LITTLE ROCK No wonder "creme de la creme" in French means the best of the best. When I think of ingredients that stand out in my memory, three creams come to mind: French creme fraiche, Italian mascarpone and Turkish kaymak.
Cream is the butterfat that naturally rises to the top in milk that is not homogenized. The two main types are sweet and sour cream. The term sweet cream does not indicate that sugar has been added. Rather, it means that the cream has the naturally sweet flavor of milk, in contrast to a cultured cream such as sour cream, which has some acidity.
"What's the difference between heavy cream and whipping cream?" students in my cooking classes often ask. "Can I boil light cream to thicken a sauce?"
The answers to both lie in the fat content, which is what enables cream to be whipped and boiled down without separating.
Both whipping cream and heavy cream, sometimes labeled heavy whipping cream and referred to as such in many recipes, can be whipped and boiled in sauces. The high butterfat content of heavy whipping cream (36 percent) enables it to whip a little better than plain whipping cream, which contains 30 percent butterfat.
Light cream, also called coffee cream or table cream,contains 15 to 18 percent butterfat and cannot be whipped or boiled. Neither can halfand-half, which is a mixture of cream and milk. If you add either light cream or half-andhalf to a sauce, you must heat it gently, although a flour-based sauce can be brought to a boil even after light cream is added.
In British recipes, single cream is equivalent to light cream and double cream is like our heavy whipping cream.
Sour cream is made by adding a bacterial culture to cream and leaving it in a warm place until some of the lactose, or milk sugar, is converted to lactic acid. Sour cream cannot be boiled since excessive heat causes it to curdle.
French creme fraiche is also a cultured cream. It is made by a process similar to that of sour cream but it is characterizedby a nutty flavor. Unlike sour cream, creme fraiche can be whipped and boiled in sauces to thicken them. Creme fraiche can be found at fine supermarkets.
English clotted cream, also called Devonshire or Devon cream, is made from "rich milk," a kind of high-butterfat whole milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized.
Clotted cream is made by skimming the cream from the surface of the milk. Devon cream is as thick as soft butter. One of my favorite ways to serve it is as a spread on scones, which are then topped with jam. You canfind Devon cream at some fine supermarkets.
In Istanbul, I tasted the ultra-rich Turkish clotted cream known as kaymak (called eshta or ashta in other parts of the Mideast). It was incredible - so rich, in fact, that it was sold, rolled up in sheets. At the Istanbul Ritz Carlton breakfast buffet, every morning, fresh kaymak was served for spreading on sweet rolls. In Istanbul, I also saw manda kaymak made from the milk of water buffalo, which is even richer than cow's milk. The Turks use it to top sweet, fruity desserts, such as poached quince.
Kaymak is not easy to find in the United States. Canned versions, sometimes labeled keshta, are sold in Middle Eastern markets but the flavor is a far cry from the fresh variety. I have found some fresh creams labeled kaymak in Middle Eastern stores and called sarshir in Persian markets. Sold in tubs like creme fraiche and mascarpone, they are tasty but are not nearly as delicious as the fresh kaymak in Turkey.
If you come across a recipe that calls for kaymak, try substituting creme fraiche, English clotted cream or even Italian mascarpone. And if it's called for as an accompaniment, try substituting whipped heavy cream.
Visit a Mexican or Central American supermarket in the United States, and you will find other kinds of cream. The most common are crema mexicana, or table cream, which is a pourable sweet cream that can also be softly whipped, and crema salvadorena, a rich buttery sour cream. Crema salvadorena can be used as an alternative to creme fraiche.
Occasionally available is sour cream labeled Russian-style orcountry-style. This is somewhat different from standard supermarket sour cream. As with yogurt and cheese, cream formulas from different companies and different areas can vary greatly. In France, for example, the region of Normandy is the most famous for the quality of its creme fraiche.
For a decidedly unscientific cream tasting, my husband and I lined up a handful of creams from different countries. (Somebody has to sacrifice for the cause of great flavor.) The Middle Eastern creams we sampled were labeled kaymak, gaymar and sarshir. They were as thick as soft cream cheese and had the delicate sweetness of milk. We compared them to creme fraiche, which is tangier.
We found American-made mascarpone similar in texture and flavor to kaymak. Although mascarpone is called a cheese, the line between cream and cheese is not always clear. Steven Jenkins, author of The Cheese Primer, calls mascarpone "more a dairy product than a cheese," since no starter or rennet is used. He compares it to English clotted cream.
Mascarpone texture reminds me of creme fraiche, and it is made in a similar way. It is not aged but sold while still fresh and sweet.
In southern Italy, mascarpone is sometimes made from water buffalo milk.
We all know that cream, whether cultured or whipped, is wonderful with fresh and poached fruit and with almost all desserts. On the savory side of the menu, heavy whipping cream and creme fraiche greatly enhance soups, seafood bisques and sauces for fish, meat, vegetables and pasta. Sour cream is good in soups and sauces, too, but is best beaten into the sauce off the heat, or heated only slightly.
My friend, Thai chef Somchit Singchalee, shared with me a novel use for creme fraiche.
She made a very spicy Thai red chicken curry with coconut milk and finished it with a ladleful of creme fraiche. She explained that the creme fraiche helps to smooth out the spiciness while adding its own slightly tangy flavor. It was the best Thai curry I have ever tasted.
POTATO GRATIN WITH PORCINI MUSHROOMS AND CREME FRAICHE
This is a mushroom variation of the wonderful potato gratin dauphinois. You can keep the unbaked gratin for 3 days in the refrigerator.
Butter, for greasing baking dish 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms Water 1 1/2 pounds red-skinned potatoes (6 medium) Salt White pepper Freshly grated nutmeg 2 1/2 cups milk 1 1/2 cups creme fraiche or heavy whipping cream 6 tablespoons grated imported Gruyere cheese
Butter a 5-cup gratin dish or othershallow baking dish.
Soak mushrooms in hot water to cover until tender, about 20 minutes. Lift into strainer, rinse and drain well. Cut mushrooms into 1/4-inch pieces.
Peel potatoes and cut them in thin slices, about 1/8-inch thick. Season with salt, white pepper and nutmeg to taste and toss to distribute the seasonings.
Bring milk to a boil in a heavy, medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add potatoes, reduce heat to medium and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain potatoes. (The milk can be reserved for soup.) Return potatoes to saucepan and add mushrooms and creme fraiche or cream. Bring to a simmer over mediumhigh heat. Reduce heat to low and cook, gently stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes or until potatoes are just tender but not falling apart. Taste for seasoning and gently stir in more salt, pepper and nutmeg, if needed.
Spoon the potatoes and cream into the baking dish. Sprinkle with the Gruyere cheese. Bake in preheated 425-degree oven for 15 minutes, or until hot and bubbling. Broil to brown the top. Serves 4.
MUSHROOM SOUR CREAM SAUCE This recipe illustrates how to use sweet cream and sour cream in a sauceto enrich it. The delicate sauce is wonderful with cooked ravioli, baked fish, sauteed chicken breasts or veal scallopini.
6 to 8 ounces small mushrooms 2 tablespoons butter, divided Salt and freshly ground pepper 1/4 cup chopped scallion (mostly white part) 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour 1/4 cup milk 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream 1 teaspoon sweet paprika 1/2 cup sour cream, room temperature Pinch of hot paprika or cayenne pepper 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, plus parsley for garnish Cooked ravioli, baked fish, sauteed chicken breasts or veal scallopiniQuarter mushrooms. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet. Add mushrooms and salt and pepper to taste and saute over medium-high heat about 5 minutes, or until tender and lightly browned. Remove from skillet.
Melt remaining butter in skillet. Add scallion and saute over medium heat for 2 minutes. Sprinkle with flour and cook over low heat, stirring, for 1 minute. Gradually stir in milk and cream. Add sweet paprika and a little salt and pepper. Simmer over medium heat, stirring, until sauce is thick enough to coat a spoon. Add mushrooms and sour cream and heat gently, stirring, without boiling. Add hot paprika or cayenne. Taste and adjust seasoning. Remove from heat. Add 2 tablespoons parsley. Serve with cooked ravioli, baked fish, sauteed chicken breasts or veal scallopini. Garnish with parsley. Serves 4.
EASY RED BERRY SHORTCAKE Whipped cream is the simplest and fastest cake filling. The key to whipping cream is to chill the bowl and the beater in advance and to be careful not to over whip it. You can whip cream with a whisk but an electric mixer is easiest. For amounts under 1 cup, I prefer a hand-held electric mixer with a small bowl so the beaters sit right in the cream. This provides better controland reduces the risk of over whipping.
Whip the cream a short time before serving. And remember that whipped cream doesn't have to be stiff; particularly with desserts, softly whipped cream can be more appropriate.
2/3 cup heavy whipping cream or whipping cream, well chilled 2 teaspoons sugar 8 slices pound cake, about 3-1/2- by 2- by 1/2-inch 4 teaspoons Framboise raspberry brandy 1 1/3 cups sliced strawberries or whole raspberries 1 cup Raspberry Sauce (Recipe follows) Fresh mint for garnish
Chill mixer bowl and beater for about 20 minutes. Beat cream with sugar in chilled bowl with chilled beater until softly whipped.
Evenly brush each slice of cake with 1/2 teaspoon Framboise. Set 1 slice of cake on each of 4 dessert plates. Top each with whipped cream and berries.
Set second slice of cake gently on top, Framboise side down. Spoon a ribbon of Raspberry Sauce around base of each cake. Top with more berries, whipped cream and fresh mint leaves for garnish. Serve remaining sauce separately.
RASPBERRY SAUCE 3 cups (about 12 ounces) fresh raspberries or a 10- to 12-ounce package, frozen, unsweetened or lightly sweetened raspberries, thawed About 3/4 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted About 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, optional
Puree raspberries in a food processor or blender. Add 3/4 cup confectioners' sugar. Process until smooth. Taste and add another tablespoon or two of confectioners' sugar, if desired. Spoon sauce into strainer and strain into a bowl, pressing on pulp to extract as much liquid as possible. Stir sauce before serving and add lemon juice to taste, if desired. Serve cold. Makes about 1 cup.