When I was a girl, I had three little girlfriends: Kristen, Sarah, and Alexandra. Alexandra's mother was called Medusa--at least figuratively. Every time I stood quaking before her towering frame in her frigid marble kitchen, I turned to stone.
One day I was in that kitchen doing something or other innocuous. Medusa asked if I'd like a cup of soda. My mother didn't permit me to drink soda. "No," I said simply, and turned to walk away, back to the puppet show we four were preparing in the other room. She grabbed by arm, the tips of her long, bony finger capped in blood red, razor-sharp tips. She hurt me. I turned, frightened, to look up at her. "Don't be fresh," she snarled. And let me go.
I was shocked, but, moreover, I was bewildered. I was an only child, and I did not live in a world where grownups distrusted me or required some form of obsequious obeisance. I had no idea whatsoever what fresh meant. I turned back to her and said, with innocent raised eyebrows, "I'm not!"
Suddenly, one thin, penciled eyebrow arched angrily over her right eye. She raised her right hand, and that bony-fingered, red-tipped hand, quivering hot with hatred, looked like a hot iron brand ready to strike. I was saved only by the fact that she realized just in time that I was not her child. She slowly lowered her spindly arm and exhaled, turning away in disgust. If looks could kill, I would never have lived to star in that puppet show.
I have always been confused by the word fresh. Who could have known at the age of six that fresh meant "brash and irreverent"? It just doesn't make a stitch of sense. Neither, in my opinion, did the term crème fraîche, which I learned shortly thereafter. Yes, it could mean cool cream, but it also means fresh cream. It is just as nonsensical, for it is, in fact, soured.
I use crème fraîche a lot, especially in my French in a Flash recipes, because it is not only versatile but resilient. It is thicker and less sour than our sour cream. Thus, it can go sweet or savory. It also doesn't easily separate under heat and can be used to make nearly instant macaroni and cheese, gratins, and cream sauces.
It originated in Normandy, France, but is as common across Europe as sour cream is in the U.S. In the States, it is more expensive and less accessible than in Europe, but thankfully, it can be made at home. There's a recipe for it on What's Cooking America, and Harold McGee talks about it briefly here--you place room-temperature whipping cream and a little buttermilk (also room temperature) in a jar and shake it; leave that out at room temperature (or a little warmer) overnight, stirring once or twice.
You can use sweetened crème fraîche instead of clotted cream or whipped cream on berries, or simple dollop it over hot or chilled soups. It is the perfect accompaniment.
But crème fraîche, not widely made good use of in the U.S., also has its own unique flavor--one that should be celebrated and highlighted. In these three dishes, crème fraîche is the secret ingredient that provides a creamy tang that sets the dishes apart. Sweet spring peas with shallots, mint, and crème fraîche is perfect served warm or chilled as a spring-summer vegetable liaison. The macaroni and cheese is striped with zucchini, speckled with fresh thyme, and baked with Gruyère, cheddar, fontina, and parmesan. Crème fraîche sorbet is an unexpected, simple, and, of course, fresh no-machine sorbet perfect for summer berries. They are all fresh takes on an old French ingredient.
Later that night after my confrontation with Medusa, I slept over at Alexandra's. I was in my sleeping bag, nestled between Sarah and Kristen. Medusa came in to make sure we were all asleep. I hated sleeping away from home—I was afraid of the dark and hadn't been able to drift off. She came around and breathed on each of our necks to be sure we were still and fast asleep. When she came to me, I squeezed my eyes shut even harder, and held my breath—like stone. She must have noticed because she whispered "fresh" just before she stood and turned to tiptoe through the night.
Perfect Creamy Spring Peas with Mint
Springtime calls for peas. They are the garden darlings. This dish can be served at any temperature, and pairs the sweetness of spring peas, shallots, and mint with the creamy bite of crème fraîche. Plus, it's just about the easiest, most impressive vegetable dish to whip up in 5 minutes.
- Yield:Serves 4 to 6
- Sweet spring peas with shallots, mint, and crème fraîche
- 1 pound frozen spring peas
- 1/2 large shallot, minced
- 2 teaspoons unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup crème fraîche
- 1 tablespoon chiffonade of fresh mint leaves, plus more for garnish
- Macaroni and cheese:
- 1 pound mostaccioli or ziti 1/2 cup grated fontina
- 1 cup crème fraîche
- 1/2 cup grated zucchini (1/2 zucchini)
- 1/2 cup grated Gruyère
- 1/2 cup grated sharp white cheddar
- 1/2 grated Parmesan
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, plus more for garnish
- Salt and pepper
- Crème fraîche Sorbet:
- 2 cups crème fraîche
- 1/4 cup light corn syrup
- 1/2 cup sugar
For the sweet spring peas with shallots, mint, and crème fraîche: Bring a pot of water to a boil, and salt it well. Add the peas, and blanch for 2 minutes. Drain, and shock in ice water.
Meanwhile, sauté the shallot in the butter on medium-low heat in a wide sauté pan. Season with salt and pepper, and sauté just until the shallot is soft and translucent.
Add the peas to the butter and shallot, and heat through, allowing all excess water to evaporate. Turn off the heat, and add the crème fraîche and mint. Serve!
For the mac and cheese: Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Bring a large pot of water to boil, and salt it well. Boil the pasta until just shy of al dente.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix together the crème fraîche, zucchini, all of the fontina, Gruyère, and cheddar, and half the Parmesan. Add the thyme, and season with salt and pepper. Stir until it is all perfectly combined.
Drain the pasta, and toss well with the crème fraîche and cheese mixture. Decant into a buttered baking dish, and sprinkle the top with the remaining Parmesan. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the top is golden. Let stand 5 minutes before serving, and garnish with some fresh thyme.
For the Crème Fraîche Sorbet: Whisk everything together, then decant into a loaf pan. Freeze until firm (several hours), and serve with raspberries and blackberries.