It might still be cold outside but, where I am at least, little signs that Spring is coming are popping up and, of course we are fast approaching Easter and all the gorgeous food that goes with it. Easter is a bit different to Christmas in that the weather is (usually) more forgiving so we (usually) get the chance to move around and get out a bit more however it does kick off quite a bit earlier with Mardi Gras. And yes I know, strictly speaking, if we’re doing things right we ought to have quite a lengthy pause before carrying on with the festivities, but a lot of us seem to forget that bit nowadays. Here in the UK, we like to celebrate ‘Fat Tuesday’ or Shrove Tuesday, the beginning of Lent by gorging ourselves on all of the fat and flour traditionally left in the house before the great 40 day fast begins. So we make pancakes. Lots of them as well. So much so that Shrove Tuesday is now more commonly known as Pancake Day.
Now traditionally we eat our pancakes with lemon and sugar, but my children have never given two figs for tradition and they like to smother theirs in Nutella. I’ll be honest, it disturbs me. I do love to see a good tradition being kept up, but I have a sneaky suspicion, had Nutella been around when our pancake loving forefathers put their heads together and decided what to top them off with, we’d have had a whole different tradition on our hands. Lemon and sugar, although good, wouldn’t have had a look in. The boys aren’t alone though in their tradition flaunting approach. I have to admit, that whilst I’ll stick to the lemon and sugar sweet ones tradition dictates, I too like to mix things up a bit and I can’t resist the temptation not to go (ever so slightly) over the top every pancake day, serving up savoury ones as a main meal first. Some of my favourites fillings are chicken and tarragon or a nice herby mushroom but this recipe is so tasty you can serve it up all year round and never get tired of it. Yes, it relies on that classic tomato/ creamy cheese combination but is much lighter than a pasta bake due to the pancakes (no pasta), plus it’s a great way to use up leftover tomato sauce, and if you make the pancakes up in advance won’t be too time consuming. Your choice whether you use the spinach or not. A really herby (a basil, parsley and garlic chive combination is always gorgeous) ricotta makes a tasty filling and a great way to get loads of really healthy fresh herbs into you, but if you’re trying to up your veg intake feel free to put it in. Of course, it wouldn’t be one of my recipes if I didn’t include any beans (I do like to keep those fibre levels up) and as their creamy texture really does compliment perfectly the ricotta, whilst making sure the finished version isn’t too rich I really don’t see why this recipe should be the exception. On that note, a final word; please bear in mind this is my take on this classic Italian recipe. I originally learnt to make these when my Mum and Dad were living in Italy (almost 20 years ago, when did I get so old?) so apologies in advance to any Italians out there who notice any other glaring inaccuracies!
Tomato and Ricotta Crespelli Recipe
For the sauce:
2 red onions
1 red chilli
2 sticks of celery
3 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp fresh thyme
2 x 400g tins of tomatoes
2 bay leaves
Around 800 ml of chicken or veg stock
salt and pepper
For the pancakes:
Makes around 25
280 g plain flour
A good pinch of salt
5 large eggs
500ml 2% milk mixed with 190 ml water
For the filling:
500g ricotta cheese
2 400g tins of haricot beans
2 tbsps garlic chives (chopped)
Large bunch of chopped flat leaved parsley
2 tbsps chopped basil
1 tbsp pesto
salt and pepper
150g pecorino cheese
Optional: 300g chopped frozen spinach (cooked and then all the excess moisture squeezed out)
First make your sauce. Crush the garlic and leave to one side then sweat down the finely diced onion, chilli, carrot and celery in a splash of olive or rapeseed oil for around 15 minutes.
Add the garlic and thyme and carry on cooking for a couple of minutes.
Pour in the tomatoes, then refill the tins with the stock and swirl around to make sure you get every last bit of the tomato juice and add that to the pan too, with the bay leaves and some salt and pepper.
Bring to the boil, then simmer for around 30 minutes. Whilst it’s cooking you can make a start on the pancakes.
When it’s done, remove the bay leaves and puree using a hand held stick blender so that you have a smooth sauce.
Now start on your pancakes. There are two ways you can approach this: you can either beat all of the liquid together and then add the flour and salt slowly, whisking all the time until it is all incorporated, or you mix together the flour and salt, make a well in the middle then slowly pour in your beaten together liquid, slowly bringing more flour in from the sides until it is all beaten in. It is really your choice; I have tried both methods and couldn’t say which I find better.
Heat up your pan (these quantities are based on an 18 cm frying pan) with a slick of oil in it. I use a bit of kitchen paper to wipe out the excess. When the pan is smoking, pour in your first lot of batter. Crespelli should be really thin, so aim to see the colour of the pan through the pancake, 2-3 tablespoons of batter should really be enough. Swirl the batter very quickly around the pan, then when it is cooked on one side get ready to do your flip. If you’re worried, don’t worry it is really very easy, you just need to practise the right wrist action. Maybe make some extra batter to cover any slip ups!
Pile the pancakes up on a plate ready to fill when they have cooled.
Finally, put together the filling. Preheat the oven to 180 deg. C, then mash around half of the beans with a fork quite firmly, then mix with the whole beans into the ricotta. Throw in the herbs, two thirds of the grated pecorino, the pesto, spinach if you are using and check the seasoning.
Use about 2 tsps filling per pancake, and as you roll up, fold over the sides too to prevent any filling oozing out. You are aiming for a short, fat cigar shape. As you fill your pancakes line them up in a shallow oven proof dish, then spoon over the sauce and sprinkle over the extra pecorino.
Bake for around 20-25 minutes, depending on how crispy you’d like them, then serve with a massive salad.