Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Crème fraîche at home

Remember my ricotta experiment and my quest for farmer's cheese? Well, I have a confession to make. I cheated. I found a very decent farmer's cheese in a local Russian store and thus my quest for malolactic fermentation died a sad death. Except for one thing... I started making my own crème fraîche inspired by Diana at Off the Bone and got kind of addicted to it.

No, it's not real crème fraîche. For the real stuff you have to go to France. Real crème fraîche is what happens when unpasteurized cream matures on its own. It gets thicker and much more complex tasting (sweet, nutty, and a little tangy). Mock crème fraîche is what happens when you introduce lactic bacteria to pasteurized cream and let it ferment. It's not quite the same thing, but on this side of the Atlantic, it will do. You can buy crème fraîche in most upscale super markets (like Whole Foods), but I am not crazy about it. That stuff is as stiff as mascarpone and drizzling it over soup or dessert doesn't work. When you make it at home, you are in full control of thickness, so that's one reason I started doing it myself.

The second reason was practicality. My favorite brand of cream is High Lawn. It's inexpensive and has great flavor, but spoils extremely quickly. I used to view it as a drawback, but after I got onto my crème fraîche kick, I realized it's a blessing. Since this cream is only pasteurized (not ultra-pasteurized), you can ferment it. That's the same reason, it spoils fast. Once it's fermented, it can live in the fridge for a very long time. I am not sure how long exactly because my jar of crème fraîche disappears too quickly. But I've kept it as long as 3 weeks, and I am sure it could go even longer.

The good news is that unlike other fermenting activities that require washing lots of dishes (strainers, pots, bowls, cheesecloth, slotted spoons, and thermometers) and a good bit of active time, crème fraîche requires almost no work and no dishes.
  1. Pour heavy cream (pasteurized is fine, but not ultra-pasteurized) into a clean glass jar. You want to start this process when your cream is still perfectly good. In other words, don't wait for it to sit in your fridge for a week and spoil and then try to ferment it.
  2. Microwave until very warm, but not hot. If you want to use a thermometer, you want to get to 110-120F.
  3. Add plain yogurt (full-fat if possible). I use Stony Field Farm's. The rough proportion is 1 cup cream to 2 Tbsp yogurt, but I never measure it. The exact ratio is not crucial as long as you are introducing some lactic bacteria and have way more cream than yogurt. Stir well and leave uncovered (or covered with cheesecloth) at room temperature until it thickens, 24-48 hours.
  4. If your cream is not homogenized (the one I use isn't), you'll get a thin yellow fat cap on top. Do not stir it in or you'll get little chunks of solid fat in your cream. To test if your cream is done, shake the jar gently. If the fat cap doesn't jiggle (or only barely), it's worth a real test. Carefully remove and discard the fat cap and check the consistency of cream. How thick you want it is a personal preference. Keep in mind that it will thicken slightly after it's refrigerated. If it turns out that it's too thin, try to keep it in a warm place and continue fermenting it.
  5. When the cream is done, cover and keep in the fridge for several weeks.
The tough part is getting the bacteria to grow and the cream to thicken. Here are some guiding principles and tips on that. Every ten degrees, bacteria growth doubles (up to 120F -- after that the heat might kill them). The warmer the better. Bacteria grow really well between 90-120F. As you can imagine that's a hard temperature to maintain especially in winter. My guess is that my kitchen is at about 65F right now. At that rate, the cream might spoil faster than it ferments. How will you know if it spoils? You'll know -- it will start to smell and taste absolutely awful, not tangy and pleasant, but disgusting.

Here is how I get it to ferment in about 24 hours in winter. I put the jar in a bowl of hot water and change the water whenever I remember. I also found that my oven keeps the heat extremely well. It will still be warm 4 hours after I turn it off. If yours is like that, you can pre-heat it to 200F, then turn it off, and put your cream into it.

If you start your creme fraiche today, you will have it ready for Christmas, and that's not a bad thing to have on hand over the holidays :)

At least Samantha thinks so.

Happy and Delicious Holidays to you, my dear readers!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Butternut squash with green beans

My blogging laziness in the past month is embarrassing. I do have an excuse -- I am swamped with Helen's Kitchen gift certificates. But still enough is enough. I have a ton of yummy pictures on my camera and a ton of recipes in my head. It's about time I get off my ass and posted something useful for the holidays.

Here is my new favorite side dish for the Tender at the Bone class: roasted butternut squash and sauteed green beans with cranberries and nuts. It has two unbeatable qualities: yumminess and flexibility. It tastes good hot, it taste good warm, it even tastes good cold. I bet you can't say that about mashed potatoes. In the Tender at the Bone class, I want my students to concentrated on the meat. Sure, the braises are forgiving, but the medium-rare dishes require a lot of attention. Who has time to worry about the side dish when the doneness of their steak is on the line. This veggie dish is a savior. It goes well with any meat or poultry and can happily sit for a few hours at room temperature while you fret over your meat.

I don't peel the squash. The skin crisps up beautifully during roasting and becomes delicious. If you have some picky guests, they can easily remove it at the time of eating, but I find that most people love it. The grassiness of the beans is such a wonderful contrast to the squash with its caramelized edges and creamy flesh. Once the beans are done, I toss them in a mixture of balsamic vinegar, Japanese style soy sauce, and honey. It coats them in a light glaze, and elevates the boring old green beans to a whole new level.

If you need to feed a crowd this holiday season, this dish might come in handy.

Serves 8

For the squash:
1 large butternut squash
1/4 to 1/3 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper

For the green beans:
1 Lb snapped green beans (I prefer to use the thin "French" ones)
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp Japanese style soy sauce (or Teriyaki sauce)
1 Tbsp honey
1/2 cup chopped cashews or almonds
1/2 cup dries cranberries or cherries or golden raisins

Roast squash:
  1. Preheat the oven to 425F and set a rack at the lowest position.
  2. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and slice crosswise into 2/3 inch thick half circles.
  3. Arrange the squash in a single layer on a large rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper on both sides, drizzle with olive oil (enough to generously coat all squash slices), and rub all over with your hands. Arrange the squash slices so that the solid half circles are around the edges of the pan, and the thin slices (cut from the part of the squash that had seeds) are in the middle of the pan. This way they'll cook more evenly since the edges are hotter than the center of the pan.
  4. Place the baking sheet in the oven (on the lowest rack) and roast until the bottom of the squash slices is golden brown (30-45 minutes). Don't move the squash around until you get some browning. When the bottom of the slices has a nice color, flip, and roast until the other side is golden brown (15-25 minutes longer).
Cook green beans:
  1. Spread the green beans on a towel after washing to remove extra moisture. This way, they won't splatter quite as much.
  2. Set a 12 inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and wait for it to heat up. Swirl the pan to coat it evenly with oil. Add the beans and cover the pan. Cook covered for 3-5 minutes depending on the thickness of green beans, uncovering the pan and stirring the beans with tongs every minute. The beans should be developing little brown patches. As soon as they are crisp tender (err on the side of too crisp), take them off the heat and uncover.
  3. Mix vinegar, soy sauce, and honey in a little bowl and pour over the beans. Sprinkle with nuts and cranberries. Return beans to medium heat and cook tossing constantly until the liquid is syrupy, about 2 minutes. Taste and add more salt and pepper as needed.
Pour the beans into a serving dish and arrange the squash slices on top. Serve whenever convenient.