A fraîche start
Move over, sour cream, there’s a new crème in the fridge
Even though crème fraîche is usually found in the cheese section of the grocery store, it is not a cheese. Maybe nobody would strongly disagree with this, but allow me to make my “not a cheese” points anyway: 1) No separation of curds and whey takes place in making crème fraîche; 2) If it is a cheese, then so is sour cream, and I just can’t bring myself to call sour cream a cheese (see reason No. 1).
Crème fraîche is, actually, a cultured cream (cream with bacteria added—like sour cream), and it’s nothing short of wonderful. In Europe, it’s a staple, but the richer, fattier, less-sour crème fraîche is slowly starting to find a home alongside sour cream here in this country.
To describe the subtleties between the various “not a cheese” milk products (let’s throw in Mexico’s crema, Germany’s schmand, and heck, cream cheese and yogurt as well) would be an exercise in boring scientific descriptions of different preparation methods; product consistencies; and gradients of sweet, sour and tart flavors. Just go get some for yourself and use it in place of sour cream in your chili or sauces (crème fraîche never curdles), or for contrasting taste and texture for any sweet treat—fruit, chocolate, or other desserts. I’m confident you’ll find it so appealing you’d eat it with a spoon if given the chance.
One of the most widely available brands of crème fraîche in this area is Bellwether Farms, and the Sonoma County artisan creamery makes some of the best that I’ve tried in California. Any dairy products for which the quality of the milk is the prime consideration is going to produce the best possible cheese—or crème fraîche as the case may be—and the small, family-run creamery/sheep farm (which gets its Jersey cow’s milk from a neighboring dairy) is doing great things with great milk. Bellwether also features many appealing-looking crème fraîche recipes on its website.
To get you started, here’s a great chocolate mousse recipe my wife and I often make (from Carol Clements’ French: Delicious Classic Cuisine Made Easy), that is greatly complemented by a dollop of crème fraîche before serving.
Bitter chocolate mousse with crème fraîche
8 ounces semisweet chocolate (very dark), chopped
4 tbsp water
2 tbsp orange liqueur (or brandy)
2 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
4 eggs, separated
6 tbsp heavy cream
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
3 tbsp superfine sugar
Chocolate (curls, shavings, chips) for topping
Place the chocolate and water in a heavy saucepan (or over a double boiler). Melt over low heat, stirring until smooth. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the liqueur and butter.
With an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks for 2-3 minutes until thick and creamy. Then beat yolks into the melted chocolate until well blended (don’t over mix). Set aside.
Whip the cream until soft peaks form and stir a spoonful into the chocolate mixture to lighten it. Fold in the remaining cream (again, don’t over mix).
In a clean, grease-free bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites slowly until frothy. Add the cream of tartar, increase the speed and continue beating until it forms soft peaks. Gradually sprinkle in the sugar and continue beating until mixture is stiff and glossy.
Using a rubber spatula or large metal spoon, stir a quarter of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture, then gently fold in the remaining whites, cutting down to the bottom, along the sides and up to the top in a semicircular motion until they are just combined. (Don’t worry about a few leftover white streaks; better to err on the side of under-mixing.) Gently spoon into one 8-cup dish or into eight 1-cup dishes. Chill for at least 2 hours until set.
Before serving, spoon a little crème fraîche over the mousse and decorate with chocolate.