Monday, February 04, 2008

Candles and Cookies and Crêpes - Oh My!

At the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox (the second of February) we have Candlemas, or Chandeleur in France. With roots in both pagan and religious practices, we kick up the light and warmth in the middle of the dark and cold...and, of course, celebrate with food. Often this happens while we un-deck the halls, as this is the second of two times often chosen for dismantling Christmas. (Twelfth Night is the other.)

Pull out your pencils and notebooks, boys and girls. La Fourchette U. is in session! (Credits can be collected at the back of the room when class is over. Form a single line, please, and remember to use your “quiet voices”!)

In the agricultural regions in Europe, such as my little corner of France, this was the time of year when fields were prepared for the coming planting season. As the name would imply, candles play a big part in the celebration. It was the custom for people to bring lighted candles from the church service to assure good crops for the year ahead and chase away any evil with the light and warmth.

From a religious perspective, Chandeleur falls 40 days after Christmas and is celebrated by followers as the day upon which Mary presented herself to the temple for ritual purification. It was at this point that Mary and Joseph also presented their son, Jesus, to the temple for redemption.

Traditionally celebrated with grain-based foods, there are two standard specialties for this holiday:

The Navettes of Marseille

Shaped like little boats, these biscuit-cookies are made annually for the second of February to celebrate the arrival of St. Lazar and the two Marys (Mary Magdalene and Mary Martha) at Ste. Marie de la Mer, just east along the coast from Marseille, around 2000 years ago.

A creative and ingenious baker in Marseille hit upon the idea of creating the little boat-shaped cookies back in 1781 as a reminder of the following story (taken from the informative little pamphlet that accompanies the cookies):

“Picture this: at the end of the 13th century, the statue of the virgin ran aground on the shores of Lacydon (ancient name of the Vieux-port of Marseille). The virgin was made of polychrome wood and her green gown was soiled and spoiled by age. She wore a golden crown, which was enough for the small circle of craftsmen from Marseilles to look upon her as a mark of destiny and a sign of protection. To some she was ‘Notre Dame du Feu Nouveau’ (Our Lady of the New Fire), and to others she was ‘La Vierge Protectrice des Gens de La Mer’ (The Virgin Guardian of the People of the Sea) moreover, it is also said that the shuttle is the symbol of the small boat on which ‘les saintes’ came over here to the Provence coasts.”

The recipe has been a well-protected secret for more than 200 years. Each year during Chandeleur, the archbishop of Marseille blesses the Four des Navettes (the bakery where all of this goes down) in the presence of the mayor of the city and various local celebrities.

These particular navettes are a gift from a friend of mine. They were scored after an hour wait in a long line that wrapped around this famous little bakery. It’s serious stuff in these parts, my friends!

There are three types: the classic type made with orange flower water (known for being a natural preservative), those without the flower water and the more tender provençale type that do not last as long.

I received the classics - with the orange flower water. Whew! These little things are strong...strong, I tell you, packing quite the olfactory punch! My entire apartment took on the scent in no time flat. ( it’s not that much space to cover, but still!) To manage the impact, I ended up double bagging these new “guests” and putting them in exile on the window sill. I suppose orange flower water is an acquired taste. Perhaps it will kick in for me one day...but it doesn't look like it will be this year. (But the preservation factor is important. People would buy them by the dozens to last throughout the entire year for protection, and bring them out month by month.)

A specialty of the port city of Marseille,'ll find many pleasing shapes of navettes throughout Provence.

Chandeleur Crêpes

Crêpes are also prepared and eaten to celebrate Chandeleur. A symbol of wealth, good crops and health, the shape and color of the crêpe also serve as a symbol of the golden orb of the sun – a sign of things to come as that golden orb begins to make its return.

Usually made with the wheat flour from the previous harvest, there is a tradition of tossing the crêpe while holding a coin in the opposite hand to ensure prosperity in the coming year. If you are able to toss your crêpe successfully with one hand (without having it land on the floor or in the sink!), you will be blessed with good luck and prosperity until next year’s Chandeleur. (I’ll have to get back to you on this part. I’m not taking any chances so I’m practicing for next year...I’d like to give my bank a chance to pull itself together before I go about hastily predicting my prosperity.)

Although I have a favorite spot for crêpes here in Aix and have put a good dent in their output, this time I gave it a try in my own little kitchen. Keepin’ it real chez La Fourchette!

The key here is to let the batter rest. If you use regular flour, which is what I used (organic unbleached flour, in fact) the resting time is an hour according to Julia Child. The Rombauers suggest between 3 to 6 hours in Joy of Cooking. It was 2 hours of “sieste” (rest...actually "nap") in my little kitchen.

And the results: pretty tasty!

With a delicate eggy flavor and a bit of bounce to the chew, their pleasing texture with various spreads and drizzles made for a lovely afternoon celebration of Chandeleur. Try a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a dusting of powdered sugar to stay on the lighter side. Or, indulge (as I’ve been known to do occasionally) and slap on a schmear of Nutella. (Whoever invented that stuff should be nominated for the food Hall of Fame!)

For a bit of Chandeleur-Decadence, slip them into something sexier, like Joel Durand’s Framboises et Chocolat Noir sauce. Like Nutella...for grown-ups!

Whether you tossed a few crêpes, lit a few candles, set a few cookies out on the window ledge (!)...or simply waited to see if the groundhog would see his shadow in your neck of the woods...may your year that extends beyond Chandeleur 2008 be prosperous...and bright!

Bon appétit,

An All-Purpose Crêpe Formula (Adapted from Julia Child, The Way to Cook)

This is the crêpe that goes around, under, or on top of almost anything, from entrée to dessert – the formula you want in your freezer.

For 20 crêpes 5 1/2 inches across, or 8 to 10 crêpes 8 inches across

1-cup flour (instant-blending or all-purpose – see notes above for resting times.)
2/3 cup each mild and cold water
3 large eggs
1/4-teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons clear melted butter (clarified)

Equipment: A whisk; a 2 quart measuring pitcher or bowl; a frying pan with 5 1/2 to 6 inches bottom diameter or crêpe pan. (A well-seasoned cast-iron pan works well if there is enough room for your fingers to grab the edge to lift and flip.)

The crêpe batter: Measure the flour into the pitcher or bowl, then whisk in by dribbles the mild and water to make a perfectly smooth blend (if using regular flour, after mixing pour the batter through a fairly fine-meshed sieve to remove any lumps). Whisk in the eggs, salt, and 3 tablespoons of melted butter. Let rest 10 minutes – 1 hour or more in the refrigerator for regular all-purpose flour.

Cooking the crêpes: Heat the crêpe pan until drops of water dance on it, then brush it lightly with clarified butter. Pour 1/4 cup of crêpe batter into the center of the hot pan and tilt it in all directions. (The lighter the pan here, the easier this step is.) The batter should cover the pan with a light coating. After 30 seconds or so, the bottom of the crêpe should be lightly browned and the edges will lift easily from the pan. (It will “tell” you when it’s ready to be turned.) Shake the pan gently by its handle to loosen it from the bottom of the pan and lift the edge, turning it with your fingers or a spatula (or flip it over while holding a coin to divine your prosperity level for the coming year!) Cook the crêpe for 15 to 20 seconds on the flip side and slide from the pan to a warm plate that you keep covered as you stack the cooked crêpes.

Storing: Transfer the crêpes as done to the rack and, when thoroughly cool, you may stack them with no fear of them sticking. Slip them into a plastic bag; store in the refrigerator up to 2 days, or freeze for several weeks.


D&B said...

Madame LER,

Your column is a wonderful cyberspace treat. A true delight. However, I think it will only be really appreciated by those who have been able to indulge in the true French traditions in the past, and of course it creates a longing for more, the endless more. I do so delight vicariously in your indulgence, and your charming presentations. I'll try the ones with the orange water please. There is also one very special treat made of sliced orange or graphfruit peels cooked somewhow or fried perhaps with butter and sugar. How yummy, but also with a strong and acquired taste. I hope you can find it. All blessings to you and please keep your kitchen on the front burner!!

Jennifer said...

I am a huge fan of Julia Child, so it is interesting you chose her recipe amongst all those available in cookbooks, etc. By the way, what is your favourite crepe restaurant in Aix?

la fourchette said...

d&b, Always a pleasure to have you stop in at chez La Fourchette! I'm wondering if you are referring to the orange confit - orange peels candied in syrup...then sometimes dipped in chocolate - oh my! Those are wonderful! I've never had much of a sweet tooth but love these candied fruits...and the orangettes (with chocolate) - they'll have you coming back for more! I've a friend who was preparing just this recipe the other day when I was in for lunch. I'll get her recipe and share it. Thanks for the little nudge!

jennifer, that makes two of us...well...actually there are probably more than just two of us in Julia's fan club, non? My favorite crêpe place in Aix is "Crêpes A Go Go", in the underground passage between the carousel and the Office of Tourism. Simply the *best*! They also sell their batter to go for making them fresh at home...and they are really nice in there. Always an added bonus!

Now a bit of clarification: One of my charming readers pointed out that the first sentence is a bit unclear...and she is right. What I meant to convey was this:

At the midway point(the second of February)between the winter solstice and the spring equinox we have Candlemas, or Chandeleur in France.

Thanks for catching this. Just to make sure that I do not mistakenly lead people to think that the second of February is the spring equinox!

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