December 10, 2003

Last weekend when I was on my pie-baking adventure, I discovered that the caramel apple pie required heavy cream, and that we were out of it.  I had plans to go to my farmer’s market at Union Square to buy heavy cream from the dairy that has a stand at the market every Saturday.  The snow, and the 22-degree temperature, made me reconsider.  I went to the Greek market down the street, I picked up a quart of heavy cream, and, once again, I reflected on the state of cream in this city, this country.  And once again, I got mad.

With a few noble exceptions, the general state of heavy cream in the U.S. is terrible.  Most of the cream we can buy comes in half-pint containers and is ultra-pasteurized; that is, it is pasteurized at a higher temperature than traditional pasteurization.  This increases the shelf life of the cream.  It also gives it a weird, palate-coating taste.  It tastes cooked, or, in Karen Hess’s words, “boiled to death.” This is less of an issue if you are making caramels, or toffee, or fudge; with confectionery, you are boiling the sugar and cream and flavorings at such high temperatures that your cream is definitely going to cook.  It is more of an issue if you want to make whipped cream, or fruit fool, or custard.  Ultra-pasteurized cream is harder to whip, and again, there’s that taste, which makes itself present through any liqueur, any beautiful maple syrup, any four-fold vanilla.  Once you have tasted properly-pasteurized cream, you will be able to tell the difference.  Ultra-pasteurized cream taste like the half-and-half that comes in little tubs at diners—no surprise, since most half-and-half is sold ultra-pasteurized, too.

By U.S. law, any cream sold as heavy cream must have a minimum fat content of 36%, although the higher the fat content, the better the cream.  When I interned at a restaurant after pastry school, I had access to 40% butterfat heavy cream, which was beautiful to work with and heavenly to taste.  I tried to buy my own, but the only places that sold it were wholesalers, and even in my most high-volume, enthusiastic baking runs, I just couldn’t envision running through a case of heavy cream a week.  So I started buying heavy cream from the farmstand, where I couldn’t confirm the butterfat content but I knew the cream would be pasteurized properly.  It is very nice cream.  On my first trip to Vermont last year I discovered cream from Jersey cows, which is so superior to the cream of Holsteins that I bought pints and pints of it, and schlepped it back to New York via Amtrak, each pint wrapped tightly in newspaper to keep it cold.

The Greek market sells 40% butterfat cream.  I was delighted until I read the fine print.  It’s ultra-pasteurized.  I bought it anyway, and decided that it would make some nice caramels.

Lest you think that I am an effete crank about the whole cream issue, you are right.  But I am not alone.  Rick Stein understands me, and he does not lie when he says that British cream is the best in the world.  I am still tasting the gorgeous clotted cream I had on my first trip to Plymouth in 1989.  I have tasted the clotted cream sold in glass jars in the U.S.  It’s not bad, but it makes me long for the real thing.

Posted by Bakerina at 11:43 PM in stuff and nonsense • (1) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
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