Thursday, February 18, 2010

Traditional British Food: Shrove Tuesday

In Britain, Shrove Tuesday is "Pancake Day." Of course, what they mean by "pancake" is not what we Americans think of as pancakes, flapjacks (also something else in British cooking) or griddle cakes (yet again, something else in British cooking), but what we, and the French, refer to as crêpes, just not the buckwheat kind. In Britain, these tasty reminders of unleavened Passover bread were, during the time Geoffrey Chaucer was writing, referred to as crisps or cresps (note 1), which has been replaced with the thoroughly Germanic "pancake."

Now that we've explored why pancakes in Britain are not called crêpes, let's talk about why it's absolutely essential to make crêpes on Shrove Tuesday. Shrove Tuesday (you might have heard it called Mardi Gras) is the last day before Lent. "Shrove" refers to the shriving (confession) of sins, but Shrove Tuesday is really about committing them. It was the "last opportunity for fun before the dietary, recreational, and sexual restrictions of Lent set in" (note 2). Crêpes were the perfect Shrove Tuesday food because they helped British housewives use up the foods that the Church forbid them to eat during Lent--meat, eggs and dairy.

Now, I've never observed Lent and I don't plan on starting any time soon, so preparing a pre-Lenten feast may seem futile. However, it's an opportunity for eating something traditional, and that's what I'm all about. Plus, crêpes are super-yummy and really should be eaten all year, not just on Shrove Tuesday.

Crêpe Batter
makes about 22 crêpes with an 8" fry pan (This is the pan I use: All-Clad d5 Stainless Steel Fry Pan | Williams-Sonoma)

1 cup cold water
1 cup milk
4 eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
4 tablespoons butter, melted

Bacon dripping

Add all the ingredients except the bacon drippings to a large mixing bowl and then blend with an immersion blender (or you can use a regular blender) until mixture is smooth. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.

To make the crêpes, heat the fry pan over medium to medium-high heat (you'll probably have to adjust it throughout the process). Using a silicone pastry brush, apply a thin layer of bacon drippings and wait for the pan to get so hot that it's almost smoking. At this point, pick the pan up off the heat with your right hand and use your left to scoop out a scant 1/4 cup of batter. Pour the batter onto the pan, swirl it around to cover the base of the pan, and place the pan back on the heat. Cook for about 1 minute, flip and cook for another 30 seconds. Remove to a plate and cover with a cloth. Start over with another application of bacon drippings for the next crêpe. If your heat is correct, the crêpe will look like the photo above.

Recipe adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which seems weird considering this is Traditional British Food, but trust me on this one.


Last week, I made roast chicken and thought crêpes would be a great way to use the cold meat. I also adapted this recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Chicken Velouté Crêpes (or, as Paul calls them, French enchiladas)

serves 4 (photo is of a half recipe)

8 crêpes

1 1/2 tablespoons minced shallots
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups cooked chicken, in bite-sized pieces
1/3 cup dry vermouth
A few sprigs thyme, leaves only, chopped

2 tablespoons butter
2 1/2 tablespoons flour
1 cup boiling chicken stock
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup grated Gruyère

For the filling, saute the shallots and garlic in the butter over medium-high heat in a large saucepan, until softened. Next, stir in the chicken and heat for a couple of minutes. Add the vermouth and thyme, turn the heat to high and boil until the vermouth is reduced to a glaze. Divide this filling between the crêpes, then place the filled crêpes, seam side down, in a casserole.

For the sauce, melt the butter over low heat then stir in the flour. Cook, stirring constantly, for two minutes, then stir in the chicken stock and bring to the boil. The sauce will be very thick. Stir it, as it boils, for two minutes, then reduce the heat to low and beat in the cream, one tablespoon at a time. Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese. Pour the sauce onto the crêpes and place the casserole under the broiler until the sauce starts to brown. Serve immediately.
In case you were wondering what to do with leftover crêpes, you can turn them into one of the most unhealthy breakfasts ever by tearing them into strips and sauteing them in butter and then sprinkling them with sanding sugar. Sure makes a nice alternative to oatmeal.

P.S. If you were wondering about the haggis, it was a huge disaster. It's a good thing we don't have a cat, because the poor creature would have had to eat haggis for a week. More info later.
1. Marion Watson, "Flat as a Pancake," The British Food Trust,, accessed 18 February 2010.

2. Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 151.