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IN THE KITCHEN : Bumping Into an Old Flame

January 27, 1994|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES FOOD MANAGING EDITOR

When I first started getting serious about cooking, I attacked it with an amateur's passion: I read everything I could get my hands on; I took as many classes as I could, and I tried out new recipes on the family every night. And I was fortunate enough to have friends who would let me come in and work in their restaurants (without pay, of course).

I vividly remember the first time I realized the difference between cooking for love and cooking for pay. I was led into the tiny, roasting-hot kitchen of a friend's creperie , where a battered four-burner stove was blazing with a dinged-up non-stick pan atop each burner. Beside the stove was a bucket of batter.

My lesson began. First, a quick brush of melted butter on the pan, then a ladle of batter right in the middle. Turning and tilting the pan spread the batter to cover the bottom evenly. Back the pan went on the burner for a minute or two, then bang ! A knock on the stove unstuck the crepe. Tilting the pan forward gathered the crepe in the lip opposite the handle, and a quick jerk flipped it neatly onto the uncooked side.

"We need 500 of these for a party this evening," I was told.

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I still enjoy cooking in restaurant kitchens now and again, but that day permanently killed any thoughts I might have entertained about doing it as anything but a tourist. Dirty, sweaty, with feet aching from having stood in one place for hours and fingers sunburned by the constant gas flames, it didn't take a genius to know there had to be a better way to make a living than slinging crepes.

That experience almost killed what affection I ever felt for the thin little pancakes, though I did come away with the semi-marketable skill of being able to flip them with grand insouciance (something that later got me through many a slow night struggling to entertain students at cooking classes).

But I doubt that I've cooked crepes at home more than a dozen times in the intervening 10 years. What is it people say about familiarity?

Over the holidays I visited the little restaurant where I first learned to make crepes. It has a different owner now, but much of the menu remains. Just for old times' sake, I ordered a crepe filled with a rich, tangy, lightly sweetened combination of sour cream, whipped cream and cream cheese. Then another, this time filled with chocolate ganache. Then yet another, filled simply and elegantly with honey and chopped walnuts. I was shocked. These things were absolutely delicious.

Crepes themselves have little flavor but a slight egginess. What they do have is a soft, delicate texture that wraps nicely around a wide range of flavors--both sweet and savory. They work as well with a thick stew of shellfish, cream and white wine as with cinnamon sugar.

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While crepes aren't difficult to make, there are a couple of mechanical tricks that take some practice. The first is the spreading of the batter. It's facilitated by the fact that the batter is a smooth liquid that turns into a sticky solid when it comes in contact with a hot pan. So, by tilting the heated pan in a rough circle, you swirl the batter from the center of the pan outward until you form a thin pancake.

The second trick involves turning the crepe once it is done on one side. One easy way to do this is by running a thin spatula around the edge of the crepe, then lifting one edge with the fingertips of both hands and turning it manually. This is slow. And it's easy to rip the crepe this way. Mainly, it's just kind of wimpy. There's nothing like a jaunty toss of a pan to show that certain elan that is so vital to impressive crepe making. Dip the front end of the pan so the crepe slides forward. Then, with a simultaneous pushing and lifting jerk, flip it over. All it takes is a little practice. But trust me, 500 times is probably overdoing it.

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This recipe comes from a tiny restaurant called La Crepe Michel in the Old Town section of Albuquerque, N.M. If you're ever in the area, be sure to drop in for well-done rustic French food. Just don't volunteer to cook any crepes.

CREPES WITH WALNUTS AND HONEY

6 Crepes

3/4 cup chopped walnuts, plus more for sprinkling

Honey

Lightly sweetened whipped cream

On oven-proof serving plate, lay 1 crepe flat. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts down center of crepe. Bake at 350 degrees 5 minutes to warm walnuts through. Spoon 1 tablespoon honey over walnuts and fold both sides of crepe over, letter-style. Heat another minute, then remove from oven, add dollop of whipped cream and drizzle bit more honey and walnuts over whipped cream. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

179 calories; 140 mg sodium; 42 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.72 gram fiber.

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For savory crepes, simply omit the sugar.

Crepes

2 eggs

1 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup flour

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons butter, melted

Combine eggs, milk, salt, flour and sugar in blender and puree until smooth. Batter should be texture of heavy cream. Let stand at least 1/2 hour, preferably 1 hour or even overnight in refrigerator to let batter relax. If left overnight before using, pour into mixing bowl and whisk to re-mix.

When ready to use, heat 9-inch non-stick skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Pour approximately 1/4 cup batter in center of pan and tilt pan, turning to spread batter in circle. Return pan to heat and cook until 1 side is just browned, about 1 minute. Pick up crepe from pan with spatula and, using your fingers, flip to cook other side.

Alternatively, break crepe free by banging pan and shaking gently back and forth. Tilt pan to slide crepe to front and, with flick of wrist, flip crepe over. Cook 30 seconds on second side and slide onto warmed plate. Any leftover crepes can be stacked, separated by wax paper and frozen. Makes 12 crepes.

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