No food is quite so debonair
Nor so imbedded with savoir-faire.
It goes with pearls ’round swan-like necks,
With limousine, five- recette pate a crepe, checks.
It matches coats of mink and sable,
And priceless silver on the table.
(From Gourmet Magazine, 1943)
There are many famous desserts in the world but how many have inspired such a charming poem? Only crepes suzette – that reputedly serendipitous combination of oranges, ignited brandy and thin pancakes.
Such a tribute is befitting a dessert whose origins are still shrouded in mystery. The story behind the creation of crepes suzette is still disputed and there are parts of it that do indeed defy reality. As the popular story goes, in 1895, fifteen-year old kitchen apprentice Henry Charpentier accidentally ignited a dish of cordials intended as a sauce for orange-infused pancakes. As guests awaited, Charpentier impulsively decided to serve the boiling sauce over the pancakes. Fortunately, he tasted it first: “This is the most delicious melody of sweet flavors… The accident of the flame was precisely what was needed to bring all those various instruments into one harmony of taste.”
The future Edward VII of England, a notorious gourmand and described by Charpentier as the “world’s most perfect gentleman” happened to be among the guests that night. According to Charpentier, he was so impressed with the sauce that he took great care to consume every drop. He rewarded the young man’s efforts with the gift of a jeweled ring and panama hat. He also asked that it be named in honor of one of the evening’s dinner guests, a lady companion known only to history as the elusive “Suzette.”
While ceding credit to Charpentier for introducing the dessert and its signature flames to America, other experts cite French chef Jean Redoux as the original creator. Redoux allegedly created it much earlier, in 1667, for Suzette, the Princess of Carignan.
However this dessert came to be, its permanent place in the world’s dessert hall of fame is not a matter of dispute. Its delectable taste and show-stopping presentation will forever ensure its popularity. In America, the dessert reached the pinnacle of popularity in the middle of the last century, when it became the dinner finale of choice to socialites and housewives alike.
As with any timeless recipe, crepes suzette has inspired a host of variations. For the sauce, Charpentier used vanilla-infused sugar and fresh oranges, Julia Child used just an orange-infused butter, and Tyler Florence adds tasty and eye-appealing kumquats.
The crepes themselves have also been subject to a redo. Modern chefs have created souffleed versions that are served with a sauce of rum and orange liqueur. And although the flaming technique is no longer deemed essential for the flavor, it, too, has been taken to new dramatic heights recently through the occasional addition of sparklers to the final dish.
The preparation of crepes suzette at home has naturally gone the way of the elegant dinner party, which has been on the decline for years. Today it is more common on the menus of exclusive restaurants. However with its simplicity and spare ingredients, there’s an argument that a revival is overdue. In today’s fast-paced world, a no-bake dessert such as crepes suzette might easily find its place in the casual entertaining world where party guests simply gather in the kitchen to watch the chef, who is more often also the host. After all, as the poem tells us:
And yet, withal its rich appeal,
So fitting for a prince’s meal
The fact remains–and what a shame!–It’s only
Pancakes set aflame.