Crespelle alla Fiorintina

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catherine_de_medicisThe culinary historical trail leads to Catherine de’ Medici, the Florentine Queen of France, for introducing these savory crepes to French cuisine with the help of her Tuscan chefs.

In 1533, at age fourteen, she was married to Henry of Orléans, the future king of France.
When she moved to France, an entourage of friends, servants, and waiters accompanied her. The Florentine cooks who went with her brought with them the secrets of Italian cooking to France, introducing peas, beans, artichokes, canard a l’orange, (duck a la orange) and carabaccia (onion soup). The pastry makers also demonstrated their innovative genius with sorbets and ice creams, marmalades, fruits in syrup, pastry making, and pasta. A certain Sir Frangipani gave his name to the custard and the tart known in France as Frangipane. Is is not ironic that all these dishes that are considered so quintessentially French, are actually Italian in origin.

Catherine also brought with her to the French table a new protocol, such as the separation of salty and sweet dishes, at a time when sweets were still consumed together with meat and fish in the medieval style all over Europe. Everyone in France was amazed by the Florentine elegance she  introduced, including gracious table settings and dining, fine linen with elegant embroidery, as well as luxurious silverware and crystal stemware.

At the time, French cooking was already a rich, evolving discipline, and the presence of the new style profoundly influenced French cuisine over the next few centuries. Catherine and her army of Florentine chefs reformed the antique French cooking of a medieval tradition and transformed the food we know as today as the modern French cooking. As time went on, French cooks improved and magnified the Florentine contributions. While many dishes and techniques were being forgotten in Italy, the French made them into international cuisine.

And based on the  various  evidence in the culinary literature, it suggests that crepes were also Florentine in origin and the French adapted them into what we now enjoy  today, in both sweet and savory forms. Crespelle  appears to be like Cannelloni, which are pasta tubes filled with spinach and ricotta, but the crespelle is actually a very thin pancake crepe made of flour and eggs instead of a thick sheet of pasta.

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Photo Credit: Josephine Guerriero, Pezzole delle nonna, Posta La Ricetta

In the Tuscan countryside, this dish was formerly  called “pezzole delle nonna.” Pezzole is the Tuscan way of saying “fazzoletto” which means “handkerchief”  and so pezzole delle Nonna  can be translated as  “Grandma’s Handkerchiefs“. Pezzoles can be described as omelets or crepes stuffed with ricotta cheese and vegetables covered with a Béchamel sauce. They are neatly folded into quarters and served family style in a dish, looking very much like handkerchiefs in a stacked in a drawer.  Given its past, and its modern incarnations, this  dish is definitely a home-style comfort food and is  found in extremely traditional Tuscan trattorias.

Serves 8

Ingredients:
For the Crespelle batter:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon melted unsalted butter
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk

For the filling:
1 pound fresh spinach, washed, stems removed
1/2 pound ricotta
3/4 cup finely grated Parmesan
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

For the Béchamel:
4 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
1 3/4 cups milk
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

To Finish:
About 2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
1 cup tomato passata or  prepared tomato sauce (See Cook’s Notes)

Directions:
For the crepes: In a bowl whisk together all the ingredients to form a smooth, thin batter. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before proceeding. Heat a small skillet or crepe pan and when hot, brush lightly with butter. Ladle about 1/4 cup of crepe batter into the pan, tilting the skillet to evenly coat the pan. Cook until golden brown on the bottom and the top begins to look dry, 1 to 2 minutes. Using a spatula, carefully turn the crepe and cook the second side until the bottom colors slightly, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a plate and cover loosely to keep warm. Repeat with remaining batter to yield 8 crepes

For the filling:  Bring water to a boil in a saucepan and blanch spinach for a few minutes. Drain and dry  the spinach with a kitchen towel by squeezing the spinach to extract any remaining moisture, then coarsely chop to yield about 1 cup. In a bowl, combine the spinach, ricotta, Parmesan, eggs, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and stir to thoroughly combine. Set aside.

 Preheat the oven to 375 ° F.

Lightly butter a 1  1/2 quart casserole dish.

Divide the spinach filling evenly among the crepes, using about 1/3 cup filling for each. Roll the crepes, like enchiladas, up around the filling and place in the buttered dish. Set aside while preparing the sauce.

For the Béchamel sauce: In a saucepan,  melt the butter. Whisk in the flour until smooth and continue to cook for 3 minutes, being careful not to brown. Slowly whisk in the cold milk, and cook, stirring, until the sauce comes to a boil and thickens, about 2 minutes. Continue cooking until the floury taste is gone, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

To finish: Pour the béchamel over the crepes, drizzle with butter, and bake for 20 minutes, until lightly browned on top. Serve hot, with a little tomato passata spooned over the top of each serving.

Cook’s Notes:
You are probably asking yourself, “What is passata?”  Well, passata is basically just an uncooked sauce made with crushed and sieved tomatoes. What makes it so special? Usually, high quality ripe tomatoes are used for passata, resulting in a well flavored tomato base that is generally superior to standard canned tomatoes. Passata is an excellent base for sauces and perfect as a pizza sauce.

Passata is available in Italian delis and specialty gourmet markets. In Europe, passata is widely available in supermarkets. You will find it near the pasta sauces and canned tomatoes. Usually it is sold in a tall jar or a carton. But for some reason, although it is found all over Italy and Europe in general, passata does not seem to be sold widely in the United States. That’s a pity because it’s a great store-cupboard ingredient to have on hand. If you are having trouble getting your hands on passata, you can purchase it online. Amazon stocks good quality Cento Tomato Passata made from Italian San Marzano tomatoes.

How To Make Passata: If you do not have the real thing, you can make a reasonable substitute at home. Use the best quality tomatoes you can find, drain them and sieve or purée in a food processor. But do not use tomato paste, because it is thick, concentrated and highly processed. You can also add salt and other seasonings to taste, like basil or oregano.

Sources:
Orieux, Jean. Catherine de Médicis, ou, La reine noire. Paris: Flammarion, 1986.

Volpe, Anna Maria. “Caterina de Medici: A Tuscan Queen In France.” Caterina de medici, http://www.annamariavolpi.com/caterina_de_medici.html. Date Accessed: 16 December 2016.

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