Pancakes extraordinaire

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AT this very moment you are asking me about Hungarian pancakes, and my assistant is walking through the room carrying a large tray stacked high with them,'' said Chef Louis Szathmary of The Bakery restaurant in Chicago.

I was calling to ask about some different or special kinds of pancakes, and he had good answers.

In his dramatically accented Hungarian voice, Chef Szathmary described one type of savory pancakes, called palacsinta in Hungarian cuisine. Filled with a ground ham and sour cream mixture, the crepes are folded into a little pocket, as he put it. The little packages are then dipped into an egg and breadcrumb batter, fried, and served with a piquant mushroom sauce.

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''Very special,'' he called them, emphasizing each syllable. Whenever I eat these delectable creations, I will hear Chef Szathmary's voice describing these palascintas.

Pancakes have been universal favorites since man first combined meal and water and spilled the mixture on a hot flat stone near the fire.

They have traveled into every culture the world over, it seems, and are called various names, including pannequets, tortillas, flapjacks, blinis, Eierkuchen, flaaspannkaka, and po-ping.

Especially in Britain, people still eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday (which is Mardi Gras in Latin countries) before the beginning of Lent. Years ago people needed to use up the eggs, milk, and butter which, as dairy products from animals, were forbidden during the fast days. These pancakes, sprinkled with lemon juice and sugar, were so delicious that the tradition has persisted many centuries since.

Marcella Hazan, food writer and teacher, describes an early kind of flat pancake-bread Italian peasants baked on a terra-cotta slab over a fire. She gives several variations on this satisfying bread, called focaccia, in her cookbook ''More Classic Italian Cooking'' (Knopf, 1978).

Piadina, one variation, was common with farm families, who cooked it on a stone in the hearth. Now, in addition to a few country peasant women who still make it, Mrs. Hazan told me, piadina has become very chic among the fashionable.

It is often served in restored farmhouses, she said, as part of a simple rustic meal prepared by stylish Italians.

Whether peasant or sophisticate dine on focaccia and piadina, these pancake-like breads are perfect with homemade sausage or good country ham and other savory accompaniments.

Giulano Bugialli, a scholarly food writer and teacher, reproduces a Florentine recipe for pancakes dating from 1329 in his first book, ''The Fine Art of Italian Cooking'' (Quadrangle, 1977).

His Renaissance version of the recipe is made from eggs, a little milk, and a tiny bit of flour. The pancakes are stuffed with raisins and orange juice, and are just as good today as they were in the 14th century.

Crespella, the Italian pancake, comes from the Latin word crispus, meaning ''not very smooth,'' as Bugialli translated it.

Crespelle are very close to cannelloni, which are pasta squares boiled in water, filled, and rolled. In the south of Italy the pasta cannelloni predominates, he explained, ''but they are interchangeable in the north.''

Spain, curiously, has no native pancakes. Tortillas originated in the New World and play no part in Old World Spanish cooking.

But the Spaniards recognized a good thing when they tasted it. In the 16th century Spain ruled Italy, and through the port of Barcelona there was considerable traffic between the two countries.

Penelope Casas explains this relationship in her new book titled ''The Foods and Wines of Spain'' (Knopf, 1982). Canelones, the Spanish spelling of the Italian pasta, became familiar to the Spanish. Today canelones is thoroughly naturalized, although it is the only type of pasta to be found commonly in Spain.

In her book, Mrs. Casas gives a recipe for this meat-filled pasta. The Italian influence shows, she said in a telephone interview, by the inclusion of chicken liver in the filling, but it is still Spanish in character.

She suggested that pancakes, or crespelle, can be substituted for the canelones with happy results, just as in Italy. I heartily agree.

She also mentioned custard-filled pancakes - not French crepes - that come from the province of Galicia in northwestern Spain, a region influenced over the centuries by Celts and other invaders. Sprinkled with sugar and flavored in various ways, these Spanish pancakes deserve their popularity.

Here is a recipe from ''The Foods and Wines of Spain,'' by Penelope Casas. Canelones (Meat-Filled Pasta) Dough: 1 egg 2 tablespoons melted butter 1/2 cup water 1 1/2 cups flour Meat Filling 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 medium onion, finely chopped 1 clove garlic, minced 1 1/2 pounds mixture of ground beef, veal, and pork 1 chicken liver, chopped 4 tablespoons minced cured ham 1 1/4 cups tomato sauce, preferably homemade 2 tablespoons minced parsley 1 egg, lightly beaten 2 tablespoons breadcrumbs 6 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese Salt Freshly ground pepper Butter White sauce: 5 tablespoons butter 5 tablespoons flour 2 cups milk 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese Salt Freshly ground pepper Dash nutmeg

To make dough, beat egg in bowl and mix in butter and water. Stir in flour. Knead lightly until smooth and elastic. Cover and let sit 1 1/2 hours.

Meanwhile, make filling. Heat oil in skillet and saute onion and garlic until onion is wilted. Add meat mixture and chicken liver and brown. Stir in ham, cook a minute, then add 3/4 cup of tomato sauce, and parsley. Cook 10 minutes, uncovered. Add egg, breadcrumbs, 3 tablespoons of cheese, salt, and pepper.

Roll dough as thin as possible. Cut into 4-inch squares and let them dry 10 minutes. Place in boiling salted water to which 1 tablespoon of oil has been added. Do not crowd. Cook 15 minutes, or until just tender. Drain and run under cold water. Dry on paper towels.

Pour remaining 1/2 cup of tomato sauce into baking pan in which canelones will fit snugly. Place about 2 tablespoons of meat filling on each pasta square. Roll and arrange seam side down in baking pan.

To make white sauce, melt butter in saucepan. Add flour and cook a minute or so. Gradually stir in milk, cheese, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Cook until thickened and smooth.

Pour white sauce over canelones. Sprinkle with remaining 3 tablespoons of cheese, dot with butter, and bake at 450 degrees F. for about 10 minutes, or until bubbly and lightly browned on top. Serves 4 or 5.

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