Crème Fraîche

This post was originally published May 22, 2010.  I’m re-posting it today for those who attended my session at Eat Alberta 2017.

 

A spoonful of crème fraîcheCrème fraîche is similar to sour cream. In fact, they are made by the same process: inoculating dairy with a bacterial culture that converts lactose to lactic acid, which in turn coagulates the proteins in the dairy and thickens the mixture.

The major difference between crème fraîche and sour cream is fat content. Crème fraîche is cultured whole cream, so it’s about 30% fat.  Sour cream is made from leaner dairy products, and is usually around 15% fat. The added fat in crème fraîche gives it two advantages over sour cream. First, it has a more luxurious texture. Second, the fat tempers the acidity, making for a subtler and more rounded flavour.

Making Crème Fraîche at Home

Fresh dairy naturally contains the bacteria that would, over time, turn cream into crème fraîche. The traditional method of production would be to simply incubate that bacteria, and let nature take care of the rest. In the age of pasteurization, we must reintroduce this bacterial strain to the cream. There are several supermarket products that contain this strain. Buttermilk is one.

To make
crème fraîche at home, you need only stir one tablespoon of buttermilk into one cup of cream. Cover the mixture and leave it at room temperature for two days.  Then refrigerate.  At this point the crème fraîche will become quite thick, but as soon as you stir it it will become runny, like double cream.  Somehow it develops a nutty flavour, almost like brown butter.

Crème fraîche is perfect for finishing cream soups, as it adds a very mild, pleasing acidity to cut the richness. It being the end of May, with Edgar Farms enjoying its brief few weeks at the Strathcona market, cream of asparagus soup seemed appropriate.

Cream of asparagus soup with crème fraîche

Towards a Theory of Fried Chicken

Fried chicken cooling an a rack.Usually I don’t post about something til I’m confident I have a best practice down pat.  I have to say that there’s one important point in my fried chicken technique that I am waffling on: I’m torn between the winning flavour of buttermilk-brined chicken, and the superior texture of dry-rubbed chicken.

The Chicken.  Frying chicken is a bit of a balancing act: you want the crust to develop the perfect, deep golden brown at the very instant the meat reaches the proper temperature.  If you were to take an entire leg from a large chicken and deep fry it, the exterior would get much too dark by the time the meat cooked through.[1]

For this reason I like using smaller birds, somewhere around four pounds, and I cut them in the classic 8-cut style.

Brining vs. Dry-Rubbing.  Once the bird has been cut there are two mains methods for marinating it.  The first way that I learned is to submerge the chicken in buttermilk overnight.  If given sufficient time, the tangy flavour of the buttermilk penetrates the flesh.  It also supposedly tenderizes the meat, I think because of its acidity.  The next day the chicken is dredged in flour and fried.

Many chefs expound the dry-rubbing method, in which the chicken is set out on a wire rack, sprinkled with salt and spices, and left uncovered in the fridge overnight.  The salt works its way into the meat, and exposure to the dry, circulating air of the fridge supposedly makes for better skin.  The next day the chicken is dipped in buttermilk and dredged in flour before frying.

This past weekend I tried these two methods side by side.

Dredging.  I dredge in flour spiked with a bit of paprika and dried herb.  I add only a tiny bit of salt to the flour because the brining and seasoning methods above have already made the chicken plenty salty.

Dredging should be done moments before dropping the chicken in the oil.  Shake excess flour from the surface.

Frying.  As always I will emphasize that you don’t need a deep-fryer to deep fry at home.  Any straight-sided, heavy-bottomed pot or pan will do.

Fried chicken is cooked at a relatively low temperature.  I heat the oil to 320°F.  The cold chicken actually drops the oil temperature to 275°F or lower, and it will take several minutes to recover.  Higher temperatures will darken the exterior before the meat cooks.

Even if the chicken is entirely covered in oil I flip all the pieces half way through as the downward-facing sides tend to brown faster.

Cooking takes roughly 15 minutes, depending of course on the size of your chicken bits.  I use a temperature probe and pull all the breast meat at 70°C and all the leg meat at 80°C.

The Results: Buttermilk Brine v. Spice Rub

Some succinct tasting notes.

Buttermilk-brined chicken.  Dark amber colour, actually a bit too dark.  Crust not perfectly cohesive? Tangy, well-seasoned throughout.

Spice-rubbed chicken.  Beautiful golden brown.  Well-seasoned but perhaps not as thoroughly penetrated with salt?  To me no detectable buttermilk tang, even with the dip before dredging.

No discernible difference in moisture content between the two styles.

They were both delicious, and I would be happy to serve and eat either.  The visual difference was striking.  Temperature was carefully controlled, so I figure that the extra milk sugars present in the buttermilk-brined chicken burnt.  Also I think that the extra moisture on the brined chicken caused some of the dredging to slide off during frying.

More work is required obviously.  Below is my dinner plate.  The drumstick in the background is the spice-rubbed chicken.  The thigh in the foreground the buttermilk version.  Accompanied by garlic mash potatoes and green salad.

A plate of fried chicken, buttermilk mash potatoes, and green salad

 

1. If you do find a piece of chicken getting too dark well before the meat is properly cooked, you can take the chicken out of the oil and put it on a wire rack on a sheet pan and hold it in a 250°F oven.  The meat will continue to cook and the browning reaction at the surface will slow considerably.

 

Biscuits

Square biscuitsWhen I was little we called these savoury pastries “scones,” our pronunciation rhyming with the word “owns”, but they are much more like American biscuits than British scones (the pronunciation of which rhymes with “lawns”).

For the sake of clarity I’ve taken to calling them biscuits.  Whatever you call them, they are flaky quick breads made with butter, milk, and flour.  A little salt and a little baking powder.  That’s it.

My mom used to make a ham and cheese biscuit.  She made her dough with milk soured with vinegar (buttermilk would have been used when she was growing up, but we never had this in our fridge).  The dough was rolled into a sheet, covered with slices of ham and grated cheddar cheese, then rolled into a log.  This was baked, then sliced into rounds to reveal the spiral cross-section.  Make a salad, and that was dinner.

Anyways.

The Dough.  My preferred method is to sift together flour, baking powder, and salt, then grate very cold butter into those dry ingredients and mix to combine.  Make a well in the centre, add buttermilk, and stir together until a dough forms.

To get a very flaky biscuit you can use a rolling method similar to that used for puff pastry. Roll the dough into a rectangular sheet, then fold one third of the rectangle into the centre, then the opposite third towards the centre.  By re-rolling and repeating this procedure you create several distinct layers within the biscuit.  If you roll and fold more than twice, you should let the dough rest thoroughly before continuing.  This makes the entire biscuit-making process a lot longer, but it gives the biscuits a very distinctive, rustic layering.  Once baked they’ll pull apart effortlessly for easy butter application.

On Shaping.  Biscuit dough is traditionally rolled out and punched into rounds with a ring mold.  This leaves behind a lot of trim, which has to be reformed and punched again.  The biscuits from the second shaping never rise as high or as evenly as the first rounders.  My question is, why do we cut biscuits into rounds?  Why not roll out the dough, then cut it in a grid pattern to make square biscuits, lessen trim and get a more consistent batch?  Something to consider.

On Baking and the Even Rise.  Chefs use several techniques to ensure that biscuits rise evenly in the oven and don’t slump to one side or the other.  I don’t know how effective they are, but I do them all, just in case.  I suppose I’m superstitious.

The most common tip is to roll out the dough in all directions.  Don’t just roll the dough away from you; roll it away from you, towards you, to each side, and on the diagonals.  This way the gluten is evenly stretched and will not favour a certain direction when the dough rises.

My pastry instructor at culinary school insisted that the biscuits be lined up close together on the baking sheet.  Close, but not too close.  Maybe an inch apart.  I don’t have a clear idea of how this helps.  Maybe the biscuits don’t want to touch each other, so they’ll rise straight up to avoid leaning over and brushing against their neighbour.  Again, I don’t know why it helps, but I’ve never tried not doing it for fear of what might happen.

Usually it’s nice to have pastries with a deep golden-brown surface, but if brought to this point biscuits will be too crusty.  They should be very lightly browned, and have a delicate, crisp exterior.

With the theory out of the way, here is a formal recipe.

Biscuits

Master Ratio – 3:1:2 flour, butter, buttermilk

Ingredients

  • 12 oz all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 4 oz unsalted butter, very cold
  • 8 oz full fat buttermilk

Procedure

  1. Sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder.  Using the large holes of a box grater, grate the cold butter into the flour and mix so that it is evenly distributed.
  2. Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture.  Add the buttermilk.  Stir so that flour is slowly incorporated into the buttermilk.  Continue until the dough forms.  Knead very briefly until the dough is somewhat smooth.  Wrap the dough tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes.
  3. Roll the dough out into a rectangle about 1″ thick.  Fold in thirds as described above.  Repeat the roll and fold, then wrap the dough tightly in plastic and refrigerate about 1 hour.
  4. Repeat step three two more times.
  5. Roll the dough to 1″ thickness, then cut to desired shapes.  Line the biscuits on a bake sheet so that they are about 1″ apart.  Bake in a 375°F oven until cooked through and lightly browned.

Biscuits with butter and crabapple jelly

Pancakes

Frying pancakes in bacon fatLast night was Pancake Tuesday, the appropriately subdued Canadian version of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday.

I want to tell you about my pancakes.

 

The Recipe

Pancake styles occupy one point on a continuum between slack batters and stiff batters.  Slack, or high-liquid, batters make thin, soft, limp pancakes the size of dinner plates.  Stiff, or low-liquid, batters, yield thicker, cakey pancakes the size of tea saucers or smaller.  For home-cooking I favour the stiff variety, making a batter that is barely, barely pourable.  The resulting cakes are more dense, but still soft and moist.  They develop a delicate, crisp exterior during frying, something that the slack batters can’t do because of their high liquid content.

In the name of flavour, I make two substitutions to standard pancake recipes.  First, I convert half of the milk called for in the recipe to buttermilk.  I’ve experimented with all kinds of ratios, from no buttermilk, to all buttermilk.  The purpose of the buttermilk isn’t to make the pancakes sour, but to add a mild acidity that wakes up the palate.  Half buttermilk and half whole milk seems to be the right balance.

Second, I convert one quarter of the all-purpose flour called for in the recipe to whole wheat flour, which adds a bit of flavour, texture, and colour to the batter.

My full recipe is typed below.

 

The Cooking Procedure

The griddle is the supreme cooking vessel for pancakes, as the temperature is easy to control (375°F is the ideal setting) and the heat is uniformly distributed by the dense metal surface.  My griddle also has a trough around its perimeter that catches fat.  This is important.

Once my gridle is hot I fry an entire evening’s worth of bacon and sausage.  Fat renders from the meat and accumulates in the troughs.  I remove the meat to a tray and hold it in a 250°F oven.  Before cooking each batch of pancakes, I spoon some of the bacon fat from the trough over the surface of the griddle.  After the buttermilk and flour, this is the main source of flavour, and I think the key to superlative cakes.

Thanks to Andy and Vanessa for hosting dinner last night.  Sorry about the smoke.

The details:

 

Pancakes for Shrovetide
(buttermilk pancakes in bacon grease)

Ingredients

  • 1 pound quality bacon or sausage
  • 6 oz whole milk
  • 6 oz buttermilk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 oz unsalted butter, melted
  • 6 oz all-purpose flour
  • 2 oz whole wheat flour
  • 2 tbsp granulated sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp kosher salt

Procedure

  1. Fry the meat on a 375°F griddle until browned and rendered.  Remove to a tray and hold in a 250°F oven.
  2. Combine the milks, eggs, and melted butter in a large mixing bowl.  In a separate bowl, combine the flours, sugar, baking powder, and salt.  Whisk the dry ingredients into the wet until just combined.  Do not overmix.  The batter will still be a bit lumpy with unincorporated flour.
  3. Distribute the bacon fat evenly over the griddle.  Spoon the batter onto the griddle  in 2 oz rounds.  Fry until the bottoms are amber-gold, the edges of the pancake have set, and there are bubbles of air appearing on top.  Flip.  Again, once the bottom is amber-gold, the pancake is done.
  4. Enjoy with the bacon or sausage, and maple syrup.

Frying pancakes in the bacon fat

 

Butter and Buttermilk

I think as children most of us were taken to historical sites like Fort Edmonton to learn how the settlers made wool and horseshoes and butter. Even so, I’ll start at the beginning.

You make butter by agitating cream.

It works like this. The fat in cream is in tiny globs, each covered with a membrane that prevents the fat globs from joining together. When you agitate cream, you break these coverings, releasing the fat globs, which all rush out to join their fatty brethren and form a solid mass of butter.

To commence butter-production, fill your container half way with heavy cream. Add a pinch of salt, secure the lid, and start shaking. You don’t have to strain yourself, just use a gentle shake that you can sustain for maybe ten minutes. After a while the cream will thicken: the contents will be noticeably less fluid, and there will be less sloshing. At this point you’ve simply made whipped cream:

The cream, thickened by agitation
Once whipped cream has formed, it’s a little more difficult to keep the cream moving in the jar. Perform a couple minutes of aggressive shaking, which will separate the butterfat and buttermilk:

The separated butterfat and buttermilk


Buttermilk: A Digression

While the resulting liquid is technically buttermilk, it does not have the tanginess that we usually associate with buttermilk. Why do we think of buttermilk as sour?

An old-timey counter-top butter churn.When my mom was growing up in northern Ontario, they kept dairy cows.  They had a butter churn. Not the tall wooden ones you see at historical villages, but a large glass jar with a crank that spun paddles within.  Once the day’s cream had turned sour, they would pour it in the jar.  Once the jar was full they would make butter.

Whoa. Hold on. “Once the day’s cream was sour?”

I know.  In the age of pasteurization “sour milk” means “spoiled milk,” ie. a putrid mess of mold and coaguluum.  But before milk is pasteurized it contains a community of friendly bacteria called lactobacillus that are able to get a strong foothold on the milk before any other microbe. In my mother’s day sour milk was exactly that: sour. It wasn’t harmful, but if incubated too long could be too strong tasting.  This is what they used to make butter.  Both the butter and the buttermilk would have had the tangy taste of culture milk.

These days commercial buttermilk is made from pasteurized whole or partly-skimmed milk that has been inoculated with lactobacillus and incubated.

 

Back to the Butter…

The butterfat that has clumped together must now be worked to remove small pockets of buttermilk that remain within. When making such a small amount of butter, you can just use your hands. Knead the butter. You should see droplets of buttermilk come out.

At this point the butter is usually pressed into a mold to form the familiar bricks. Or in my case, hockey pucks:

The finished butter in a round ramekin

My finished butter was made with store-bought cream, so it has little to distinguish itself from store-bought butter, besides a slightly richer dairy flavour. It’s very good, but the benefits aren’t great enough to convince me to start churning cream for my daily supply of butter. (Maybe once I have my own cow…) It’s still a good experiment to try once, if only for general knowledge and appreciation of this rich but humble staple.