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A French favorite

Last modified: 7/4/2012 12:00:00 AM
Eggs. Milk. Buckwheat. In a mix of French and English, the man in the paper hat listed the ingredients in the thin brown batter that spread across his hissing griddle. My husband and I had found him inside a bright yellow lunch truck at the far end of Montreal's Atwater Market, where we'd come to eat after a long morning walk through the city on a vacation last summer.

Between marveling at the architecture, the public gardens and the region's industrial history, I lamented that so many of Montreal's French-inspired goodies were made with wheat flour and off limits to someone like me with a gluten intolerance.

But then we arrived at Atwater, a swirl of carts and shelves and shops, packed with baked goods, cheese, cured meats and produce from farms just outside the city. The yellow lunch truck stuck out for three reasons: its color, the nutty smell drifting from inside and a chalkboard with the words, "sans gluten." The truck, as we soon learned, was one of several throughout the city that churned out crepes made entirely of buckwheat flour, which, despite its misleading name, is gluten free.

That moment marks the beginning of my crepe (and buckwheat) education. Crepes are thin, oversized pancakes served stuffed with fillings both sweet and savory. I'd had them once or twice before, back when I was still eating wheat flour. They weren't bad, but I would have been just as happy with a stack of syrup-soaked flapjacks.

The crepe I ate that day in Montreal, however, was flat-out amazing. It had heft, a nutty flavor and crispy edges. I ordered it filled with Nutella and topped it with fresh strawberries from one of the farm stands. I'm sure the oozing chocolate and European vibe contributed to the taste, but I also credit the alternative flour.

Buckwheat, as it turns out, isn't wheat at all; it's the seed of a fruit related to rhubarb. It's full of fiber and, according to some studies, improves cardiovascular health. Whole buckwheat can be used in porridges or pilafs, much like rice or oats. Buckwheat flour is fine, light brown and great for the gluten-free cook. You'll find it at most major grocery stores, usually in the baking aisle. Do be sure that you're buying pure buckwheat and not a baking mix that also includes traditional flour.

The French have long used buckwheat in a form of large crepe called Breton galettes, which are often used in savory dishes. Wheat flour, meanwhile, is used for the smaller, sweeter treats we think of as crepes. In Montreal, chefs seemed to use buckwheat and regular wheat flour interchangeably, stuffing crepes of both kinds with fruit, chocolate or various combinations of meats, eggs and cheese. One creperie offered a filling perfect for the city's long, cold winters - hash browns, Canadian bacon, cheese and eggs.

In the year since our trip to Montreal, I've made dozens of batches of crepes, playing with ingredient ratios, fillings and flavorings. The version below is my favorite.

It features the two main ingredients in Nutella - cocoa and hazelnuts - without the sugar rush. And it makes good use of the local berries that are abundant this time of year.

If you prefer a savory dish, omit the cocoa and sweetener and fill your finished crepes with cheese, roasted vegetables, eggs or meat.

If you're also avoiding dairy in your diet, substitute a mild vegetable oil for the butter and use rice, almond or soy milk instead of cow's milk.

Leftover crepes will keep for several days in the refrigerator. Layer them between tin foil or parchment paper and wrap tightly. They'll taste just fine cold, but may also be rewarmed.

 Chocolate hazelnut crepes


gluten-free cooking spray

¼ cup butter, melted

3 eggs

1¼ cups buckwheat flour

1 tablespoon cocoa

1 tablespoon maple syrup (or sugar)

1 to 1½ cups milk

½ cup chopped hazelnuts

fresh berries

powered sugar or more maple syrup

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees and place a clean cookie sheet on the center rack.

Combine the butter, eggs, flour, cocoa, syrup and milk in a blender and pulse until smooth. You may need to adjust the amount of milk depending on the size of the eggs.

The batter should be thin enough to slide easily off a spoon but thick enough not to slosh when you move the blender.

If you have a special crepe pan, cook the batter according to the manufacturer's instructions. If you're using a regular skillet like I did, spray the bottom and sides with Pam or another brand of gluten-free cooking spray. Heat over a medium-high burner.

Scoop a scant half cup of batter into the pan and swirl it around until it spreads to the edges. (If the batter doesn't spread easily, add a bit more milk before making the second crepe.)

Cook for about 2 minutes. Use a spatula to loosen the edges of the crepe and flip it over. Cook for 1 minute. Repeat until the batter is gone, reapplying cooking spray after every two or three crepes.

As each crepe is done, slide it on to the cookie sheet inside the warm oven.

When you're ready to eat, fold each crepe around the sliced berries and a sprinkling of hazelnuts. Place the crepes seam side down on serving plates.

Drizzle with syrup or sprinkle with sugar.

Makes 10 to 12 crepes.

(Meg Heckman can be reached at 369-3313, at mheckman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @meg_heckman.)


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