Homemade Creme Fraiche

It’s funny what finally triggers you out of a state of inertia.  We all have things on our “to-do” or “to-try” lists that we never get around to.  I’m not thinking here of chores or other such drudgery–easy to figure out why we’d push those items to another day.  I mean that inertia that extends even to those ideas we have that would be easy to follow through with, those plans that we expect to have lots of fun with.  But if I knew what finally triggers someone to stop dawdling and start doing, I could have a self-help book empire by now.   So, don’t look to me for the secrets of self-actualization.

I think at least half the cookbooks I own have a suggestion (in some cases, almost an exhortation) to make your own creme fraiche.  Creme fraiche, if you don’t have the same quantity of cookbooks I do, is like the French equivalent of sour cream.  But it’s more tangy than sour, and smoother and eminently more suitable to “dollop-ing.”  You can buy it, but being French (and, I think, for no other reason than some circomflexs and accents aigues), it is a lot more expensive than its domestic cousin. Despite all these arguments in its favor, I still had never quite gotten around to making it on my own, until now.

It must have been the confluence of reading through a copy of the new cookbook from Boston’s own Flour (and seeing all the recipes that use creme fraiche)  and a post at Food In Jars, emphasizing just how simple it is to make.  I bought some local Massachusetts Jersey cream from High Lawn Farm and set to it.

It’s easy enough:  you just mix a 1 tablespoon of buttermilk into a cup of cream, and leave out uncovered (so the cultures can breathe).  In theory you leave it overnight and in 10-12 hours “or as long as necessary” you have creme fraiche.  Well, we all know what happened here–mine never thickened much past what you see here.  

Not being sure what to expect, I put it in the fridge too early and when I checked back it was a pleasantly tangy cream, but definitely just cream, not thick and yogurt-like.  But, I used it in a celery-root potato gratin that was about as decadent as anything made with root vegetables can be, so it went to good use.  I strongly suspect that the only slight culturing of the cream had a dramatic impact on this one.  I was already starting to believe the hype!

So, more motivated than ever perhaps, I tried again.  I realized my kitchen must be too cold for full culturing to happen (and felt better after a few more internet searches noted it could take up to 24 hours to set, especially in winter, which is why some sources suggest heating the cream to 85F to start it off on the right foot).  So when I woke up, once more, to nothing more than room temperature cream, I tried various tricks (inspired by my breadmaking).  But I knew things were on the right track as the bubbles on the surface that indicated that something was happening.

I steamed up the microwave and put the cream inside to create a proofing box (with the microwave off), and then when not much had happened by lunch, I upped the ante by putting my jar of culturing cream in a larger bowl of hot water.  

I think this last step really worked the magic.  And the result was fantastic, fabulously thick and all the more so after chilling in the fridge.

What I love is that you can use your current batch of creme fraiche to get your next one going, indefinitely.  (How could this not appeal to someone who is crazy for sourdough?).  And almost as much, I love that I can make this at home rather than paying upwards of $5 for it.


My “ultimate made from scratch” to do list

I love the idea of homemade.  I think they probably taste better than the commercially prepared in many cases (except perhaps the truly high quality products which tend to be truly high priced as well–you are getting what you pay for, but you still have to pay for it) as it is fresher and less processed, also I just think the idea of it is fun!  Also, I am more and more convinced that making things from scratch is healthier and perhaps if we all cooked our own meals most of the time we wouldn’t have all these food related issues.  Even if you were to use only conventional produce and products, and can’t pay the extra for organic, I’m convinced it’s still loads better.  At heart my interest here probably goes to the fact that all three of us sisters will swear up and down to you that our grandmother’s homemade jam is the best you’ve ever tasted (don’t argue with us about this–it’s futile.  You are permitted to feel very sorry for yourself that you haven’t gotten to taste it).  For me too I think it’s my love of international cultures and how this is so deeply reflected in the traditional foods of a given place.  It’s also a snippet of history and links you to the past and hopefully to the future–the same way rituals connect you through time to people in the past, so does traditional food.

Anyway, enough waxing poetic:  many of these things perhaps could be more work than they are worth, and who knows if I’ll ever get around to it.  There are only so many hours in a day. 

Some of these projects just require getting into good habits, some just require an initial investment but then should be very easy and relatively inexpensive to keep going.  Others could be very time-consuming at first until you get the hang of it (assuming you ever do), and others, well, probably will never easily fit into a busy schedule.  Nevertheless, I press on.

I call this an “ultimate” made from scratch list because it’s homemade versions of the staples you usually buy to make homemade food.  Sandra Lee may have semi-homemade, this is decidedly in the opposite direction.

Good habits:

1.  Homemade breadcrumbs.  I have nice bread that sometimes goes stale (not because it’s left out unwrapped or anything).  I have a food processor.  Why, then, pay for breadcrumbs that are probably made with yucky wonderbread leftovers?

2.  Homemade soup stock.  I am pretty good about this, I think–I’ve made duck, chicken, and turkey stock–so it’s just a matter of keeping it up.

3.  Homemade bread.  I do this from time to time and love it when I do.  I think it would be pretty cool to have a natural yeast starter living in the back of the fridge.  But I’d have to use it at least weekly I think to make it worthwhile.  (I’ve been a little frustrated with my bread results lately too–even with a recently purchased oven stone.  No matter how long I knead it never seems to fully develop the gluten, maybe I should go back to hand kneading where practicable).

Initial investment but not much effort or expense afterwards:

1.  Homemade vanilla extract.  Those little jars of vanilla extract never last very long, and it’s no fun to buy “imitation vanilla flavoring.”  Vanilla beans are expensive, but if you can make your own extract, perhaps it’s worth it–use a flavorless alcohol (I’m going to use Finlandia Vodka of course) and vanilla beans (purchased online in bulk, as that’s the cheapest way).  According to Ina Garten, you can then pull the beans out as needed for use in recipes, plus you have the extract.  A real two-for-one.  Ina Garten’s The Barefoot Contessa has the methodology, as does Chocolate and Zucchini.  Now, I need to find some cute jars to make the extract in.  (I admit this involves some expense afterwards as you will have to replace the beans, but how much more expensive is that than buying extract which you can go through so quickly?)

2.  Homemade yogurt.  I love love love yogurt, and naturally am attracted to the idea of making my own.  When I got Karen a yogurt maker for Christmas and saw it’s not all that pricey I almost got one for myself.  Though not so expensive, it is one of those kitchen gadgets that has the potential to just clutter up your space while you forget to really even use it.  So it’s also something you’d have to make sure you got in the habit of using.  Other than that, I think it’s probably a no-brainer to do, no special technique or vast quantities of time required.  (Famous last words).  When I give it a try I’ll probably use Chocolate and Zucchini’s recipe for Yaourt Maison/Homemade Yogurt to guide me.  (It just sounds nicer in French doesn’t it?)

3.  Homemade red wine vinegar (though perhaps this belongs in the next category).  Really, what really appeals to me about this is that you don’t waste any wine.  And I have to figure that the wine you would use for this would be far and away better than the wine that is used for making commercial wine vinegar.  (Not to be unfair to red wine vinegar producers here:  why would you use your best wine as a base for vinegar?).  Heard about this on The Splendid Table, who suggested this site.  Some google searching found this as well.  No doubt I’ll find more online and at our library if I actually get around to doing this.

Things that sound kind of cool to do but probably are more trouble than they are worth.

1.  Homemade cheese.  I love love love cheese and have heard of a lady in western MA that runs courses on making cheese at home and also sells the supplies.  If she’s so close by, it’s a sign right?  At a minimum it could be cool to make mozzarella, that sounds doable.  That too, was recently featured in Gourmet. On the other hand my husband told me that he can handle our freezer being full of chicken parts but that making cheese at home would be going too far.

4.  Homemade butter.  I have heard about this on all the food sites I visit as well as splendid table.  This is a good post, and also links to the Splendid Table recipe.  Sounds kind of cool…and you get lovely buttermilk too…again, a two-fer!

Things that will supposedly be easy once you do it enough to get the hang of it.  (Query how long “do it enough” is).

1.  Homemade sausages.  I know. This is weird.  “Excuse me, butcher counter, do you stock sausage casings, by which I mean, prepared pig intestines?”  (You can buy non-animal casings, but perish the thought!)  I would have to buy the attachment for the kitchenaid, but for some reason this just seems neat to do. I’m a Luddite, apparently.  I know all this romanticizing of the old-fashioned is a little silly (life was harder, resources were scarcer, women were stuck in the kitchen), but I think there’s something special about making everything yourself in this way.  It just seems so “authentic” and “connected to the past” (whatever that is).  (As a side note, I only recently realized that this strange contraption that was in my furnished apartment in Prague was a meat grinder, probably for this purpose.  Ah how I missed out!).

2.  Homemade pasta.  OK, I probably don’t have to explain this one quite so much.  I have the pasta machine, I can easily get the pasta flour, I just need to do it.  My husband expressed an interest in learning to do this of all things (he’s not, as yet, interested in cooking, so it’s funny this is where he’d want to start…) so maybe together we’ll get ourselves doing this.

 So that’s that.  I’ll keep you posted!

Homemade chicken stock

I made a cryptic allusion in my last post to the fact that I had some odd things in my freezer.  And you already know I roasted the bones and meat scraps of the leftover Christmas turkey to make soup stock.  Well, there’s also a collection of chicken backs and gizzards in the freezer.  I try to always buy a whole chicken and cut it up just to save these parts.  I don’t buy the cheapest of chickens–especially since I know I use the carcass for stock, I don’t like the idea of an overly-industrially processed chicken.  Plus, if I do make stock I think it works itself out (I haven’t really done the math, but I’m sure it comes close).  Plus, every good cookbook SWEARS up and down that homemade stock is the only way to go.  I don’t know how many people listen to them, but they certainly are insistent.

It really just came down to getting around to make the stock.  It’s not hard at all, and hardly requires any attention.   Depending on the recipe you should simmer from 2 hours to 10, so the only consideration appears to be making sure you will be around the house long enough to let it simmer away.  I was recently listening to the Splendid Table, which was interviewing Michael Ruhlman–he discussed various types of stock, but named two general rules in making stock.  First, he says, keep the temperature around 180F, and no higher (many stock recipes say to bring to a boil and then simmer–can’t recall why he said that but whatever reason he gave seemed to make sense.  He said you could just set the oven to 180 and forget about it which sounded like a good idea, but I haven’t tried it).  Secondly, he suggested not adding vegetables until the very end–they apparently soak up flavor rather quickly, and given that his suggestion is to simmer for 10-12 hours, they would have ample time to do so.

There’s not so much to tell other than that.  I put in three chicken carcasses and the giblets and covered with water.  I simmered for about 6 hours (“only’).  The trick was getting the flame adjusted just right so that it held steady, but there’s so much water in the pot that you have a little time to catch it if it starts to overheat.  You don’t add salt since it doesn’t boil away, so when you taste the stock at first it’s awfully bland.  But just fix it when you make your recipe and you’re fine.  I think not using the vegetables until the end (or in my case not at all, I forgot) did help somewhat–this is only the second time I’ve made chicken stock and I  think it tasted better this time. 

Simmering Chicken Stock

Simmering away...


Straining the stock

Straining the stock

I strained out the broth and measured out 2 cup portions for freezing.  I think I got about a gallon’s worth.  I recently looked at the liquid chicken stock you can buy in stores, which is what i would buy rather than bouillon cube.  One quart of that costs about $3, so this would save me about $12 total.  Considering I already had several meals out of the chicken already, not bad, and certainly makes me feel even more justified in the cost ($2.50 – $3.00 per pound) that I pay for my organic free range all natural vegetarian chicken or whatever it is. 

That's  $1.50 saved!

That's $1.50 saved!

Oh, and I have a growing collection of chicken livers too in the freezer (you shouldn’t use liver in stock, so they say).  I have some interesting looking frenchy-italiany appetizers that call for these so hopefully soon I’ll get a chance to make these.  My husband is not so keen on the idea so I have to be sure there are other victims.  (Oh, and another reason to use organic chicken–who wants to eat the body organ that is the detoxification system when god knows what chemicals and so forth has been going through it?  Liver is a hard enough sell already!!!)