When I was growing up, my mother was the weekday cook and she made what she was familiar with, the roasts, Yorkshire pudding, soups, casseroles and pot pies she grew up eating in a British-influenced household. My father cooked on weekends, simmering pots of tomato sauce sometimes with meatballs or ground beef, sometimes with sweet fennel sausage, and at other times with chicken or pork on the bone, the meat stewing in the sauce until it was fall-off-the-bone tender. We would then have this sauce on our mid-week spaghetti or on a winter’s Saturday night lasagna. But at some point amid the passing back and forth of the cooking torch (You cook your specialties, I’ll cook mine), my mother decided she wanted to branch out with her cooking. This moment catches up to most home cooks eventually. We, men and women alike, reach that moment when we become indescribably tired of our tried and true, tried over and over, repertoire of meals. Boredom settles in and we either resign ourselves to being bored eaters of the same meal rotation for the long haul, or we decide to shake up our routines and ourselves. For my mother, change meant trying her hand at Italian cooking. With an Italian husband and part Italian children, it seemed a natural choice.
Within a few days of this decision, my mother announced her new plan of action: “I’m going to visit Mary Alessandrini for some cooking lessons.” Mary Alessandrini was married to Bill, who was some form of cousin to my father, and Italian through and through. At the time when my mother needed the expert help, Mary and Bill lived about twenty minutes away in Medford. It would be no hardship for her to drive to Mary’s for an afternoon of cooking instruction.
Mary was well known for her homemade manicotti, and this was one of the first dishes my mother learned to make.
Mary’s manicotti were made using a thin crêpe, or crespelle in Italian, rather than the more familiar dried pasta tubes that too often yield a final dish that is unpleasantly chewy and heavy. Mary’s homemade pancake-like wrappers were made in a small pan one at a time, filled with ricotta, rolled, and placed seam-side down in a baking dish that had been lined with tomato sauce, and this is how my mother learned. The resulting manicotti are ethereal, each bite light and tender, satisfying without being heavy with cheese and sauce. With the manicotti my mother came as close as she ever would to capturing the essence of Italian cooking: simple and forthright flavors, good ingredients, and a light hand with the layering of all of these elements.
Crêpes are something easily made at home. I got hooked on an electric crêpe pan years and years ago while working at a cookware store, a small version of the kind of pan used in Parisian crêpe or galette stalls. The electric machine produces a uniformly thin and light crepe, but it is not a necessary piece of equipment. A flat crêpe pan on top of the range works just as well, and in the absence of that a small non-stick pan will do, although either of those will produce a slightly thicker and more irregularly-shaped pancake than the electric equipment. Also, crêpes made in a pan on top of the stove require a little fast and fancy wrist action but it’s not hard to learn.
Whichever apparatus you choose, remember: crêpes still have to be made one at a time, unless you have a legion of help and an armory of pans. So be prepared to set aside some time. But it will be worth it, I promise, because in that time you may make enough crêpes for a dinner of homemade manicotti with several extra left over for a quick but elegant dessert and several ready to be frozen and used at a later date. This is a very economical, efficient and versatile food. For an unusual supper try filling your crêpes to order with something like beef bourguignon, creamed chicken, or a zesty summer vegetable ratatouille. For dessert, fill them with fresh berries and whipped cream. In a pinch, spread a crêpe with Nutella and top it with whipped cream and you’ll be very glad you did.
Below are two of my favorites. But first the basic crêpe batter, the backbone for both dishes.
The following makes about 32 crêpes, and is based on the recipe in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. If you have time, I suggest you work your way through this large amount of batter. In the end you will have enough crêpes for the manicotti, dessert crêpes for a crowd, and several leftovers for the freezer. Crêpes as they are finished can be stacked. Wrap any remaining pancakes well and freeze them. Defrost at room temperature before separating for future use.
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2 cup flour
- 4 eggs
- 2 cup milk
- 4 Tbsp. melted butter, cooled slightly, plus a little more for greasing the pan
Measure the salt and the flour into a large bowl. Add to this the milk and eggs and whisk. As you whisk, add the butter to the batter in a slow stream and whisk until smooth. Alternately, all the ingredients may be placed into the canister of a blender and blended well.
Let the batter stand for at least 30 minutes before using. As it rests, heat a 5 or 7-inch crepe pan or shallow nonstick skillet until moderately hot, then film it with a little melted butter using wither a brush or folded piece of paper towel. Using a quarter-cup measure, pour in about 3 tablespoons of batter into the hot pan, then quickly tilt the pan about so that the batter spreads evenly in a circle and in the thinnest possible layer. (Pour off any excess batter if necessary.) Cook for a few minutes on the first side. The crepe bottom should be lightly browned and speckled. Flip the pancake and cook for only a minute on the second side. When done, transfer to a cooling rack. Continue filming the pan lightly as needed to prevent sticking, and continue making the crepes until the batter is gone.
Now for the fillings. First, dinner. Once you try Mary’s manicotti, you may never buy the boxed dry pasta again.
Mary’s Manicotti made with Basic Crêpes
- up to 2 quarts of your favorite marinara sauce
- 12 crêpes (recipe above)
- 2 1/2 cups whole milk ricotta cheese
- 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
- 2 eggs, beaten lightly
- 2 Tbsp. fresh parsley chopped
- 1/2 cup spinach or arugula leaves, roughly chopped
- 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
- grating of fresh nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Using a wooden spoon, blend all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Set aside.
Ladle marinara into the bottom of a large baking dish. This layer should be about one-half-inch deep. Set aside.
Working with one crêpe at a time, generously spoon one-twelfth of the ricotta filling into the pancake’s center. Fold one end of the crêpe over the filling and continue rolling until you have formed a cylinder. Nestle this in the baking dish on top of the sauce. Repeat with the remaining eleven crêpes.
Once all the crêpes have been filed and rolled, spoon a little more sauce over the top. Grate a little more parmesan cheese over this if desired. Cover the baking dish with foil and bake for 30 minutes, covered, or until the filling is piping hot. Let sit for a few minutes to settle before serving.
I made the following caramel apple compote, a brown sugar-based, syrupy, chunky applesauce, during last Thursday’s live cooking show as a fantastic filling for dessert crêpes. The sauce is so easy and delicious that you’ll want to make a lot of it to serve in the crêpes or warm over ice cream or gingerbread.
Caramel Apple Compote Crêpes
- 4 cups unsweetened apple cider
- ¾ pounds Cortland apples (or other tart, firm baking apples), peeled, cored, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
- 6 Tbsp. dark brown sugar, packed
- allow 2 crêpes (recipe above) per person for serving
Combine all ingredients together in a in large saucepan. Bring to boil over high heat and stir to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat to medium and keep the mixture at a steady simmer. Simmer until apples are soft and translucent and the apple cider caramel coats the apples in a thickened syrup, stirring occasionally for about an hour. Transfer the compote to a bowl and let cool a bit.
Fill the crêpes with the compote as shown, dust with powdered sugar, and serve with whipped cream if desired.
©2012 Jane A. Ward