Standing by her stove, Jackie Lyle grabs a small aluminum pan and begins to explain the story behind why crepes are an essential dish in her family.
Several members of Lyle’s family immigrated from Paris to Louisiana in the early 1900s, including her then-infant grandmother, Jackie Richard. Upon arrival, the family put down roots in Rennes.
They brought many French customs with them, and Lyle’s family has managed to keep many of them alive for over a century—one notable tradition being the annual creation of crepes on February 2.
In the United States, the day is known as Groundhog Day, but in France it is known as “La Chandeleur” – which translates to Candlemas in English – to commemorate the 40 days after the birth of Christ, when Mary and Joseph brought their son to the Temple Purification and consecration rituals are performed as prescribed by the Torah.
While Americans stood in the cold waiting for the groundhog to show up, the French crepe holiday dates back to the fifth century and is a mix of traditions — including a Catholic holiday and a harvest celebration. Considered highly superstitious in France, the day is said to be a year-round ritual to bring good luck, similar to the southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas and cabbage on New Year’s Day.
Growing up, Lyle’s family celebrated Groundhog Day at her grandmother’s house in Lafayette. As long as her grandmother has lived, she has presided over festivals.
Everyone gathers around the kitchen for a collective crepe making experience. Although Lyle started preparing pancakes at the age of 8 with her family around her, it wasn’t until she left college that she celebrated the occasion alone for the first time.
“It’s the strongest tradition in my family,” Lyle said.
Don’t hesitate to celebrate it. Lyle will give up the black eyed peas before he doesn’t eat pancakes on Groundhog Day.
A native of the small town of Allen Parish in Oberlin, Lyle has lived in Lafayette most of her life and is recognized as the longtime Executive Director of the Performing Arts in Arcadiana, or “PASA.” She shared her family’s crepe tradition and experience with her PASA staff and interns.
The pan sits on the gas stove top while the batter sits on the side. Lyle’s pans are smaller than modern crepe pans and are made of aluminum. The worn pan recalls an earlier time, telling the story of a family gathering to celebrate a tradition brought over from France.
In Lyle’s kitchen, her pancake recipe is in a cookbook put together by her aunt Phyllis Richard. The page shows the wear and tear of opening a cookbook near the batter over the years. Lyle said the cookbook was given to the family at Christmas and was a source of comfort and joy. Her aunt’s first cookbook was handmade and covered with fabric because her aunt was a seamstress, and an updated version later.
Lyle clicked the stove and went to work, making the process seem effortless. As the aroma of brown butter filled the kitchen, she told me more details about the process.
Mixing crepes can be a chore. To keep the batter from clumping, they started by putting the flour, salt and eggs in a blender and beating it into a smooth mixture.
“Once mixed, refrigerate for a few hours to allow the gluten to develop and make a thick batter,” says Lyle.
Lyle has turned crepe flipping into a science.
When she hears the pan sizzle and the edges start to curl, it’s time. Before flipping the crepes, she gently shakes the pan to make sure the crepes don’t stick.
Then she turned over the pan. The crepe landed gracefully. Somehow, she handled several pans at once – no crepes burned, dropped or crumbled.
I asked her if she ever flipped crepes with a spatula.
“If you can do that, what’s the point?” she said.
I laughed and immediately wanted to try it myself.
Once I lifted the pan and made sure the crepes were loose on the first try, I was surprised it flipped as expected. Beginner’s luck!
Didn’t go the second time either. After several attempts, in the end, I had to accept that the flip failed. Still, I am grateful for her experience and patience as I tried.
For many years, only granulated sugar was added to the crepes before they were rolled up and enjoyed. Today, there are more modern versions of the filling, such as the much-loved Nutella. As much as Lyle loves Nutella, she says, “The crepes sprinkled with sugar are my favorite because it reminds me of my grandmother.”
The Lyle kids continue the family tradition of celebrating Groundhog Day by making crepes with their growing family.
February 2 wasn’t just another dreary winter’s day for Lyle and her family – she encouraged others to join in the fun.
Makes 40 crepes. Recipe courtesy of Jackie Richard.
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1 cup cold milk
4 tbsp butter, melted
1 cup cold water
salad oil or butter (for coating the pan)
1. Mix flour, salt, and eggs; mix well.
2. Add milk, water and butter. Mix well.
3. Put the batter in the refrigerator for at least two hours, so that the flour particles expand and soften, and the crepes have a light texture.
4. Brush a layer of salad oil or butter on the bottom of a 6-inch or 7-inch frying pan; heat the frying pan over medium heat until hot but not smoking.
5. Pour in less than 1/4 cup of the batter, and quickly tilt the pan in all directions to spread the batter to the bottom of the pan.
6. Cook for about 1 minute, then turn the crepe over to the other side. Cook until speckled brown on the sides.
Crepes can be frozen between waxed paper sheets. Remove, thaw and serve as dessert.
If you’re going to eat crepes like Lyle’s grandma Richard, roll them up for Groundhog Day and use butter instead of oil. Lyle also recommends mixing the batter in a blender.