WHEN SEATTLE chef Jim Drohman is staying at his home-away-from-home in Orthez, France, he need not make his own crème fraîche — easy as it is to create the cultured cream that flavors his savory cauliflower gratin and sweet tarte Tatin.
“If you go to the crèmerie stand at the Tuesday farmers market, the madame will ladle out as much crème fraîche as you need from a big stoneware pot,” Drohman says.
Back home in the Pacific Northwest, he and his crew make crème fraîche by the gallons: There’s always an 8-quart batch of heavy cream and cultured buttermilk fermenting in a warm spot, while a working batch is in constant use at his restaurants, Le Pichet and Café Presse, adding allure to soups, sauces and desserts.
There are few ingredients as integral to the French kitchen, or as easy to make wherever you reside, than this versatile crème.
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“Unlike heavy cream,” Drohman says, “it adds a snap of acidity to dishes, along with richness and creaminess.” But unlike sour cream, crème fraîche won’t break when heated.
I, too, am sweet on this soured cream, used in my house as a substitute for store-bought sour cream and whipped cream (feel free to sweeten it with a hit of powdered sugar to approximate the latter).
Rather than buying inferior crème fraîche at the supermarket in expensive little tubs, I advocate making your own, often, using a method so simple you won’t believe you’ve never done it before:
In a clean jar, mix a tablespoon of buttermilk with a cup of heavy cream, tighten the lid, shake for a minute, then set in a warm place. I use the shelf above my stove and have been known to leave my crème on the kitchen counter under a quilted tea cozy.
Twenty-four hours later — give or take, thanks to the vagaries of a room’s ambient temperature — you’ve got a little pot of snowy treasure as sinful as it is simple. Refrigerate, and use liberally. If you don’t have any buttermilk, use a tablespoon of (whole plain) yogurt per cup of cream.
Either/or, initially the taste will be mild, but it sours over time. In a good way. It’s that “tang,” says Seattle chef and restaurateur Renee Erickson, that has her reaching for this crème de la crème again and again.
At her Boat Street Cafe, it’s the base for the horseradish crème accompanying a pan-roasted rib-eye. At The Walrus and the Carpenter, it’s stirred into lentils served with smoked trout. Order butter-roasted zucchini bread at The Whale Wins and you’ll enjoy a dollop straight up, though it’s as likely to enliven a salad dressing or enrich a bowlful of steamed shellfish.
“I like it on scrambled eggs or in an omelet, with lots of herbs,” says Erickson. Me, too, though I’m just as quick to use it as a snack, spooned onto a cracker and topped with pickled herring, or as the finishing touch to a quick pan sauce.
Drohman’s with me there, and I suggest you take his advice: Pan-roast a steak (or a pork chop or a chicken breast) and remove it to a warm plate to rest. Meanwhile, drain excess oil from the pan, add a pat of butter, finely chopped shallots (or garlic, capers or fresh thyme), sauté briefly, deglaze the pan with a hit of cognac (or Calvados), scrape up the caramelized bits, stir in a spoonful of crème fraîche, sauce the meat and — voilà! — madame would approve.
Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times’ food writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.