by Donna Marie Zotter
I believe it was Julia Child who encouraged the American public to reframe their thinking around the use of cream in cooking. She was addressing concerns about the amount used in French cooking when she offered the quip: “If you’re concerned about using cream when you cook, then just add butter.” Amen.
Cream — that part of the milk that contains up to almost half butterfat in emulsion — is, and has been, one of our most common indulgences. Because of its diversity and the yield of products that come from dairy milk, including creams (heavy, light, and half-and-half — the modifiers referring to mouth texture and feel rather than actual weight), crème fraiche, sour cream, and butter, there is little that we do with cream that doesn’t somehow have an indulgent element to it. That’s nice, I think.
But it is simply an elemental component. And that is why cream, in any form, has survived as long as it has on our nutritional and gastronomic radar screen. And like any indulgence, it has a core sensory appeal: the feel of butterfat silkiness sliding along the tongue and guiding flavor to the appropriate taste receptors of the palate. At its most common denominator, cream is a transport. It becomes beguiling when its properties are harnessed in a way to encapsulate flavor and aroma, so that in its delivery, every mouth sense is called into awareness.
Of the creams readily available, crème fraîche and sour cream, with their tangy appeal, seem to be the most common form that is readily considered as a decadent addition to our meals. But adding a relatively small amount of cream seemed to carry with it a negative nutritional connotation. The word “indulgence” kept eluding my conversations around cream and its use, always diverting to nutrition and fat and the “I can’t…” or worse, “I won’t…” I didn’t like that the joy of cream was being relegated to conversations about limitation, or worse, omission.
I did what any purist would do: I decided to use crème fraîche as a flavorful fat that would be used to deliver a complexity of flavors. But I had to do it in a way that wouldn’t be so heavy and overwhelming that it would be intolerable beyond a few bites. Fresh horseradish and the flavor spectrum for Caesar dressing turned out to be the perfect foil for the richness of crème fraîche. By using the cream to extend the flavor, little of it was needed, but the mouthfeel to the Smoked Trout with Horseradish Crème Fraîche is luxurious. It is the subtle feel of a silky, creamy coating that yields to an intensity of aroma and flavor that makes this recipe sing.
If problems are to be had in using cream to truly indulge (outside of the nutritional conversation), they will show up when applying some organic treatment to the ingredient. When cream is involved, that process is most likely the application of heat. Naturally, anyone who has experienced the maddening feeling when you see your milk or cream go from viscous-thickness to watery curds can understand the heartbreak. The reasons, though scientific, are fairly easy to grasp: The less fat in the cream product, the more unstable the protein becomes when rapidly heated. Add a bit of acidity, and there’s nothing to hold the proteins together in the whey when heat is in play — which is why most sauce recipes that are thickened with crème fraîche or sour cream are done off-heat, or written so that the sauce is never brought to a boil.
Stirring or whisking is also a good idea when applying heat to any cream. Left unattended, even heavy cream becomes granular when exposed to heat.Whisk every minute or so with a clean, dry whisk, and you’ll maintain the silkiness of the butterfat in the cream.
Truth be told, there are relatively few applications where cream curdling becomes a problem. Most commonly, it is when milk or light cream is being used in the kitchen, or when a sauce is being enriched and the cook is in a rush. Accelerating heat to decrease the preparation time — at least when cream is involved — is never a good idea. But most recipes are careful enough to steer you away from danger.
We tested a couple of cream sauces for pasta with terrific results, and found that most of the fear around using cream in a sauce is just hype. Low heat, high fat, and the occasional whisk and you’re in good shape. Those recipes will appear later in the month in our Test Kitchen notes. They are almost identical in preparation, but yield dramatically different results — one rich and full-flavored (Mushroom Cream Sauce) and the other, light with subtle nuances of a medley of tastes (Creamy Tomato-Vodka Sauce).
Baking with cream follows the same tack: low heat, high fat content, and you can achieve extraordinary results. Get the way this cream thing works?
Recipe: Buttermilk Cake
Of course, if you really want to take cream to another level, you can use heat to infuse, enrich, and concentrate the flavor of your ingredients and incorporate the flavorful components back together with your cream base to achieve your desired result. In making the Madeira-Flavored Butter, the flavor ingredients are boiled, reduced, and infused, then when cooled, are added to room-temperature butter. The whole lot is then processed and molded; an effective way of incorporating flavors.
Recipe: Madeira-Flavored Butter
Mastering control of your heat at the stove is one of the cornerstones of fine cooking. And when using cream, your skill will certainly be tested. The Apricot Ginger Flan proved to be a worthy test in our kitchen, but the constant hyper-attention to the milk and cream infusion, the apricot caramel, and the gentle heat of the oven yields a luscious, silky, and bewitchingly-flavored flan.
Recipe: Apricot Ginger Flan
There is little else I know that can test you in the kitchen in quite the same way. It is why we selected cream as an indulgence for our pages — not because there are multiple conversations going on about the ingredient, in and of itself, but simply because when it is used properly, any chef or cook can create an extraordinary mouth experience for those at their table. It requires care, attention, and finesse, but in the end, that effort is what yields the indulgent experience of cream as it transports flavor along a silken path to taste.
Photo: Kelly Cline
Donna Zotter is the founder and executive chef of There’s A Chef in My Kitchen, a portable culinary school in Harrisburg, PA.