Italian

Meet the Crêpe's Italian Predecessor (+ Promptly Fill It with Cheese & Mushrooms)

by:
September 27, 2016

These may look like crêpes, but they are not exactly crêpes. In Tuscany, they're called crespelle, and those who know the story won't forget to tell you that they are the predecessor to the more famous French crêpes.

Crespelle with porcini and gorgonzola. Photo by Emiko Davies

Their story starts with Florence's own Catherine de' Medici, who was known for her good taste in food. She insisted on bringing her Florentine cooks amongst her entourage when she moved to Paris to marry the future King of France, Henry II, in 1533. She, with her Florentine ways, introduced cooking techniques and ingredients to her French guests that had never been seen before—things like these crespelle, which may have been no more than simple wafer-thin omelettes, artichokes, onion soup, forks at the table, and her most favorite vegetable, spinach. (This is why dishes that feature spinach are still known to the French as “Florentine,” but that's another story.)

Crespelle: fold them, roll them, or stack them. Photo by Emiko Davies

Rather than eaten sweet, crespelle are treated like fresh pasta: They are rolled like cannelloni, layered like lasagne, even cut into strips and put in soup like flat noodles. In Florence, crespelle all fiorentina is a beloved dish of crêpes filled with ricotta and spinach (the same filling that normally goes into ravioli), then smothered in bechamel sauce with a few splashes of tomato sauce to stain the top. It's baked in the oven with Parmesan cheese sprinkled over, which gives the dish a gratin-like finish.

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This is a simpler idea, and one you might see outside of Tuscan town centers and deeper in the countryside, where mushroom-filled forests are not far off and mushroom foraging is the typical weekend activity in early autumn. The mushrooms—always fresh and usually porcini, or other early autumn wild mushrooms, such as Caesar's mushrooms or chanterelles—are simply sauteed with some garlic and herbs, a splash of wine, and a knob of butter. Fresh herbs (usually calamint, which tastes like a mixture between oregano and mint) perfume the whole thing.

Crespelle stacked like lasagne. Photo by Emiko Davies

The mushroom mixture becomes a filling, along with a blob of gorgonzola (which will add creaminess as it melts in the oven), inside a crêpe folded like a hankerchief or rolled like a cigar. You can even layer the crêpes with filling, like a lasagne (try this with crêpes made in a small pan for "individual" lasagne portions).

Porcini mushrooms tend to practically melt in the pan so that you're left with a naturally creamy mushroom sauce. If using regular button mushrooms or other mushrooms, you can blend about a third of the mixture for a creamier result.

Fresh porcini mushrooms. Photo by Emiko Davies

If you wanted to, you could add some sausages—pork and fennel, skin removed, crumbled in a pan and browned before adding to the mushroom filling. Or, in the same vein, add some crisp, browned slices of guanciale or pancetta. But if we're talking fresh porcini, the king of mushrooms, my preference is to keep it simple, so the porcini sing.

Crespelle with porcini and gorgonzola. Photo by Emiko Davies

While it can take a little time to make these crespelle, between resting the batter and cooking them, this is an excellent dish to make for stress-free entertaining because the different elements can be prepared a day, or even two, in advance. In fact, everything right up to assembling the crespelle in the pan can be done in advance, so all you need to do is pass the pan through the oven to melt the cheese, leaving you extra time for a glass of wine with guests. Pass the Sangiovese, please!

Emiko, a.k.a. Emiko Davies, is a food writer and cookbook author living in Tuscany, where she writes about (and eats!) regional Italian foods. You can read more of her writing on her blog.

Crêpes, crespelle—how do you like them filled best? Tell us in the comments below.

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1 Comment

HalfPint September 27, 2016
I got some incredible spinach & ricotta crespelle at a supermarket(!) in Tuscany. This sounds wonderful too!