It translates from French to English as “fresh cream,” though there is little actually “fresh” about it. The first time I tasted it was long ago and far away on my first trip to France as a student. I was traveling with a friend, and we were in a tiny (read: cheap) restaurant in Paris. I’m sure we’d each chosen one of the prix fixe options for dinner, as those routinely offered a very inexpensive option. I have no recall of what I’d had for dinner, but though the options were few, dessert was included. One was essentially stewed apples covered with something I’d never heard of: crème fraîche.
The first bite was a First Night in Florence Spaghetti sort of moment, one of those initial tastes that is remembered forever as clearly as if it occurred yesterday. I can’t describe either as Proustian. Neither takes me back to a specific time and its delights. Rather, all the goodness of place and time and company and food floods forward into the present, bathing everything in cosmic wonderfulness. The crème fraîche wasn’t sweet (because the apples were), nor was it wasn’t overly tart. It was definitely creamy with a back flavor of an indefinable richness. I spent years after that first trip missing it, pining for it, describing it to people who frowned slightly and looked at me sideways through squinty eyes, unable to understand what could possibly …….. Please tell me you’ve experienced moments like that. Basically, people think you’re nuts. In the early years, I tried to duplicate it. I failed.
When the daughter and I were in France last summer, we found it for sale in the dairy section of grocery markets. Cheese stalls at green markets sold it. Of course I bought some. I dipped cookies in it, I poured it over fruit. I used it in my coffee. The daughter found that last too strange, though; she needed the truly “fraîche” stuff.
Fortunately, in the meantime I had learned that crème fraîche is stupidly simple to make at home. It consists of nothing more than cream and buttermilk. Conventional formulas range from 1 to 2 tablespoons of buttermilk to each 8 fluid ounces if heavy cream. I’ve even made it from table cream, whose fat content averages only around 18%, compared to heavy cream which weighs in at a hearty 40%. I tend to make crème fraîche when I have any quantity of cream that simply needs to be used up or converted to something with a longer shelf life. Here is the formula I used the other day:
3 cups heavy cream
6 ounces buttermilk
I like to use a larger ratio of buttermilk to cream because it produces a result that is both thicker and more on the tart end of the flavor scale. I can always sweeten it if I want to. The above ratio is 24 ounces of cream to 6 ounces of buttermilk, or 25% buttermilk.
If I’m using up a lighter cream, such a table cream or even half & half, I use even more buttermilk. I’d probably use 50% buttermilk to light cream.
I whisked the cream and buttermilk together and poured the mixture into my yogurt maker. I plugged it in, and let it do its work. I checked the crème fraîche after about 12 hours by stirring it gently and tasting it. It wasn’t quite as thick as I wanted it, nor as tart. So I left it for about another 12 hours, at which point Golidlocks would have pronounced it “juuuuuuust right.” I transferred it to a refrigerator container and stowed it away.
Please read the link to my yogurt maker and how to make soured mixtures without one. A glass jar with a lid, a heating pad, and a couple of rubber bands will do the job equally well.
Now, what am I going to do with this treasure in my fridge? I have a big bag of apples for the bunnies, some of which I’m going to purloin and stew in an attempt to recreate that original dessert. I can add it to a vinaigrette dressing. Obviously, I can dip things into it. And . . . I’ve had an idea rolling around in my mind for several months about trying to make a crème fraîche ice cream. With summer not too far off (hopefully, since snow is falling as we, so to speak, speak), I’m seeing great possibilities here. To be continued.