The Ricotta Eaters, by Vincenzo Campi, 1585 (the guy on the left looks a little ill).
Recipe: Crespelle with Ricotta and Walnut Pesto
At some point during my teenage years, my mother began making manicotti using crespelle, the Italian version of crepes, instead of the more traditional pasta sheets. I took an immediate love to this new dish, which was inspired, I believe, by her fascination with Julia Child’s TV shows. It was so light and elegant. I loved the aroma of the crespelle as they colored lightly in the pan. So I decided to cook up a batch of our new improved manicotti to bring to my grandmother, a woman who had always been somewhat remote and ornery. When I close my eyes to envision her now, I can only remember a short, big-breasted woman lying on a couch with a wet towel over her forehead. I guess I hoped the crespelle would cheer her up. I kept everything else in the dish exactly the way she would have made it—the ricotta filling, the tomato sauce, the béchamel. I worked all day on it, and it came out, I thought, very impressive.
I placed the big, bubbling-hot baking dish on my grandmother’s dinner table and served the group, which also including my remote and ornery aunt (takes one to know one) and her goofy, handsome, but hot-tempered husband, my uncle Pat. They tasted, and there was a weird silence. Then my grandmother said, “These taste different.” More silence. Then my aunt said, “They look different.” There was another nerve-racking pause, and then uncle Pat, actually shouting, said, “These ARE different.” The rest of the evening was awkward to say the least, and, frankly, terrible for me. I sat gulping down my grandmother’s Riunite in a futile attempt to transport myself to some gentler time and place. My mother felt very sorry for me.
It’s incredible how rigid Southern Italians can be about their food. Now that I look back on it, though, the whole thing pisses me off. I wish I had had the temerity to just say, this is it. This is what you’re eating. It’s new. It’s delicious. Deal with it. Although if I had, my grandmother probably would have whacked me in the head.
That was the last time I cooked for my grandmother, but the experience obviously didn’t dissuade me from cooking altogether. In fact it turned out perversely enough to be one of the catalysts for my career in Italian food. Since then my crespelle has evolved further, to something that would be completely unrecognizable to my headachy and now deceased grandmother. I’m no longer interesting in imitating manicotti. I leave off the béchamel and the tomato sauce, a combination that I’ve grown to feel overwhelms delicate crepes. I’ve also added a thin layer of walnut pesto, which blends really well with ricotta. I made this for my mother the other night. She loved it. And it did taste different.
Crespelle with Ricotta and Walnut Pesto
(Serves 4 or 5—makes about 12 7-inch crespelle)
For the crespelle:
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
A generous pinch of salt
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for cooking
1 cup whole milk, possibly a little more
1 tablespoon grappa or brandy
For the ricotta:
2 cups whole-milk ricotta
1 large egg
½ cup grated Grana Padano cheese
A few big scrapings of nutmeg (about ⅛ teaspoon)
Freshly ground black pepper
A handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
For the pesto:
1½ cups very fresh walnut halves
1 small garlic clove, roughly chopped
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup grated Grana Padano cheese
For the top:
3 pints grape tomatoes
1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
A big splash of white wine
½ cup grated Grana Padano cheese
About a dozen basil leaves, lightly chopped
For the crespelle batter: Put all the crespelle ingredients into the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until very smooth. The result should be the consistency of thick cream. If it’s too thick, add a little more milk. Pour the batter into a bowl, and let it sit about 45 minutes before using (this will relax the gluten a bit, so you get a nice tender crepe).
To cook the crespelle: I used a 7-inch omelet pan, but if you’ve got a proper crepe pan, a little bigger or smaller, use that. Any small sauté pan will do the trick. With these olive oil crespelle, I never find sticking a problem, so you don’t need a non-stick pan. Put the pan over a medium flame, and let it heat up. Pour in enough olive oil to just coat the pan. Pull the pan from the heat, and ladle in a bit less than a quarter cup of batter, tilting the pan quickly in a circular movement to spread the batter. (You’ll get the hang of it. The first one usually doesn’t come out too well. Once the heat is regulated and you get the feel of it, trust me, you’ll find it fairly easy.) Let the crespelle cook just until you notice it coloring lightly at the edge. Now shake the pan, moving the crespelle away from you, and slip a spatula underneath. Give it a fast, confident flip. If it folds up a bit, just straighten it out with your fingers (these things are a lot sturdier than you would think). Cook on the other side for about 30 seconds, and then slide onto a big plate.
Make the rest of the crespelle the same way, adding a drizzle of olive oil to the pan each time. Stack the crespelle up on top of one another (they won’t stick, I swear). You can refrigerate them until you want to assemble the dish, if you like.
Mix the ingredients for the ricotta filling together in a big bowl.
Put all the ingredients for the pesto in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until you have a rough paste.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Chose a very large shallow-sided baking dish (one that you’d use for a big lasagna is perfect). If you don’t have a big one, use two smaller ones. You want the crespelle to fit fairly snuggly. Coat the dish or dishes lightly with olive oil.
Lay out a crepe on a work surface, and coat one side lightly with the walnut pesto. Now add about 3 tablespoons of the ricotta mixture, and smear it around as best you can (it doesn’t have to be perfectly distributed). Now roll up the crepe, and place it in the baking dish. Repeat this with all the crespelle.
In a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the grape tomatoes, and sear until they start to burst, shaking the skillet often so they cook evenly. Add the garlic, and season with salt and black pepper. Sauté a minute longer, just until they start to give off a little liquid. Add the white wine, and let it bubble for about a minute, not letting the liquid evaporate too much. Pour the tomatoes, with their liquid, over the crespelle. Sprinkle on the Grana Padano, and bake until bubbling and lightly browned at the edges, about 15 minutes. Garnish with the basil.
Serve hot. No need to let this rest. They’re quite firm. I like them served with a simple winter salad of mixed chicory-type lettuces, such as frisée and endive.