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All Whipped Up About Cream

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One of the loveliest words of the English language must be cream, and all its variations. There isn't anything I don't like about cream--from the real thing, to being described as a peaches-and-cream baby, to a creamy cheese, to certain nuts (especially cashews) that seem to coat the tongue with cream. Describe a wine as creamy (or, better yet, a sparkling wine as both creamy and toasty), and I'm off to buy a case. About the only creamy thing I don't love is peanut butter; for that I want some crunch.

And creamery? Just the thought of the word makes my toes itch to press the gas pedal on a tour of the nation's best. Stories about old-fashioned creameries make me nostalgic for bygone days that I never even tasted. I suppose I ought to be embarrassed that one of the most recent things to make my heart flutter was a magazine story about a family creamery that produces unhomogenized milk in glass bottles, with a plug of cream at the top.

When I say cream, I mean the real, full-fat thing. I went to cooking school in Manhattan; if I tried to buy a cup of coffee while I explored the city, and asked for it with cream, I invariably got milk. So I was always happy to get to school and drink the great coffee we had there; the fridge usually had milk and cream to choose from. Sometimes I'd mix them for homemade half-and-half, but on my most exhausted mornings, I'd go for straight cream. Few things felt as down-home comforting as that, in the midst of such an anonymous city.

Figuring out what kind of cream to buy may seem confusing, especially now that local groceries carry not just "whipping cream" and "heavy whipping cream," but "light cream" as well. The difference is in the butterfat content; light cream generally has about 20 percent and can't be whipped; whipping cream has 30 to 36 percent fat; heavy cream has 36 to 40 percent fat. For most things, the whipping cream (sometimes called light whipping cream) will work fine, although I always used the more luxurious heavy cream in my catering.

Around here, it's hard to beat Maple View Farm's pasteurized heavy cream. Note that it's just pasteurized, not ultra-pasteurized. What's the difference? Ultra-pasteurized cream has been briefly heated at temperatures up to 300 degrees, which kills bacteria that sour milk. That gives it a longer shelf life, but it won't whip as well, and it has a slightly cooked taste. I vastly prefer pasteurized cream, both for flavor and for the knowledge that it's fresher. (Along the same lines, I buy only unsalted butter, both so I can control the salt content and because salt acts as a preservative, giving it a longer shelf life but also masking off-flavors as the butter starts to turn rancid.) The only problem with pasteurized cream is that it sours if you look at it cross-eyed, so don't buy it ahead.

Years ago, I tested various ways to make a homemade version of creme fraiche, in which a little buttermilk thickens the cream. Made with the grocery store's ultra-pasteurized cream, this recipe rarely worked. Instead of a thick, tangy cream, what I usually got was a slimy, gelatinous mess. But with Maple View's pasteurized cream, I created a thick, creamy, tangy delight, useful for sauces or soups because it won't curdle when boiled, and good for topping fruit or desserts. It's unclear why it makes such a difference, but it may be that the high heat used in ultra-pasteurization kills off bacteria that would be beneficial to the thickening process. To try making your own, stir together 1 cup whipping cream and 2 tablespoons buttermilk in a glass jar or bowl. Cover and let stand at room temperature from eight to 24 hours, until very thick. Stir again, cover, and chill; it will keep about one week. It's fabulous as is, but can also be lightly sweetened with confectioners sugar or flavored with other spices or herbs, and it will whip to soft peaks if desired.

When I thought about what recipes best highlight the joys of cream, my list got long fast. Ice cream is obvious, especially if it's a pure version made without eggs. I love my electric Cuisinart ice-cream machine, which uses a canister that I keep in the freezer (actually, I keep two), and I use Ben and Jerry's ice cream book for inspiration. (If you want to make one of their recipes that uses raw eggs in the base, buy pasteurized eggs for safety.) But even my best ice cream rarely lives up to the mint chip ice cream of memory, courtesy of N.C. State's cows: My parents often took us to the much-missed Friends of the College concerts at Reynolds when I was growing up, and afterward, if we'd sat still but not so still as to be asleep, we'd get creamy, super-fresh ice cream at the student union. (Now I get that ice cream once a year, at the state fair, but somehow it's not quite as special as those late-night treats.)

Of course, before you get started on recipes, you need to know how to make perfect whipped cream. Start with very cold cream, preferably pasteurized, in a medium bowl (when whipping egg whites, you need a large bowl so there's space to incorporate lots of air; this is less important with cream). It's not hard to whip pasteurized cream with a whisk, but if you opt for an electric mixer, start on low speed and work your way to high slowly, to lessen splattering. Hang a kitchen towel over the top of your mixer, letting it hang over the outside edge of the bowl, to catch any splatters. For a lightly sweetened cream, add 2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar per cup of cream just as you start to see the cream hold its shape. Don't overbeat; for almost everything, you want a softly whipped cream (with a hand mixer, this takes about 55 seconds total for soft peaks and 70 seconds if you want stiff peaks).

If even that sounds like too much work, consider a cream whipper that uses nitrous oxide canisters, such as one made by Isi. These whippers--a tall container with a squirt tube at the top--can keep cream fresh and handy for a week or two, and they always seem to be a hit at parties (or maybe we have especially simple friends). You can even make a simple chocolate mousse in the whipper, a dangerous discovery for me.

But the best way to appreciate cream in its purity may be panna cotta, an Italian dessert that translates as cooked cream. Not too sweet, but smooth and oh-so-creamy, a little ramekin of panna cotta is about as simple and satisfying a dessert as they come. Top it with a chocolate sauce made of nothing but chocolate and, of course, cream, and prepare to swoon.

Cook's notes: You could go nuts with variations on panna cotta, flavoring the cream while it heats. Try it with a little coffee (I use instant espresso powder), a fresh bay leaf, or a touch of almond extract. Generally, though, I prefer to leave my panna cotta fairly plain, and play around with the sauce instead. Try steeping flavorings in the cream, then straining the sauce before serving. Mint is fabulous (you can use mint extract, but try a few gently crushed or torn mint leaves instead); a sprig or two of rosemary is a surprising but sweet combination, as are a few basil leaves. A dash (no more) of anise extract also works well. Or add a touch of liqueur to the sauce; try Kahlua, Triple Sec, Chambord (raspberry) or Sambuca. This recipe is adapted from my book Desserts From an Herb Garden. Whole Foods (Wellspring) stocks dried lavender flowers with the bulk spices. EndBlock

Panna Cotta with Chocolate-Lavender Sauce

Serves 4; can be doubled

1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons cold water
2 cups heavy cream, divided
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract, divided
3/4 teaspoon dried lavender flowers
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips or chopped bittersweet chocolate

Rinse four 6-ounce ramekins (measuring about 3 inches across) with cold water; drain but do not dry them. Set aside in a small baking pan.

Make panna cotta: In a small bowl or measuring cup, sprinkle gelatin over cold water and set aside. In a medium saucepan, whisk together 1 1/2 cups cream, sugar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Over medium heat, bring to a simmer and let simmer slowly, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and gently whisk in softened gelatin until dissolved (try to avoid making too much foam). Divide among ramekins; cover loosely and chill 4 to 24 hours.

Make sauce: In a small saucepan bring lavender and remaining 1/2 cup cream to a boil. Off heat, whisk in chocolate and remaining 1/2 teaspoon vanilla until smooth. Pour sauce through a strainer to remove lavender. Chill if not using shortly (if sauce gets too thick, reheat it over low heat, whisking).

To serve, spoon a small amount of warm sauce onto each of 4 dessert plates. Run a thin knife around the inside rim of the ramekins and invert panna cotta over sauce. Drizzle with remaining sauce as desired.

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