for a better look you can also check out this short video that someone made in the summer.

A good share of the vacation was spent cozily on the couch, indulging in movies with my brother and his wife and kids, with candles and plenty of popcorn (this was where the mysterious Danish hygge was to be found, for me). We watched some Christmas classics, such as A Child’s Christmas in Wales and The Shop Around the Corner, and some of our childhood favorites including Coming to America and The Muppets Take Manhattan. But there was of course also a Denmark outside waiting to be discovered!

Because I was in Copenhagen right in the middle of the holidays (plus a Monday), most museums and restaurants were closed, but I did manage to stroll through the city streets and also explore a bit of Freetown Christiania, a self-proclaimed autonomous neighborhood that happens to lie within the borders of Copenhagen. One restaurant I did get to visit (twice!) is SimpleRAW, which I highly recommend. Despite its name, it does offer a cooked burger plus another cooked dish of the day (dhal, the week I was there), and hot drinks like coffee, tea and matcha latte, of which I was very glad as it really was SO COLD outside. Their raw lime cheesecake was simply divine.

The weather was gray and drizzly most of the time, but I still managed to get some fun and colorful photos. Here’s a selection.

I took one afternoon to go and explore Malmö, Sweden, which as mentioned above is only a short train ride (more trains!) to the east of Copenhagen. Trains leave in both directions several times per hour, and the cost is only around €10. I loved Malmö, a very cute smallish town with lots of old-timey charm. It didn’t hurt that it was also a nice sunny day.

Thanks to some advance planning, I managed to visit two vegan restaurants that were not closed during the holiday period. First, Lotta Love Açaí Bar, where I had—what else?—a huge açaí bowl covered with fruit, nuts and cacao nibs. And later, Vegan Bar, which is more like a restaurant with a bar in it and offers a range of super yummy burgers, including a portobello mushroom one. I also happened upon a thrift shop with lots of cute things (candleholders, clothes and dishes that would have been perfect for my food photos). It was sad, but probably also lucky, that I couldn’t buy anything due to insufficient room in my suitcase (and my apartment!).

If you ever visit Malmö, don’t miss Lilla Torg, a little square with a lamp installation that is lit both at night and during the day, but is most interesting after sunset.

We also took a day trip to Denmark’s second-largest city, Aarhus, to visit the impressive ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum. Established in 1859, it is Denmark’s oldest public art museum outside Copenhagen. It has been especially attractive to visitors since 2011, with the addition of the circular skywalk installation Your Rainbow Panorama by Icelandic-Danish artist Ólafur Elíasson. Inside, we enjoyed various exhibits on multiple floors, most of them featuring Scandinavian artists apart from a temporary exhibition devoted to works by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos.

The final excitement of my trip was the New Year’s Eve party with some friends of my brother, for which we made a huge dinner. My contributions included a spinach, red bell pepper and tomato quiche and some almond-apricot cupcakes decorated with toasted slivered almonds and edible gold dust. Everyone in the neighborhood was setting off fireworks the whole evening, but at midnight they multiplied their efforts by 10 and there was no break in the booming, crackling and colorful explosions of lights for a full 35 minutes.

Soon after that, I was back on the road (or rather, rail) again to return to Paris. I stopped for the night in Hannover, where I got to try out the highly acclaimed restaurant Hiller, and the next evening was home and reunited with Sésame, who greeted me with many kitty kisses.

My best reads of 2016

For 2016, I set myself the goal of reading 30 books, and managed to pull it off, finishing the 30th one (José Saramago’s The Double) in the last few days of December. As you will see, these are not books published in 2016, just the ones that I happened to read in that year.

It has occurred to me that if you like my blog, you might also share some of my taste in literature. And who knows, perhaps you’ve set yourself a reading challenge for this new year and would like some recommendations. So, without further ado, here are the books I liked most, presented in the order in which I read them.

Lady Susan (1794) by Jane Austen

lady-susanWith the advent of the Kindle, it has become very easy to collect public-domain classics and to make your way through an author’s entire œuvre. I acquired the novella Lady Susan in this way and, since my goal is to read all of Austen’s works, began reading without taking the time to check what exactly it was about, or whether it was considered one of her best or a lesser work. I was thus pleasantly surprised by this very witty story. The exploits of scheming socialite and recent widow Lady Susan Vernon, as she attempts to find husbands for herself and her daughter regardless of the cost to others, are revealed in clever and comical ways by the epistolary structure, which also allows for multiple points of view. Published posthumously, this book suffers from a rather abrupt ending that may be due to Austen’s simply not having had time to finish it, or not intending to publish it. But the story is such a good one that this does not detract much from the overall experience and is not, in my opinion, enough cause to skip it. In fact, it has generated so much interest that two modern novels inspired by or even retelling the story have been published: Lady Susan (a novel), by Phyllis Ann Karr (1980) and Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, by mother-and-daughter authors Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway (2009). Whit Stillman’s 2016 film adaptation, titled Love & Friendship in homage to an early Austen work, has been much praised. I have not seen it yet myself, so this is one of my goals for 2017! [EDIT: I’ve now seen the film, and it’s only so-so. But the novella is great.]

Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna (2003) by Peter Singer

9780732290016In the spring of 2015, I happened to be in the right place at the right time and was asked to interpret for Australian philosopher Peter Singer at a press conference prior to his talk at an animal-rights event in Paris. Although I do not normally do interpretation (my specialty is written translation), it was an honor and a pleasure to meet Singer and to help facilitate his interviews with the French media. In between things, I had the chance to chat with him a bit and he mentioned that he had done some translation work himself (from German) for a book he wrote about his grandfather, the Austrian classical scholar David Oppenheim, who perished in a Nazi concentration camp. I found a copy of Pushing Time Away during my next visit to the US and delved in. I was immediately captivated by this unique work, which is part biography, part history (of Vienna, its psychology circles and the war years) and part personal reflection (Singer’s musings on love and courage). To learn about his grandfather, whom he never met, Singer traveled to Vienna and searched through his aunt’s old papers in the hope of finding something that would shed more light on this man’s life. He found letters exchanged between his grandfather and grandmother that tell of an unusual love story and a great deal of open-mindedness for the day. Singer also found academic papers and research Oppenheim carried out for Sigmund Freud before breaking with him over a point of honor and becoming a supporter of Alfred Adler. In all his dealings with his fellow man, Oppenheim showed thoughtfulness, compassion and loyalty. As I read, I came to greatly admire this man, and after getting to know him in these pages felt all the more keenly the tragedy of the way he met his end. It is an important life story that everyone can benefit from, especially at times such as these when the consequences of ignoring George Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” are more chilling than ever.

Call the Midwife: A True Story of the East End in the 1950s (2007) by Jennifer Worth

call-the-midwifeThis book, which is actually the first in a trilogy, came to my attention after I saw the excellent television series based on it. In Call the Midwife, Jennifer Worth recalls her experiences and the stories of people she met while working as a midwife in post-war London’s East End slums and living in a convent with a group of nuns. From the mother of 24 who gives birth to her 25th prematurely under dangerous conditions to the 14-year-old Irish girl who has run away from her unstable home and become involved in prostitution, as well as stories about the lives of the nuns and Worth’s fellow nurses, the book paints a detailed picture of this page in history. You also learn many fascinating details about childbirth that cannot be conveyed in the series as they would be far too graphic (and in any case are undoubtedly better to read about than to see!). It is thus one of the many cases in which the film or television adaptation, while good, is only the tip of the iceberg. I’m hoping to read the rest of the books soon, and then to catch up in the shows. Another goal for 2017.

The Patience Stone (2008) by Atiq Rahimi

the-patience-stoneI learned about this novel when I discovered Ann Morgan’s A Year of Reading the World project of a few years ago, in which she challenged herself to read a book from each of the world’s 196 countries in the space of one year. And as she went along, she posted reviews of each book on her blog, which she continues to update. I browsed through the entries alphabetically and was fascinated by the very first country. For Afghanistan, she wrote, she wanted something not written by the mega-famous Khaled Hosseini. After some digging, she found Syngué Sabour, written in French by Afghan author and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi, who came to France as a political refugee in 1985. The story, for which Rahimi won France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, focuses on an unnamed woman who tries to care for her comatose husband alone at home in a city in the clutches of war. His condition creates a complete reversal in the dynamics of their relationship: whereas she has always been under his thumb, he is now dependent on her mercy for survival. As time goes by and the situation in the city grows more desperate, she finds her tongue loosening and begins to confide her frustrations, longings and secrets to the unresponsive man. I was attracted by this plot but also by the fact that I could read it in the original language (as a translator, I am all too aware of how nuances of meaning and effect can be lost in translation, even in the most skilled hands). In an interview, Rahimi explained that he first tried to write this story in Dari but that the words would just not come. It was only in an outside language that he could speak of topics such as the ones in this book. As I read this novel in French, I cannot vouch for the quality of the English translation (by Polly McLean), but judging from her positive review of the novel, Morgan seems to have liked it. I also highly recommend the beautiful 2012 film adaptation, which was directed by the author himself.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) by D.H. Lawrence

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I had been familiar with the title of this book for years but didn’t know about its contents or the scandals it created until I saw the series A Very British Romance. In it, host Lucy Worsley tells us about the major English romantic novels that influenced not only later literature but also society as a whole, and more specifically people’s views and expectations of romance. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is mentioned among these, although with its explicit descriptions (and they are quite explicit!) of the protagonists’ sexual adventures, it proved too risqué for its time and was banned until the 1960s. It tells the story of an aristocratic woman with a passionate nature whose husband sustains a spinal injury early in their marriage. He wants a child to carry on his family name and, unable to help his wife conceive himself thanks to his injuries, encourages her to seek outside assistance. He does not, however, count on it being someone from the working class. And neither does she, initially. I sympathized with the plights of most of the characters and found the love story between Lady Chatterley and her gamekeeper lover quite touching. The novel has been adapted for film and television many times, but Jed Mercurio’s 2015 version for the BBC (also the only one I have seen so far) was quite good.

Deaf Sentence (2008) by David Lodge

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This intelligent and very funny novel, which I picked up by chance in the foreign-books section of my local library here in Paris, deals with the unlikely combination of deafness and death, although not in a causal relationship. Its central character is a recently retired and increasingly deaf linguistics professor who wants nothing more than to relax and enjoy his new-found freedom, but who must contend with his difficult elderly father and an attractive female grad student with strange demands. Author David Lodge manages to find the right balance between comedy, as his protagonist attempts to rein in his stubborn father’s eccentricities and to conceal his own deafness in a series of improbable but humiliating situations, and poignancy, as he watches the fire inside his proud father dim. The linguistics enthusiasts out there will enjoy the academic points that Lodge (a former literature professor) weaves into his hero’s narrative in a subtle enough way that the lay person will not be put off, as well as his witty plays on words around the concept of deafness. With regard to this last point, Lodge wins extra points from me for the preface in which he acknowledges the difficulty his translators of this book face and expresses appreciation for their efforts.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2014) by Karen Joy Fowler

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I had not heard much about this book, apart from its title, prior to receiving it as a birthday gift this past fall, but was intrigued by the gift-giver’s injunction not to read anything about the book before starting it. And after finishing the book, I can say that she was right! There is something quite unexpected in this story that you will not want to have spoiled for you, and so I will say only what is already revealed in the official synopsis. It is about a young woman who lost her sister, and then her brother, under mysterious circumstances during her childhood and struggles to deal with these losses in a city far from her home where nobody knows her past. We watch her struggling to keep on blocking the memories but inevitably yielding to a pull to uncover and solve them. A very touching story that has much more beneath the surface than one expects.

The Double (2002) by José Saramago

the-doubleI discovered this Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese author ten years ago, when I happened upon a copy of All the Names in Switzerland. Saramago is famous for his very original punctuation style. Rather than setting dialogue apart from the narrative, he flows from one into the other and back again, and uses only a capital letter at the start of a new turn to indicate a change in speakership. Sentences can be very long, composed of series of independent clauses separated just by commas. When Saramago actually uses a period, you know that he really wants to make an impact. While many hate his books for this, it is one of the things that endear them to me. I enjoy the challenge of having to work a bit to follow a story rather than being more passively entertained. I also love Saramago’s subtle dry humor, and the way he has of getting you to simultaneously cheer on and shake your head over the underdog heroes of his works. The protagonist of The Double, a high-school history teacher with an unfortunate first name who seems to be drifting through his life without attempting to direct it, is no exception to this. We are privy to the teacher’s every thought as he struggles with the challenges of his everyday life and then his discovery of an actor in a film who resembles him identically. New characters pop up to complicate things, including his own common sense, which appears at various points to try to make him see reason but most often exits the scene in exasperation. Translated brilliantly by Margaret Jull Costa, the novel’s original title is O Homem Duplicado (The Duplicated Man). It incidentally inspired a recent film titled Enemy, which I saw not long after finishing the novel. All I can say about it is… read the book instead! I will be stubborn and not even link to it here because it falls so far short. Most of the book’s value and humor resides in the main character’s inner experiences, and this is completely lost in the film version, which is also much more of a high-tension psychological drama than the book seems meant to be. But I can imagine Jim Jarmusch or Wes Anderson doing a good job with it. Let’s hope one of them gives it a go at some point!

Honorable mentions

The following are other books I read in 2016 that I wouldn’t recommend to everyone, but that I personally got something from, either because I was fascinated by the story/topic or because analyzing its structure was useful for identifying and reflecting upon various literary techniques and strategies.

Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself (2013) by Sarah A. Chrisman. The author’s account of what wearing a corset and incorporating more and more Victorian-era clothing into her daily life taught her about the past and how it changed her present. The book contains some digressions, but I enjoyed it overall and admire what Chrisman is doing. Over time, she and her husband have created a lifestyle for themselves that probably comes as close to the late 1800s as it’s possible to get in our day and age. Photos and more stories can be found on her blog, This Victorian Life.

Helen Keller in Love (2012) by Rosie Sultan. It was recently discovered that Helen Keller (1880-1968), the world’s most famous deaf-blind person, had a brief romance with a man hired as her temporary secretary. Little is known about what happened apart from the fact that any plans they had together were foiled by her family. In this novel, Sultan imagines what Keller’s experiences with this man might have been. Writing from Keller’s point of view is certainly an ambitious thing, and I found some parts of her experience to stretch the imagination a bit much, but it was a fascinating topic to contemplate.

Below Stairs (1968) by Margaret Powell. This book caught my eye because of my interest in shows like Downton Abbey, and in particular the life of the servants. I have to confess that I feel a kind of connection to them due to my experience working as a waitress, a job that makes similar (albeit far less extensive) demands upon the body and soul. The content of this book—stories of Powell’s work as a kitchen maid and then cook at a series of grand houses in the early 20th century—was interesting, but I wished it had been better edited and that she had not glossed over certain potentially more exciting parts of her story, such as how she met her husband, who was her long-hoped-for ticket out of that life. If you begin this book already knowing that it reads like a lightly edited transcript of an informal monologue, you will not be too disappointed.

What were your favorite books from 2016? Share them in the comments. 🙂