Crepes: a Frenchman's favorite fast, but elegant, food

It's spring again: Here and there, in parks, around the corner, along streets and boulevards, in Nantes, other parts of Brittany, and throughout France, portable stalls and mobile stands have opened once more to dispense the Frenchman's favorite fast food: the crepe.

No more than a very thin, large round pancake, the crepe, at once exceedingly simple yet undeniably elegant, is a classic demonstration of the flair and finesse with which this country of gourmets puts together even the quickest snack.

It is a joy simply to watch it being made: the thin batter poured onto a flat , round, and very hot griddle, spread out quickly with a wooden pusher, flipped with infinite carelessness and the mere shrug of a wrist at precisely the right moment so that the pancake is dappled with brown, not black spots, then brushed with melted butter, spread with a choice of a thousand toppings, rolled or neatly folded, and whisked onto a waiting plate.

If in America pancakes are predictably, albeit deliciously, drenched in melted butter and maple syrup, while in England eaten with just a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkling of sugar, in France, not surprisingly, they are presented in a vast variety of guises. They are savory, filled with fried onions , ham and eggs, cheese, sausage, charcuterie, mushrooms, or mixtures of fish and shellfish, or else sweet, spread with layers of apricot, strawberry, or plum jam , honey, chocolate, fresh peaches or pineapple.

Found throughout France, the crepe in fact is native to Brittany, that rocky spur west of Paris which is so different from the rest of the country. Here, certainly, a well-seasoned, flat, round cast-iron pan hangs in virtually every kitchen, never washed with soap or water, forbidden to be used for anything else , simply wiped with an oil-soaked paper towel after use, then rehung trustingly by the stove.

A more local Breton specialty, the galette, is a pancake made from buckwheat flour, with that grain's distinctive, pungent, nutty taste and texture. It makes a satisfying meal simply layered with a thin egg omelet and a slice or two of ham, folded in half, then in half again, into a nearly triangular packet. Basic Crepe Recipe 1 cup plain flour 2 eggs Pinch of salt 2/3 cup milk 2/3 cup water 2 tablespoons melted butter

Sift flour into a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center and break eggs into it. Add salt and mix in well with a wooden spoon.

Gradually add milk and water and beat with a wire whisk until mixture is smooth and the consistency of light cream. Stir in melted butter and put in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.

Stir batter well. Butter a small frying pan and allow it to get quite hot. Turn heat down and pour 1 to 2 tablespoons of batter into the middle of the pan.

Quickly tilt pan from side to side so batter covers the base evenly and thinly. Cook about 1 minute and shake pan to loosen crepe.

Lift edge with a spatula and if it is dappled brown, turn it over and cook other side. This side needs less cooking time. Slide onto a warm plate. Grease frying pan with an oil--or butter-soaked paper towel and continue.

Keep crepes warm by covering with a plate set over a pan of simmering water. They can also be frozen at this stage and reheated before use. Makes about 12 crepes. Galette (Buckwheat Pancake) 1/2 cup plain flour 1/2 cup buckwheat flour 2 eggs Pinch of salt 1 1/4 cups milk 2 tablespoons melted butter Possible fillings:

Cheese, smoked ham, fried onions, fried mushrooms, sausage, cooked chicken pieces.

Cook using method as in basic crepe recipe.

A galette is layered and folded, rather than stuffed and rolled. Place the filling in a thin layer over the pancake, then fold in half and then in half again. Serve immediately. Makes about 12 pancakes. Seafood Crepes 6 crepes 2 tablespoons butter 1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped 1 1/2 tablespoons flour 1 1/4 cups hot milk Salt Freshly ground black pepper Pinch of nutmeg 1/2 pound shredded or diced shellfish (crab, scallops, prawns) 2/3 cup grated cheese

Melt butter in saucepan and gently saute shallot. Add flour and cook 2 minutes. Slowly add hot milk, a little at a time, stirring constantly. When all milk has been added, slowly bring to boil and simmer 5 minutes. Add seasonings, fold in seafood, and mix well.

Place a large spoonful of filling on each cooked crepe. Roll up. Reserve about a quarter of the sauce and thin with a little milk. Arrange stuffed crepes in a shallow baking dish and cover with remaining sauce. Decorate with prawns and sprinkle with grated cheese.

Bake in a preheated 350-degree F. oven, 10 minutes or until cheese has turned golden. Serve immediately. Rakott Palacsinta (Layered Pancakes) 12 crepes 3/4 cup apricot jam 2 squares chocolate, grated 1 stick butter, melted 1 cup ground walnuts 1/2 pound cottage cheese 2 egg yolks 1/3 cup raisins 3 egg whites, well beaten 1 cup sugar Vanilla sugar for dusting

Butter an ovenproof dish. Place one crepe in it and spread with apricot jam. Cover with another crepe and spread with some chocolate and a little melted butter.

Add a third crepe, then walnuts mixed with a little sugar.

Mix cottage cheese, egg yolks, some sugar, and raisins together. Add another crepe and spread with this cottage cheese mixture.

Repeat layering of crepes until all ingredients are used. Leave top crepe plain. Bake in a moderate oven, 350 degrees F., for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, make a meringue with beaten egg whites and about 2/3 cup sugar. Take crepes from oven and spread meringue over top. Bake for further 10 minutes or until top becomes brown. Dust with vanilla sugar. Serve warm, cut into wedges like a cake.

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