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Crepes in Black and White

March 11, 1998|MARION CUNNINGHAM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Cunningham's latest book is "Cooking With Children" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995)

Money does not necessarily buy a good meal. I've just returned from Paris, where, with the intensity of Sherlock Holmes, I scrutinized and ate the food in bistros, brasseries, small family restaurants and two- and three-star theaters of food.

I had two memorable meals during the week: one at the three-star restaurant Taillevent and the other a simple butter-sugar cre^pe from a tiny stall on the Rue Cler called Sarrasin Emporter. The dinner at Taillevent, where I ate the classic French dish pot-au-feu made with several meats and vegetables and a dessert of custard-filled cre^pes, was very expensive. The cre^pe from the stall was $1.50. Good is good.

Cre^pes are to French children what cookies are to American children. They appease the spirit and appetite and charm young and old alike.

French cre^pes--or pancakes--are often made with different flours. The sweet pancakes are made entirely with white flour, and fillings range from the simplest butter-sugar filling to applesauce, berries, creams and custards. Savory-filled pancakes, sometimes called black cre^pes, are filled with meat, cheese, shellfish or cooked vegetables and made with white and dark buckwheat flour.

I have tested half a dozen cre^pe recipes; this one--for white, or sweet, cre^pes--is the best and easiest. If you want to make the savory cre^pe, substitute one-half cup buckwheat flour for one-half cup of the all-purpose flour and omit the sugar and vanilla.

The custard filling takes 5 to 10 minutes to measure and make, but you'll no doubt spend time scrubbing the pot you make it in. I have never made it--despite brisk stirring during cooking--without some custard sticking to the bottom of the pan. If you want it more or less sweet, start with less sugar and add what you want. You can also fold whipped cream into the custard to make it richer.

WHITE CRE^PES

CRE^PES

1 2/3 cups flour

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

5 eggs

1 2/3 cups milk

Butter

CUSTARD FILLING

2 cups milk, plus more if needed

2 eggs

1 egg yolk

1/2 cup sugar, plus more if needed

1/2 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

If you use a whisk or eggbeater instead of electric mixer to mix the batter, strain it before using. This batter doesn't improve by sitting and letting the gluten relax, so begin cooking the cre^pes as soon as the batter is mixed.

CRE^PES

Stir flour, sugar and salt with fork or whisk in large bowl until well mixed.

Whisk eggs in separate bowl until well-blended and 1 color. Add milk to eggs and beat until thoroughly mixed. Add egg-milk mixture to dry ingredients and beat with electric mixer until batter is smooth.

Lightly butter 8-inch skillet and heat over medium heat. Add 3 tablespoons batter to skillet; tilt and turn skillet so batter runs and covers bottom of skillet. Cook over medium heat 1 1/2 to 2 minutes until bottom of cre^pe is pale gold and top is dry. Slide out of skillet onto plate with golden side down and paler side up. Repeat for each cre^pe. (Wrap unused cre^pes in several layers of plastic wrap and freeze.)

CUSTARD FILLING

Bring milk just to boil in heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat.

Meanwhile, beat eggs and yolk vigorously by hand or with electric mixer in mixing bowl. Slowly add sugar, beating after each addition, until well mixed. Add flour and salt and beat until well blended.

As soon as milk boils, begin beating egg mixture, scraping bottom and sides of bowl, and pour milk over egg mixture. Beat briskly 1 to 2 seconds to blend in milk. Spoon custard back into saucepan and cook over medium-high heat, continuously scraping bottom and sides of pan, until flour is cooked and blended into egg mixture, 1 to 2 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Custard should be quite thick and hold its shape; if it's too thick, add a little milk. Taste and add more sugar if desired. (Custard may be refrigerated for 3 to 4 days or frozen.)

Spoon 2 tablespoons to 1/3 cup custard down middle of each cre^pe and roll or fold in half. Serve warm or at room temperature.

12 (8-inch) cre^pes. Each cre^pe:

228 calories; 226 mg sodium; 153 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 36 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 0.06 gram fiber.

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