It may come as a surprise, but Italians make crepes. They’re called crespelle in Italian (even if many Italians just call them by their French name, as we do in English). The most common use for crepes in Italian cookery is not as dessert, but as stuffed pasta. They can take the place of egg pasta to make cannelloni, or you can use them to make fazzoletti della nonna, “grandma’s handkerchiefs”, or fazzoletti di crespelle, or “crepe handkerchiefs”: stuff them with a filling of your choice, then fold them into triangles that are said to look like handkerchiefs–hence the name–cover them with béchamel and grated cheese and bake them in the oven until golden brown on top.
For the filling:
- A bunch of Swiss chard
- 75g (3 oz) ricotta cheese
- 50g (2 oz) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- Freshly grated nutmeg
- Salt and pepper
For the crespelle:
- 250ml (1 cup) milk
- 125g (3/4 cup) flour
- 2 eggs
- One batch of béchamel sauce, made with 500ml (2 cups) of milk
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, q.b.
For the filling: The filling I used this time was ricotta and swiss chard, which is almost identical to the more familiar ricotta and spinach filling. Taking a whole bunch of swiss chard, you trim the leaves from the stalks and blanch the leaves only in abundant vigorously boiling water for just 2-3 minutes. Drain and refresh immediately in cold water, squeeze out the water with your hands and chop the leaves finely. Then sauté the chopped leaves in butter to remove any lingering liquid and allowing the leaves to absorb the butter. Transfer the chard to a mixing bowl, and mix gently with a healthy dollop of ricotta cheese, a handful of grated parmesan cheese, a pinch of grated nutmeg, salt and pepper.(You can add an egg yolk if you like for a richer and stiffer stuffing.
To make crespelle: Crespelle are, as mentioned, basically are crepes. But they are rather smaller than the average crepe—only around 10 cm or so wide. You make a very thin batter (the thinner the batter, the thinner the resulting crespella) from 1 cup (250ml) of milk, into which you whisk 3/4 cup (125g) of flour, 2 whole eggs and a pinch of salt. (You can also add melted butter to the batter, which eliminates the need to melt butter in the pan.) You heat a small non-stick skillet over moderately hot heat, you drop a sliver of butter and allow it to melt, swirling it around to cover the bottom of the pan. Pour 1/4 cup of batter into the center of the skillet, immediately raise the skillet off the burner and swirl the batter around until it covers the bottom of the pan. (If it doesn’t cover the entire bottom, you can always add a bit more batter to the bare spots—it will ‘merge’ with the rest.) Allow the crespella to form a solid disk that will slide around the skillet, then flip it over and continue to cook until the other side is lightly spottled. Remove to a plate and repeat until you’ve used up all the batter. (Don’t worry if your crespelle are not perfectly round, it will not be noticeable in the finished dish.)
To make bechamel sauce: One of the mother sauces of French cuisine, bechamel is also used in northern Italian cooking in all sorts of baked pasta dishes, including the classic lasagne alla bolognese. You can find my recipe here.
Then stuff the crespelle with your filling, spreading a fairly thin layer on the ‘underside’ of each crespella, leaving a small margin around the edge of the disk. You then fold the disk into a triangle so as to resemble a handkerchief, and place ‘pointy’ side up, in a well-greased gratin dish. You continue placing the crespelle, slightly overlapping as if they were roof tiles, until you have filled the gratin pan (or run out of crespelle or filling!) Nap with bechamel sauce, grate over copious amounts of parmesan cheese, dot with butter, and you’re ready to bake.
Bake in a hot oven (400 F, 200 C) for about 10-15 minutes. If the top is not nicely browned, pass the dish under a broiler until the surface is nicely spottled but not uniformly browned. Let the dish settle for 5 minutes or so and serve.
Fazzoletti di crespelle can be stuffed in an infinite variety of fillings, including with meat, fish and poultry—any filling you can use for stuffed pasta, you can use for crespelle. Instead of triangular fazzoletti, as mentioned, they can be rolled up like cannelloni if you prefer, and for ‘chunkier’ fillings, this is the preferable way to make them.
Swiss chard has large green ribbed leaves, with stems that can be either red or white, with a taste similar to but more delicate than spinach. Mature chard have stems that are rather more like stalks, which can be cooked separately in various ways. For this filling, the stems or stalks need to be removed. It can be used instead of spinach in just about any recipes that calls for spinach, in salads when young, sautéed or gratinéed when mature.
You can prepare this dish ahead through the arrangement on a baking dish. Just leave it and pop it in the oven when you’re ready to eat. (If you make it the day before and have refrigerated it, take it out of the fridge and let it return to room temperature before baking it.) Unlike pasta, the crespelle will not absorb the filling or topping very readily, so you can assemble it and have it ready for the oven hours (or even a day) ahead. It’s a nice choice for a dinner where you want to impress your guests with something elegant.
NB: Fazzoletti are also a kind of pasta, so be careful when Googling for more recipes!