I am impressed and humbled by the enormous amount of emails, messages and survey entries I got from you on the last blog post. You made me laugh, you made me reflect on my work, you moved me to tears more than once. You are sensible, caring and curious people, you deserve all the effort and commitment I pour into cooking, photographing and writing. Even if it will require some time, I will get back personally to each one of you.
Today’s recipe is dedicated to you, and the first part of a new project I am sure you will appreciate.
When I was in Milan I had the chance to listen to a talk with Angela Frenda and Amanda Hesser, co-founder of Food52 and brilliant food writer. I also introduced myself with a handshake and a muddled speech on how inspiring her book Cooking for Mr. Latte had been for me. She has a striking imaginative language – the salted water for pasta which should taste like seawater and the spaghetti al dente, that are like biting into a new piece of gum, are just two of the many sentences I underlined and learnt by heart.
I was also incredibly influenced by her approach to food and recipes. In one of the chapters of her book, which is also a food lover’s courtship, she explores the concept of having a cooking repertoire.
It has been the most nourishing food for thought, as it made me reflect on my own cooking repertoire, on the identity you slowly shape adding recipes to your favourite list, on the never ending and vital process that brings you to introduce new recipes.
When you make a dish again and again, altering it to your liking, it becomes an expression of your aesthetic, of your palate, of who you are. And when you serve that dish to guests, they come to understand you a little better. Elizabeth told me that she thinks of a cooking repertoire as a way to stay connected to all who are important in her life. She uses recipes from friends and family, as well as her own. Without a handful of recipes to start you off, cooking seems overwhelming.
Amanda Hesser, Cooking for Mr. Latte.
What made me a mature adult with a clear identity is the continuous rhythm of cooking classes I had in the last six years. The blog has been the reason to keep investigating, the motivation to be curious and to learn new Tuscan recipes to add to my family repertoire.
Some of them became so dear that I incorporated those dishes into my weekly routine, introducing them also into my cooking classes. Gnocchi are a good example. My mum would buy the gummy heavy gnocchi which were one of the only dishes I would gladly skip as a teenager.
A few years ago, though, I decided to learn how to make those tiny pillowy gnocchi that are known as topini, little mice, in Florence. I posted about them, then submitted them to my students’ approval and now they are part of my Tuscan repertoire, dressed with seasonal vegetables, from asparagus to butternut squash, the cheese that happens to be in the fridge and fresh herbs. I refined the recipe over the years and now I am totally confident about it.
My cooking class attendees are the family who helped me develop a reliable repertoire, a mental list of tested Tuscan recipes which tell a lot about who I am and how I like to cook and eat.
This is also when I decided to leave aside recipes designed to impress in favour of those handy dishes you could cook on a moment’s notice, recipes that, according to Amanda’s words, would express my true sensibility as a cook, not my ambition. When you have guests for dinner you can rely on your trustworthy collection and enjoy the evening.
If you learn six or eight dishes, things you will want to eat week after week, cooking won’t seem such a labor. And other cuisines will no longer feel so out of reach. You don’t need to learn everything. A few timeless dishes that you love is enough.
In my list I would include spaghetti aglio e olio, pici with garlic and tomato sauce, tagliatelle with pork meat sauce, stewed French beans, roasted pork loin and chicken cacciatora, almond biscotti, olive oil chocolate cake and zuppa inglese.
In the next months I’ll share these and other recipes, staples of a Tuscan repertoire, analysing the ingredients and the process with plenty of details so that, if you want, you’ll be able to include them into your collection and make Tuscan cooking your signature style. Let’s start with crespelle alla Fiorentina.
Crespelle alla Fiorentina
Recently, after so many trials and minor adjustments, I promoted the crespelle alla fiorentina into my repertoire.
A blanket of béchamel sauce, barely stained with a few tablespoons of tomato purée, files immediately this dish under the ‘80s label, when it was a staple in trattorie and households along with deviled eggs and tagliatelle con panna e prosciutto. I felt a shiver of nonconformism in reintroducing the crespelle in my repertoire and in presenting them during my cooking classes among other favourites such as pici, ravioli and gnocchi.
They bring a store of knowledge, being related to Caterina de’ Medici and to the age-old French-Florentine dispute on who influenced who in cooking. Crespelle, the Italian cousin of the French crêpes, are first stuffed with a spinach and ricotta filling scented with nutmeg, another favourite of Caterina de’ Medici, then either rolled like a cannellone or folded as an handkerchief, hence the other name pezzole delle nonne.
Crespelle alla Fiorentina is a handy recipe to learn, as you can vary the filling according to the season.
Asparagus, artichokes and butternut squash are some of my favourites along with spinach and Swiss chard. You can mix the vegetables with fresh milky ricotta or add some béchamel into the filling. Cheese is a welcomed ingredient: Parmigiano Reggiano, Tuscan or Roman Pecorino, ricotta salata, or any other savoury aged cheese that you would happily grate over your pasta.
In the survey, some of you told me that you have hard times introducing vegetables into your teenagers’ diet: well, these crespelle can be filled with a good amount of vegetables, becoming a way to help them switch from eating vegetables because they are healthy to eat vegetables because they are actually delicious.
Crespelle alla fiorentina
Crespelle alla fiorentina might look like a demanding dish, but the good news is that you can prepare the required ingredients – crespelle, béchamel sauce, filling – in advance and bake it before dinner. You can even prepare the final dish the day before and reheat it with a drop of milk before your family, or your friends, sit at the table.
Crespelle alla Fiorentina
Ingredients for the crespelle
- 3 eggs
- 3 heaping tablespoons of plain flour
- 1 pinch of salt
- 300 ml of whole milk
Ingredients for the filling
- 500 g of fresh spinach
- 1 clove of garlic
- 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- 400 g of fresh ricotta
- 30 g of grated Pecorino Toscano, or Parmigiano Reggiano, or a mixture of both
- 1 pinch of salt
- Grated nutmeg
- 1 egg
Ingredients for the béchamel sauce
- 50 g of butter
- 60 g of plain flour
- 700 ml of whole milk
- 1 pinch of salt
- Grated nutmeg
Ingredients to finish the dish
- Grated Pecorino Toscano
- Tomato purée
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Prepare the crespelle batter. Whisk the eggs with flour and a pinch of salt. Remove all the flour lumps. Pour the milk in a thin stream and whisk to incorporate. Cover the bowl with cling film and put in the fridge for about one hour.
- Now to the filling. Wash the spinach and collect them in a large skillet. Pour in a few tablespoons of water, cover, and cook on low flame for about 10 minutes, or until wilted.
- Squeeze the spinach to remove the excess water, they should be as dry as possible, and chop them with a knife.
- In a pan heat the olive oil with the minced clove of garlic on low flame. When the garlic begins to sizzle gently, scrape in the spinach and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes until the spinach are dry and infused with the garlic flavour. Set aside and let cool down.
- When the spinach are cold, add them in a bowl with the ricotta, the grated Pecorino, a pinch of nutmeg and salt. Mix with a fork as to have a beautifully marbled green and white filling. Taste it: it should have a faint smell of nutmeg and be savoury enough from the cheese and salt. Should it be too bland, add more grated cheese.
- Beat an egg and stir into the filling. Set aside.
- Prepare the crespelle: heat a 20cm large non stick pan on medium heat. Soak a paper napkin in olive oil and brush with it the hot pan. Careful with your fingers!
- Pour the crespelle batter into the pan and swirl to cover it with a thin layer. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes until the crespella becomes golden brown on the edges, then with a spatula flip it and cook also on the other side for one more minute.
- Move the first crespella onto a plate and prepare the second one. You should obtain 8 crespelle.
- Now make the béchamel sauce. Melt the butter in a saucepan on medium heat. When melted, spoon in the flour and whisk for a few minutes until golden and toasted.
- Pour in the cold milk in a thin stream, stirring constantly to avoid lumps.
- Let on medium-low heat until thickened and season with a good pinch of salt and grated nutmeg as to give the béchamel a delicate spiced smell.
- Now that you have all the ingredients you need - crespelle, béchamel and filling - preheat oven to 200°C.
- Spread each pancake with the spinach and ricotta filling: roll them up as a cannellone or fold them as an handkerchief.
- Arrange the crespelle slightly overlapping in a baking dish previously spread with a few tablespoons of béchamel sauce.
- Drizzle the crespelle with the left béchamel sauce, a few tablespoons of tomato purée, more grated Pecorino and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
- Lower the oven temperature to 180°C and bake for about 20 minutes until golden brown and bubbling on the sides.
- Eat the crespelle hot just out of the oven or, even better, warm them the day after with a dash of milk.
Your cooking repertoire
Do you have a cooking repertoire or, even better, do you believe in the usefulness of having a cooking repertoire? If so, which recipes are part of your catalogue? Did you learn those recipes from your family or by experimenting in the kitchen with cookbooks and magazines?
Who are you?
I would be enormously grateful if you could tell me something more about who you are, feel free to add any details, as I am so curious to discover who’s behind the screen, who is reading and using my recipes. Needless to say, I will use this data just for my personal use, to provide you with tailor-made recipes and stories. Answer in the comments of this post, via email at juls[@]julskitchen.com or filling up this questionnaire if you want to keep it simple and anonymous.
All the recipes of my cooking repertoire
These are all the recipes I added so far into my cooking repertoire. This is an ever growing list, an always expanding collection which represents the way I live Tuscan food and cooking. Have you already tried something?
- Ricotta and Tuscan kale gnudi. There are two crucial ingredients here which can help you ease the anxiety while waiting for your gnudi to float tot the top: ricotta and cavolo nero, the Tuscan kale. Use a well-drained ricotta and squeeze very well the cooked kale. Once you make this, they will be your next success in the kitchen.
- Tuscan ragù. Cook the Tuscan ragù with red wine – pour it in little by little -, and with tomato purée (just tomatoes that have been peeled and blended into a sauce), even better if it is your home made tomato purée, made during the heat of summer. To give more character to the ragù and have a more rustic sauce, sometimes I prefer to replace the passata with the same weight of peeled tomatoes, roughly crushed with my hands.
Main courses and side dishes
- Beef and eggplant meatballs. According to the season, you can substitute roasted eggplants with boiled potatoes, roasted butternut squash or breadcrumbs soaked in milk. I usually choose between grated Parmigiano Reggiano, aged Pecorino or Provolone to add flavour to the meat, sometimes adding brined capers, too. This time I opted for Parmigiano, along with a pinch of dry oregano to give a mediterranean touch.
- Stuffed turkey breast. One of the recipes that my mum taught me and that I immediately associate with Sunday lunches is the stuffed turkey breast, roasted on the stovetop and not in the oven. It is a humble dish, but it has an enormous potential.
- Baked eggplants. Colours and textures of that once loved recipe surfaced along with the ingredients: eggplants of course, either the round purple ones or those thin long ones, then breadcrumbs, parsley, capers, garlic and some grated Parmigiano. There it was, my forgiving recipe, thick slices of eggplants topped with boldly flavoured breadcrumbs, roasted in the oven until golden and crisp.
- Italian potato salad. So a potato salad, which I had overlooked for years, becomes a distinguishing element of a menu, especially if you dress it with an Italian twist, with wild fennel, capers and olives. You can find the same aromas in a roasted pork loin with olive oil and wine, or in the baked eggplants that you are planing to serve as an appetiser.
- Apple olive oil cake. You can dress it up for a dinner party: serve a slice of warm apple cake with a scoop of vanilla gelato, a cloud of whipped cream or a drizzle of custard. Wrap in foil a slice of cake for a school break or an office break. Bake the olive oil apple cake on a Sunday and enjoy it for breakfast on the first days of the week with a strong coffee or a cappuccino.
- Coffee and vanilla pound cake. A versatile recipe to make a pound cake with the ingredients you have at hand, with a detailed explanation of the four macro categories of ingredients you can use, plus a recipe for a vanilla pound cake marbled with coffee, designed to wake you up in the morning. Use white farro flour, white sugar and dark cane sugar, Greek yogurt and butter.
- Ricotta crumb cake. I still have to decide if I prefer the cake warm from the oven, or after a few hours of fridge. This ricotta crumb cake is an unmissable summer cake, and I’ll let you decide when to serve it, if you are in hurry or armed by adamant patience.