Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Culture Club

I've cued up Glenn Gould's 1981 recording of J.S. Bach's The Goldberg Variations on the stereo, and I've got the opening lines of Shakespeare's sonnet 116--"Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments. Love is not love/ Which alters when it alteration finds,/ Or bends with the remover to remove..."--in my head, just to, you know, bring a little culture to the proceedings. *

Now I'm going to get out the buttermilk, yogurt, and sour cream, the Cedar Summit Farm cream and whole milk, and mix up some home-cultured delicious dairy products.
(Our friends Dave and Florence Minar and family run Cedar Summit; they are local food heroes of the first order.)

What we're doing here is introducing beneficial bacteria into a conducive medium. Sounds a bit dry (or maybe a bit scary), but that's how we get some of the world's most cherished foods--parmigiano reggiano, roquefort, camembert. These kitchen-cultured efforts don't produce anything that remarkable, but they're nice things to have in the fridge, just the same: crème fraîche, and whole-milk organic yogurt.

One of my culinary heroes, Madeleine Kamman, has this to say about home-made "crème fraîche":

"I am totally aware that 'making' crème fraîche is a favorite sport of the American cook; all I can say is if cooks enjoy themselves making crème fraîche, they might as well go ahead and do it. The taste of any of those products, however, has nothing at all to do with true crème fraîche; sometimes the texture is right, but the taste is never in the least reminiscent of the French or European unpasteurized products." (In Madeleine's Kitchen)

Ever the tactful Frenchwoman, it's awfully difficult to discern Mme Kamman's true opinion; but I get the impression she's not that big a fan of American kitchen sports. Nonetheless: let us carry on.**

In my previous post, the recipe for Crepes aux Poireaux called for crème fraîche to be added to the leeks at the end of softening. You can buy crème fraîche at better grocery stores now, but it's easy to "make" at home. And you know what? I do enjoy it. Furthermore, I feel that, using excellent dairy products as raw materials, I get a pretty good result at the end. I'm sure Madeleine is correct that the crème fraîche that comes from French alpine dairies is better than mine; we just don't happen to have a lot of those in my neighorhood of Saint Paul.

Other uses for crème fraîche: it gives cream sauces a tangy, silky finish; a dollop into vinaigrette produces a tangy, silky dressing; mixed with chopped fresh herbs, spread on a slice of rye bread and topped with smoked salmon, it makes a canapé or brunch dish of uncommon tangy silkiness. It can be used as a topping for fresh fruit, with or without a little added sugar, honey, or maple syrup. It's the basis for the Alsatian tarte flambée, or flammekuche, a sort of pizza topped with onions and bacon.

Anywhere you would use heavy cream or sour cream, crème fraîche could probably stand in, lending the recipe, how should I put it?: I think "a silky tang" says it best.

I don't make crème fraîche every week, or even every month, but when I do make it, I try to make more than I'll need for one use. Having it around--it keeps for at least a couple of weeks--lets me think of more uses for it.

For this experiment, I cultured crème fraîche using both sour cream and buttermilk. Into one cup of cream I added about two tablespoons of buttermilk, into the other, two tablespoons of sour cream.

The other thing I set a-culturing this day was a jar of yogurt. I used about two cups of Cedar Summit organic whole milk, and two tablespoons of cultured plain yogurt. This way, I get organic whole-milk yogurt cheap, and I know it's made from great, local milk. Skim, one- or two-percent milk will yogurt up just the same way. I put all three containers in my oven with the light on, door closed. I had put the heat on for just a few seconds, to get it warm (it's February in Minnesota; the house is at 65 degrees, the kitchen extremities colder). Then the light alone kept it at near 90 F.

I left them in there overnight, and here are the results:

Left to right: yogurt; the sour cream crème fraîche; buttermilk crème fraîche. Both kinds of crème fraîche turned out well. The sour cream version was a bit thicker, the buttermilk job just a wee bit creamier. There were subtle differences in the taste, but not so much that I'd say I prefer one over the other.

The real surprise, to me, was how compulsively eatable the warm, fresh-from-the-incubator yogurt was. They make wonderful whole-milk yogurt in France, and I particularly remember the sumptuous yaourt served with brunch at our beloved Pen Roc Hotel near Rennes in Brittany. While not as rich or creamy as the French product, I think mine was better, for being fresh as can be, and made with that superb Cedar Summit Farm milk (take that, Mme Kamman!).

It was so good it inspired me to whip up a breakfast dish, Apple-Maple-Yogurt Toast, which will be my next entry.


*Gould originally recorded The Goldberg Variations in 1955, a tour de force performance that launched his career. I generally prefer the later recording--a calmer, more tempered and meditative rendering. On a related note (but not very), I have in a drawer somewhere here a manuscript of personal essays loosely united around the topics of trout streams and fly fishing, entitled The Girdle Bug Variations, named for a fly consisting of black chenille body and white rubber legs--cunningly echoing the black and white keys of a piano. As presently comprised, these essays contain no mention of Glenn Gould. It occurs to me now that maybe they ought to. (Some purists say The Goldberg Variations should only be played on the instrument for which they were originally written, the harpsichord; I say if the piano is good enough for Gould, it's good enough for me.)

On the Shakespeare: Those lines are printed as found in the Norton Anthology of English Literature. I remembered them correctly except for two words: I had us instead of me, and that where Will has which. I've fixed it up so as not to spread misinformation on the Internet. "That" sounds better to my inner grammarian than "which" in this context, but I can never remember the rational. In this case, I guess I'll concede that a tie goes to The Bard.

**I really am a huge fan of Madeleine Kamman; she is a brilliant cook and a wonderful writer. Her memoir-with-recipes, When French Women Cook is one of my favorite books...though it always makes me think that the French make better crème fraîche than they do book titles. (I've just noticed that in this book, she tempers her opinions somewhat, noting mildly that "...trying to make crème fraîche is a ridiculous waste of time..." [p. 6]. Apparently you can read the whole dang book at that linked site.)

Text (except the Kamman and The Bard) and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

No comments: