In my familyâ€™s cooking mythology, there is no question that my motherâ€™s crespelle rank high in the pecking order.
What are these crespelle I speak of, you ask?
Gather round, and I shall tell you a story.
Like most of the young women in her family, my mother was raised on the simple yet robust food of Southern Italy (Calabria to be exact). Call it rustic or simple if you like, she grew up eating and cooking with lots of tomatoes, lots of garlic, lots of pasta, lots of beans, lots of meatballs and lots of soup. Was it fancy? No. Was it good? Si!
When my mother married my father in 1972, she brought with her the repertoire that she had inherited. But as the years went by, she expanded that repertoire with an impressive array of foods from a region far removed from Calabria: Le Marche.
And of all the dishes that my mother learned from my fatherâ€™s side of the family, there are few as dear to me as crespelle.
Crespelle is the Italian word for crepes, which in a very broad way defines what this dish is. I caution you, though, that as with so many other Italian dishes, crespelle can refer to a dish prepared in numerous different ways, depending on what region, province, city or town in Italy that you happen to be consulting.
But in my fatherâ€™s family, which hails from Ascoli Piceno in Le Marche, crespelle are thick crepes stacked high and then soaked in chicken broth. The layers of crepes are lined with the incredibly savoury Pecorino commonly made in the hills around Ascoli Piceno.
Allow me to deconstruct.
This dish begins with crespelle, or crepes, which are slightly thicker than the more typical crepes associated with French desserts like CrÃªpes Suzette. The crespelle batter is made with flour, water and a large quantity of eggs (more eggs than you would use in a recipe for French-style crepes). The result is a slightly thicker crepe that has more of an eggy bite to it.
The thicker crepe is a perfect vessel for the layer of sharp cheese and black pepper sandwiched in between the crespelle. Ideally, my mother would use the sheepâ€™s milk cheese made in the hills where my father’s town is. We’re sometimes lucky enough to be in possesion of some of this cheese thanks to a trip to Italy and a loving relative who has procured some for us. But if we donâ€™t have any, then my mother uses Parmigiano Reggiano.
I often ask myself what the key ingredient of this dish is; is it the crespelle or the broth? Tough call. What I do know is that once youâ€™ve gone to the trouble of making the crespelle and grating the cheese, you must finish the dish with the best homemade chicken broth you can create.
And it must be homemade.
You can try using store-bought chicken stock but trust me, it wonâ€™t be the same.
Once you have all your elements in place, you carefully stack your crespelle, christening each layer with a few spoonfuls of cheese with a bit of black pepper (the ideal is stacks of 15 crespelle) and then you christen your creation with ladles of soul-sustaining broth. And then, you cover.
You cover your creation to allow the crespelle and the broth and the cheese to marry and steep and join in a relationship that results in one of the most elegant and delicious first courses you can imagine.
For me, crespelle are a special occasion dish, which is funny in that looked at separately, thereâ€™s nothing really special about the elements. Crepes are just flour, water and egg. The cheese is just that, the cheese. And the broth, well, how many times have we had homemade broth?!
But together, they form a dish that is the trigger for so many happy memories of special meals. But more than that, to me, there is no dish that represents more the legacy that my mother has created in her kitchen.
My Mother’s Crespelle
Treasured Family Recipe.
For the crespelle (yields 30 crepes that are roughly 6 inches in diameter):
2 cups all-purpose flour
1-3/4 cup water, at room temperature
8 eggs, at room temperature
In a large bowl, mix the flour and water until you have a thick paste. Add the eggs, a few at a time, until they are all incorporated. This requires some elbow grease as you must ensure that there are no lumps in the batter. Once combined, allow the batter to rest for 30 minutes.
Once the batter has rested, heat your pan on high heat. We use two or three small frying pans to help the process go quickly. Our pans yield 6-inch crepes.
Place a tablecloth on your table and then place a few layers of parchment paper on top of the tablecloth. The cooked crepes will rest on the parchment while they cool.
Once the pans are heated, wipe them quickly with a paper towel that has been dipped in some vegetable oil.
Lower the heat to medium-high and pour approximately a 1/4 cup of batter into the pan (this is for a 6-inch crepe).
Cook the crepes for about 2 minutes on each side. The crepes are cooked when they are golden in colour and flip easily. Flip them once only. If you flip them too many times they will dry out too much.
Place the cooked crepes on the parchment paper and let cool completely.
Assembling the crespelle:
2 cups Parmigiano Romano (if you can get a hold of some good quality Pecorino cheese, you can also use that)
2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
6 to 8 cups of hot chicken broth (preferably homemade)
You will need a round container with a lid (we like to use a 2 Litre Corning Ware pot)
Combine the cheese and black pepper.
Place a crepe at the bottom of your container. Sprinkle a heaping tablespoon of the cheese mixture over the crepe.
Top with a second crepe and another spoonful of cheese. Continue layering the crepes and cheese until you have a stack of 15 crespelle (do not put cheese on the top layer). While you can create stacks of more more than 15 crespelle, the ideal height is 15.
With a sharp knife, cut the crepe stack into four segments.
About 15 to 20 minutes before you’re ready to serve the crespelle, finish the dish by pouring the hot broth over the crespelle. The broth should cover the top layer so depending on the size of your container you may need anywhere from 6 to 8 cups of broth.
When pouring the broth over the crespelle, do so carefully to ensure that you maintain the layered wedge.
Sprinkle any remaining cheese on top of the crespelle and immediately cover the crespelle and let sit for 10 minutes.
Serve the crespelle in a soup plate by scooping up a wedge per person. Add some broth to the bottom of the plate for an elegant finish.