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Winter’s coming to an end, so it’s time for crespelle

Crespelle alla Fiorentina
Crespelle alla Fiorentina Special to The Kansas City Star

This past week I went back into the kitchen to experiment with a dish I am considering putting on my spring menu at Jasper’s. It was a cold Monday, and to be honest, business was quite slow. Time to get creative.

I was thinking pasta, of course, but wanted something different — more creative to be exact. Then it hit me: crepes. I have always loved crepes, whether they are served savory with a cheese, meat or seafood filling, or sweet with pastry cream and in a sauce of berries, sugar and liqueur.

I always have crepes on hand in the kitchen for our signature Canneloni, one of the restaurant’s most popular items since 1954. I decided to experiment with crespelle, pronounced “krehs-PEHL-leh,” and prepare Crespelle alla Fiorintina, the trifolded crepe filled with ricotta cheese, egg and spinach. This dish dates back to Florentine Catherine de’ Medici.

I went back to my office where I have hundreds and hundreds of cookbooks. It was time to research before cooking. I found some really old cookbooks that my father collected and enjoyed Waverly Root’s “The Food of Italy.”

In reading, I found de’ Medici loved crespelle and served the crispy crepe with a Bechamel Sauce. As with most dishes she enjoyed, she put spinach in it. When she left Italy to marry a future French king, Henry II, in 1533, she brought this dish to France.

Crepes were considered poor people’s food until 1895, when Henri Carpentier at the Maitre at Monte Carlo’s Café de Paris prepared them at the table for the Prince of Wales. Edward named them after his lady friend Suzette.

So am I correct to say that de’ Medici brought crepes to France? Ouch! This can be a touchy subject and one I am not ready to argue.

Now back to crespelle. I brought my nephew Jasper III into the kitchen to help and perhaps offer some cooking tips. We made my filling, very basic at that, with ricotta cheese, grated Romano, eggs and cooked spinach.

My nephew added a dash of ground nutmeg and pepper, and we tasted. It needed something, and then I remembered a recipe from Le Cirque’s Edidiana Maccioni. The French-Italian restaurant is my absolute favorite in New York, and I have enjoyed this dish at the family’s other restaurant, Osteria del Circo. I remembered from a New York Times article that Maccioni added lemon zest, so we did also. What a difference a touch of lemon makes in the filling.

We placed the crepes on a work surface, and Jasper III spread about a heavy tablespoon on top. I folded into a trifold and thought they were a little too thick. I did not want to compromise on the filling, even though my crepe was paper thin, so the next crepe we just folded in half and then cut in half again, sealing the edges of each.

Ahhh … perfection.

Jasper III placed two of the crespelle in a hot, buttered skillet and sauteed on each side until crisp, about 3 to 4 minutes. This also gave the cheese inside some time to melt and warm throughout. We placed on a platter and finished the top with a little of the browned butter.

We tasted it, and although it was delicious it really needed something. I decided to add a dollop of Bechamel. We again tasted. I looked at my nephew, and he said, “Uncle J., we have to put this on the menu.”

Agreed. I also decided to finely chop some pistachio and add it to the brown butter, giving it a tastier, nutty flavor.

It just so happens that Monday’s Italian Farmhouse Experience was a few hours away, and I had not decided what pasta to serve. Without hesitation, my nephew and I decided it would be crespelle.

I am fortunate to have some devoted cooks behind me who can whip up 120 crepes in no time, and that’s what they did. My nephew, chef and his assistant went to work and prepped for dinner service.

Our guests arrived, and we served the first courses of panne fritte and creamed Tuscan beans, a warm bowl of Ribolitta and then the Crespelle alla Fiorentina. The plating was easy in the kitchen as we were prepped very well.

I followed the dishes into the dining room and watched as the crespelle were served, waiting the expression of our diners. Hmmm … no expression. Was something wrong? Did we fail? Was the dish too salty? Perhaps not enough flavor?

No, none of the above. The guests were too busy eating, cleaning their plates — and I mean cleaning. Success.

We were pleased, my guests were content, and it was time for us to return to the kitchen and send out some Farmhouse Butter Chicken, followed by a warm cherry crostata with olive oil gelato. It was a great night indeed.

I do hope you understand how a dish gets placed on our menu and perhaps cook this for yourself, family and friends.

Grazie, Catherine de’ Medici. I do wish I could have met you, but your recipes live on. Salute!

Crespelle alla Fiorentina

8 crepes

1/4 pound salted butter

1 tablespoon pistachio chopped fine

Filling

1 pound ricotta cheese

1 egg

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

1 cup fresh spinach cooked, strained and chopped fine

1 tablespoon Romano cheese grated

Ground nutmeg and black pepper to taste

Bechamel Sauce

2 cups milk

1 1/2 tablespoon flour

2 tablespoons butter

Sea salt and ground nutmeg to taste

For the filling: Mix all ingredients and refrigerate 30 minutes. Place crepes on work surface. Fill with a heavy tablespoon of filling. Cut in half and seal each side.

For the Bechamel Sauce: Melt butter in a sauce pan on medium heat. Add flour and mix thoroughly. Add milk to pan and whisk nonstop for 2-3 minutes until sauce forms. Finish with grated nutmeg and salt to taste.

To serve: Warm the Bechamel. Place butter in sauce pan and add crespelle. Cook on each side 3-4 minutes until crisp. Place crespelle on serving dish. Add pistachio in saute pan. Cook a few minutes. Drizzle brown butter and pistachio on top. Add a dollop of Bechamel. Serve.

Source: “The Food Lover’s Companion,” fourth edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst

Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s runs his family’s 59-year-old restaurant with his brother. Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He is host to many famous chefs on his weekly radio show “Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen” on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM. He also sells dressings and sauces.

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