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!


halighalighanie said...

Hi, my name is Stephanie and I really like your blog :)

Samantha is adorable!!! thanks for the tips and the posts!

Amy Sherman said...

Thanks for sharing that and the adorable picture of your little girl.

Cyn said...

I LOVE the pic of Samantha. I have twins close to the same age -- such a cute age. Oh, and the craime fraiche instructions are great too.
I plan to try this next week.

Just wondering, if you inoculate the cream with yogurt cultures, does it end up tasting like very creamy, higher fat yogurt? (That would not be a bad thing ... Oh, gee, my craime fraich turned into yogurt. Guess I'll have to eat my mistake. ;D

Cyn said...

Holy cow!
I just looked at your "about me" and see you spent time in Aix. I did a semester in Aix while I was in college, and it was one of the best times of my life. I've told my husband so much about it that he wants us to go someday.

Funny, I've been reading your blog for a while and didn't think to look at your profile before now. Anyway, sorry for posting twice. I couldn't contain myself once I saw that you'd been to Aix.

I've sort of begun experimenting with making calissons (which will probably take a while) because I love almond paste so much.
I can't quite seem to get the flavor right, but the experimenting is so delicious anyway.

Anonymous said...

grrrr my creme fraiche isn't thick!! And it's 24 hrs old at this point. And today is xmas!!! :-(

Anyway to hurry it along? I might try the warm water bath.

Helen said...

definitely do the warm water and change regularly. in winter it takes 24-48 hours even with the warm water.

Helen said...

Hi Cyn,

Yes, my creme fraiche has a light tang like yogurt. Which program in Aix did you do? Was it Institute for American Universities by any chance? That's the one that I did. Good luck with your calissons.


Unknown said...

There is no need to make do with mock creme fraiche. A growing group of consumers is demanding the right to purchase fresh, unprocessed milk (i.e., unpasteurized milk) across the country. (It is legal in almost half the states already.) The battle lines have been drawn in Wisconsin, where farmers have been stripped of their livelihoods and threatened with criminal prosecution for selling unpasteurized milk. For details, see thecompletepatient.com and the farm-to-consumer legal defense fund website.

stephen said...

Hi Helen...

Ok, I'll give it a try....my previous attempt at home-made creme fraiche was a total failure (I've forgotten where I got the instructions), but you give me hope...

Wishing you a happy, healthy and peaceful 2010...

best, Stephen

Cyn said...

I'm not 100% sure if my Aix semester was affiliated with Institute for American Universities, because my school, Binghamton University in upstate New York, was the sponsor, and that's all I cared about at the time (a long time ago).

Currently, the SUNY Aix-en-Provence program is sponsored by a different school in the same university system and it IS done through the Institute for American Universities.

Someday I hope to take my husband and kids to Aix, but with five of us, I need the dollar to stop wilting in comparison to the Euro. Sometimes I really miss Aix. For the time being, the closest I can get to going back is through food.

After my last post, I did get a quart of cream but didn't get around to the craime fraiche.

I got sidetracked by a batch of almond paste that was trying to be a base for calissons. Couldn't get the flavor right, and I had to use it up before it went bad, so I ended up using it (by adding some butter and an egg) to fill a couple pear almond tarts.
And they are already gone. You know, a wedge of tart is perfect for breakfast, then again in the afternoon when you need a little something with tea. Then after dinner, who in their right minds would skip dessert when a pear-almond tart is sitting right out in plain view on the counter?

Anyway, hope your new year is starting out wonderfully.

Joanne said...

Great post. Samantha looks adorable.
If you are interested, as well as your readers, I have a super interesting book to give away and would love your feedback. Here is the link: http://www.applecrumbles.com/2010/01/09/cookbook-review-clean-food-by-terry-walters-vegetarian-friendly/

emiglia said...

Ooh! I love crème fraîche, and I miss it so much when I'm back in the States. How clever to make it on your own!

KateOD said...

Wow, this sounds incredible, I may need to try some of my own!
Do you know of anywhere in Boston that has good (even if it's fake) Creme fraiche? I had some at Noir in Harvard Square with strawberries and it was insaaaane!

Hope you're having a great 2010!

Helen said...

Hi Kate,

You can buy creme fraiche at any Whole Foods. Also Russo's in Watertown carries it.


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This is a fantastic, yummy to see this blog, nice recipe, O i feel hungry to see that cream. But i will make it at home.

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Anonymous said...

If you use yogurt as a starter then the temperature of the cream must be +/-110F - this is the temperature at which the yogurt cultures are active.
The end result will be rich yogurt.

But if you use creme fraiche culture from a pot of real creme fraiche, then the temperature should be only +/-77F. A day at 77F and a day in the refrigerator will do the job.

Both processes work perfectly with pasteurised cream. Both products keep well: 10-21 days for yogurt, a bit longer for creme fraiche.

Helen said...

Thank you so much for the temperature info. Would you happen to know if creme fraiche sold in american supermarkets has real creme fraiche culture or is it made with sour cream or yogurt?

Gdaiva said...

I'm cheating, i just mix buttermilk with sour cream :)