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The new house blend? Creme fraiche

July 05, 2006|Jenn Garbee | Special to The Times

IT'S hard to imagine French home cooking without a dollop of creme fraiche, that silky, subtly tart cultured cream that has a way of making food taste better. In France, just about every home cook keeps it handy to enrich sauces, dress up cooked vegetables or balance the sweetness of desserts.

Chefs there -- and here -- appreciate its tangy sophistication, spooning it onto or into anything that needs a little dairy zip: an elegant summer soup, a cured fish salad, a chocolate tart.

Long difficult-to-impossible to find in the U.S., it's now a staple in supermarket dairy cases -- which is great news for any cook who seeks an easy measure of luxury. And even better, it's easy to make terrific creme fraiche at home, often more complex and with even better texture than what's available in stores.

It couldn't be more versatile or easier to use. Unlike its cousin sour cream, creme fraiche won't curdle at high temperatures, so you can stir it into a simmering sauce, soup or stew for instant tangy richness.

Or use it to top a savory tart or a fiery salsa. Spread it on toasted baguette slices, then pile on smoked salmon, caviar or roasted peppers for quick canapes. Or whirl those roasted peppers with creme fraiche for a terrific crudites dip.

L.A. chefs are spooning it with abandon these days. In Culver City, Ford's Filling Station chef Ben Ford uses creme fraiche for balance in a cured salmon salad with cucumber and pickled onions. At Wilshire restaurant in Santa Monica, chef Christopher Blobaum tops carrot soup with cumin-spiked creme fraiche.

Perfect foil

AT A.O.C. in West Hollywood, chef Suzanne Goin mashes fingerling potatoes with butter and Italian parsley, then stirs in a generous dollop of house-made creme fraiche. Luscious, nutty and a little tangy, it's delicious with those earthy potatoes. "The potatoes are the perfect foil for the creamy, tart creme fraiche," says Goin. At Lucques, Goin's other restaurant, she uses creme fraiche with smoked haddock, beets, cucumbers and potato blinis to bridge the bold flavors.

It heightens the drama of pastries -- Goin plays it against a caramel and chocolate tart with Spanish peanut brittle. Or it can add a welcome high note to ice cream and custard recipes -- you can substitute creme fraiche to taste for a portion of the heavy cream. (One part creme fraiche to three parts heavy cream is a good place to start.)

Or just spoon it onto summer fruits, such as sweet, juicy strawberries or blackberries -- or perfectly ripe peaches.

You won't be able to make creme fraiche in the traditional manner -- using raw cream -- unless you happen to own a herd of dairy cows. California and a few other states do allow the retail sale of certified raw milk products, but the raw cream on the market generally has too low a bacteria count for the fermentation to start naturally. So whether you're using raw or pasteurized cream, you'll need to jump-start the process with a starter. Cultured buttermilk does the job nicely.

To make creme fraiche, just warm some heavy cream (raw or pasteurized) and pour it into a container with a little buttermilk. Use a wide, shallow container -- you want plenty of surface area to encourage fermentation. Cover it with plastic wrap and let it sit in a warm place overnight -- a warm pantry, atop a gas stove or in an unheated oven. Around 80 degrees is ideal.

The next day, a thick, deliciously tangy creme fraiche will have materialized. It's that simple.

Usually. Creme fraiche, even made with pasteurized cream, can be unpredictable and finicky. Leave it to ferment somewhere that's too warm or cool, or use cream with too low a fat content, and the process may go awry. If the environment is too cool, the buttermilk's friendly bacteria will never ferment the cream. Too warm, and the bacteria will die before they get going. And lower-fat creams, such as heavy cream (as opposed to heavy whipping cream), will work, but they won't set up quite as well or get as thick as creme fraiche made from heavy whipping cream.

And the results if you use raw cream can be even less predictable.

Creme fraiche queen

FOR this reason, Sadie Kendall, owner of Kendall Farms, a dairy farm in Atascadero, uses pasteurized cream to make her creme fraiche. "In raw cream," Kendall says, "the lack of pasteurization results in an inconsistent product. Sometimes it tastes wonderful, sometimes awful."

Goin relies on Colleen Hennessey, a line cook who's fondly known as "the creme fraiche queen," to make the creme fraiche for both Lucques and A.O.C. Hennessey prefers a stainless steel container to glass for fermenting, explaining that stainless yields the silkiest, smoothest product. And she uses a double-ferment method: She ferments it once, then lets the creme fraiche rest in the refrigerator for six to eight hours. Then she brings it out for a second fermentation, after which it's back to the fridge for 24 hours to let the flavors marry.

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