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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
''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.