Food. Story Telling. Discovery.

FLASHBACK: Creme Fraiche

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[NOTE: 07.23.10]  Periodically, I glean from past posts. Writing/blogging is much like cooking, especially from books, recipes, and flavors your like and remember - you always end up coming back to them. This one is particularly simple, useful, and quite nice with the Balsamic Strawberries in this post.]

There are some things on market shelves that confuse me. The other day, at an upscale cooking supply store, I noticed a bottle of "ready made" simple syrup. For about $10, you could buy something you could've made for pennies. Some sugar. The same amount of water. And a pot. You could even spruce it up with herbs and the like.

What confused me more was that people (who apparently have more money than they know what to do with) were actually buying it, totally stoked to see it there in a pretty bottle with cool font, ready to go for their cocktail party.

Creme fraiche is another one of these things. Literally, it means "fresh cream." My disclaimer is that I don't live down the street from a dairy, I live in a country that legally mandates pasteurized milk and cream and what I make at home probably doesn't have the same flavor Julia Child experienced whenever she went to her grocer's to buy it by the small bucketful.

What I've come across in the stores and markets are usually mighty fine specimens. They are worth the $5.95 and up price tag but a few years ago, I came across a way to make my own. Jacques Pepin or Julia Child herself -- they invoke the qualities of creme fraiche and the virtues of making it yourself. It requires heavy cream, buttermilk and a jar with a lid you can securely fasten.

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I won't give measurements here -- I prefer to think of it as four parts cream to one part buttermilk. I eyeball the amount according to the container. In this case it was a 1 pint Mason Jar. First the cream. Then the buttermilk. Screw on the lid and give it a good shake. Buttermilk I get in the tiny cartons for about $0.49. That's more than enough for a pint of cream.

Here's the crucial part: Let it hang out room temperature, even a little bit warmer, for a couple of days. I know in our hyper-hygenic culture leaving these two mixed dairy products is a form of dangerous sacrilege, against everything we've learned from food safety and handling classes.

But really, this is what sour cream, creme fraiche and cheese each are. Controlled spoilage. These natural enzymes and bacteria do their thing, transforming this liquid substance into something thicker, a bit more complex and luxurious.

So, leave the jar, tightly fastened out. I like to put mine on top of the fridge or by the stove. Warmth is nice. Once a day, I pick up the jar to shake it and notice the difference in sound. First, it's a slurpy noise, like when you shake a carton of orange juice. Then, the next day, it's a lot heavier, more viscous, almost like I was shaking a jar of caramel. Open the lid and give it a stir. It's denser than most sour creams we've come to know in our earlier potato salad days. Its thick and emits a subtle, funk as a backbone, a richness that covers the tongue and ends on a top note of tang. In other words, it's not just sour. It's complex.

Store it in the refrigerator. To make another batch, I use the last 1/2 inch of creme fraiche in a jar as the starter for another fresh pouring of heavy cream. You can start from scratch with a washed out container, buttermilk and cream. But I prefer this self-contained ecosystem that already is familiar with creme fraiche. Bread artisans know the power of a sourdough starter that's been kept from previous batches.

I use creme fraiche with many things. I top fresh berries with it and sprinkle on muscovado (the deep, earthy sugar). I like it instead of whipped cream with cakes, like the Cherry Almond one I  made last week. I like it in baked potatoes, mashed potatoes and anything where sour cream is required. Come winter, I'll dollop it generously on top of sweetened chestnut cream spiked with brandy. A shower of shaved chocolate is all this dessert needs. 

One of my favorite ways to use creme fraiche is as an easy sauce for long strands of hot pasta. It was a revelation when I first read it in The River Cafe Cookbook, where Jamie Oliver got his start and where two very savvy and talented women showed London how to eat. For anyone who has an excess of arugula, this make a nice change of pace from a salad.

Creme Fraiche Arugula Pasta

1 cup creme fraiche * zest and juice of 1 lemon (2 if they're small or not particularly juicy) * a big handful of fresh arugula, roughly torn * 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese, plus more for serving * salt and pepper to taste * 1/2 pound of pasta like linguine, spaghetti OR 1 pound of fresh linguine, fettuccine OR parpadalle

If you've got dried pasta, get a huge pot of water boiling, salt it with a good dash of kosher salt and then cook the pasta before anything else.

If you're working with fresh pasta, make the sauce first, have it sit tight for a five minutes while you get the fresh pasta cooked and ready to go.

For the sauce: In a large mixing bowl stir together the creme fraiche, lemon zest and juice, the arugula, cheese, salt and pepper.

As soon as the pasta is done, strain the noodles in a colander. When I say "reserving some pasta cooking water" you can go one of two ways. First method, actually scoop out about a cup's worth of pasta water before you strain the pasta. Or second, you can strain the pasta into the colander and while the noodles are still dripping, place the colander over the now empty boiling pot. Whatever you've harvested below is what you can use to thin out the creme fraiche sauce.

Toss to coat each strand. Serve immediately with plenty of grated parmesan cheese.