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Cream - a guilty necessity

"Cream is milk's soul: the sweet, luscious top-of-the-bottle treat."

Nikki Duffy/River Cottage

Years ago now I made yet another cookbook for my two sons and their partners which I called 7 Ingredients I can't do without: and what you can do with them. One of those seven was cream - and just out of interest the others were olive oil, lemons, onions, potatoes, parsley and garlic. I'm sure yours would be different, but I don't think my top seven has changed. These are the things I always have to have at hand. I also made a volume two - wine, eggs, carrots, mustard, bacon & ham, cheese and yoghurt - a heavily dairy based selection.

It's a bit weird really that cream should be such a necessity to me, because as a child I could not drink milk. It made me sick, or at least feeling like I wanted to vomit as I valiantly drank the government supplied bottle of milk at school. Also in post-war Britain there did not actually seem to be any cream anyway. I certainly don't remember it in our house, although I do remember the thick layer of cream on top of the milk in the bottle. You don't see that now because:

"It was once skimmed off pans of milk with tin scoops. Now we harness the power of the centrifuge. Whole milk is rotated at speed in a drum, very quickly, causing the fat globules to separate from the thinner, but heavier milk. Cream collects at the centre of the vessel and is drawn off." Nickki Duffy/River Cottage

I think the cheat's way of pretending you had cream back then was to beat an egg into some milk. I certainly remember Jane Grigson recommending this as the liquid element in a potato gratin, which gave it a very different kind of texture because the egg at least partially set the milk into a kind of custard. Nowadays of course pure cream is 'de rigeur' - and it is better. Well unless you are using some other kind of liquid such as stock or tomato sauce.

There are different kinds of cream of course, but here in Australia it's actually quite difficult to get really pure cream - just cream with no additives that is. I think if you look at the small print on all the cartons of cream in the supermarket there are very few which are really pure cream. Coles has two - Meander Valley which is beautiful and thick and Dairy Farmers which I think is thinner but is indeed pure cream. Woolworths' website has these too and a pouring cream from Meander Valley, but I have to say the last time I looked in our local Woolworths there was no pure cream at all. Hopefully things are improving.

As for crème fraïche, instead of an entire hypermarket aisle, we have just the Bulla brand here - usually tucked away in the corner so that you have to look for it. Then there's sour cream as well. People don't seem to be able to decide whether Mascarpone counts as cream or cheese - usually found in the cheese section, but I have found some writers lumping it with cream. We don't have clotted cream here either - pure cream that is heated very gently with a culture and which is absolutely divine. The Meander Valley pure cream is the nearest to it here I think.

So why is cream so vital in my kitchen? Well probably top of the list is quiche of course. Quiche is my go to dish when I have leftovers of any kind. I really enjoy making quiches because you can mess around with the ingredients so much. The pastry is always there ready to use - I make it in bulk, divide into quiche size portions and freeze, so I just need to take it out in time to unfreeze. Roll it out, bake the case blind and while that's cooking make the filling - whatever I fancy on the day added to my mix of three eggs and 300ml of cream. Dinner on the table in an hour. We probably have a quiche a couple of times in a fortnight and they always go down well - with a green salad on the side of course.

Otherwise I use cream in soups, in pasta sauces, in sautés, to deglaze a pan, lasagne - I use cream instead of béchamel. Oh how very inauthentic. In fact I use it in all sorts of things. I often just can't resist adding a bit. The more 'specialist' creams are generally only bought for a specific recipe but there is always a jar of ordinary thickened cream in the fridge, ready to add that special something to what I'm cooking.

"One of the joys of cream is that you don't need very much of it to make a big difference. ... Pale, rich, bland and cool, cream dances a delicious counterpoint to the the dark, the earthy and the hot." Nikki Duffy/River Cottage

I was not searching for recipes for this particular post but it was interesting that for one search virtually all of the first page was what to do with leftover cream - and I hadn't specified 'leftover', which I think shows how the cooking world is changing, to an increased focus on leftovers. Indeed tonight I am going to do battle with a whole variety of small bits and pieces in the fridge. I don't think it will be a quiche or a soup - maybe an omelette. We shall see, but there will probably be at least a small quantity of cream in the mix.

"transforming end-of-the-day dairy into dinner is a simple proposition. It's also often creative: most dairy products fall naturally on a spectrum of separation, fermentation and maturation - that's how we maker butter, yoghurt and cheese in the first place. Dealing with leftovers is sometimes just a matter of moving that process along." Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall

In his usual jovial manner he suggests that if you have some cream that is beginning to turn then you can make butter - moving the process of dairy on a step. Moreover you can do it in a jam jar:

"Tip the cream into a scrupulously clean jam jar - it should be more than a third full. Seal tightly and shake the jar until the liquid separates and you have a ball of butter and some buttermilk. Pour off the buttermilk (to use later) then pour enough iced water into the jar to just cover the butter. Shake for about 10 seconds and pour off the cloudy liquid. Repeat a few times until the water is clear. Knead lightly with clean hands to remove excess liquid, adding a pinch of salt if you like. Cover and refrigerate. For a great tangy flavour to your butter, add 1-2 tablespoons live yoghurt to the cream then leave at room temperature for an hour or so, before processing into butter."

I saw somebody do this on television once, so I might give it a go next time my cream is past its use by date and turning. If there is any left that is. As I said, I use cream rather too much probably so this doesn't often happen. Well it's not super healthy is it? Well yes it is but if you have a lot then it's not. As always - all things in moderation.

It's wonderful stuff. Transformative. And I haven't even mentioned ice-cream, or strawberries and cream - any desserts at all because we rarely eat them. But cream is often an essential part of dessert, even if it is just to accompany something else.

"Nature's very own dairy products have a unique and magical property called flavour that no man-made alternative has ever been able to match."

Delia Smith


In my last post on the month of June I said this:

"The month the earth turns away from the sun in the north and towards it in the south."

Which of course whilst correct, is not actually how it feels. In June in the northern hemisphere 'real' summer is yet to come and in the south winter has really only just begun. At least that is what it feels like. The last of the autumn leaves have only just fallen - well in fact here in Melbourne, many of them are still on the trees. Still it is indeed the time of the year of the longest day - in the north and the longest night in the south, and so indeed we do begin to turn to the dark and the light. The pagans celebrated this with the festival of Litha and indeed it is still celebrated at Stonehenge. But the Christians have nothing equivalent which to me is slightly odd, as Christmas loosely ties in with the winter solstice, Easter with the spring equinox and All Saints - (Halloween) with the autumn equinox. There is no big summer Christian festival is there? Strange, because it is such an important date in the seasonal calendar.



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