Sunday, February 28, 2010

With wild mushrooms and cultured cream

I’ve found the perfect home for a bowl of homemade crème fraîche, and in comes in the form of a 9-inch tart, with mushrooms and butter and a sprinkling of thyme. 

I’m not exactly sure what inspired me to make crème fraîche in the first place, but it seems I thought it'd be useful to have around, for garnishing soups or fruit desserts. Or maybe it was from watching an old episode of The French Chef, when Julia Child goes to her favorite crémerie in Paris. If I remember correctly, the camera shows the shopkeeper dipping her ladle into this huge vat of thickened cream to pour some into a container, while Julia watches over her with a palpable, breathy excitement. I love how she sort of moans at the sight of it, and how her eyes widen as she hovers over the vat. She chats with Madame about the cream in exuberant, accented French, and you can't help but smile right along with Julia. When she serves it with a beautiful but flawed tarte Tatin, it makes for a memorable episode, indeed.

Anyhow, I’ve bought crème fraîche ready-made a few times, but I’ve discovered recently it’s much cheaper to make it at home, and easy. The only downside is that a cup of thick, fresh cultured cream—a tangy concoction chefs covet and adore—can only languor so long in the refrigerator, even when well-wrapped and chilled. It is the kind of ingredient that restaurants can use quickly for a number of things, but it’s harder to consume in a week’s time when you’re just two people. So I wanted to find a recipe in which I could use the entire cup, and soon.
Then it occurred to me that I’d been recently flipping through my copy of the Tartine cookbook, one of my favorites, and I’d noticed that their recipe for quiche called for crème fraiche instead of the traditional heavy cream. The authors Pruitt and Robertson claim, in their notes, that it's the secret to the unique flavor and lightness of their version. I’ve had a piece of their special quiche at the bakery in the Mission and it’s most definitely a swoon-worthy slice. But somehow quiche didn’t seem quite right for my purposes. I wanted something a bit more dressed-up and elegant, yet simple, preferably in which I could use the cremini mushrooms my sister had picked up the other day, to have on the weekend. I flipped through the book some more and suddenly, there I saw it—in the chapter titled “With a Glass of Wine.” It is really the Savory Section, and there’s not one recipe in it that I don’t want to try. I love the concept of a savory chapter in a book otherwise dominated by sweet pastry, but given equal attention. Most of them, too, are French, like gougères, these big cheese puffs made with Guyère. Others are more simple, like spiced cocktail nuts.
In particular, though, the recipe for a Wild Mushroom Tart caught my eye. It also called for a cup of crème fraiche, and it so happened that I had just bought a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom (made in France!) at a restaurant supply store on Clement street, thinking I would make a lemon tart for a special occasion. Well, the imagined occasion never arrived, which means I was still left with an empty tart pan and restless urge to bake. And so that’s what I did, later that afternoon. In stages, I made the crust and partially baked it, preparing to fill it with the mushrooms I had cooked and seasoned. Along with the creminis I bought some chanterelles and some shitakes. Finally, it came time for the final twenty minutes in the oven, until the custard puffed up a bit and set. It looked gorgeous, and I was happy.
That is, for a while. After it cooled and I sliced it, I knew for sure I had under baked my crust, and as a result the bottom didn’t quite reach the golden brown-flaky stage. The flavors were still good, and we each enjoyed a slice for dinner, but I wasn’t completely satisfied. I’d made this mistake before, with tarte tatin, in fact, and I felt silly for having done it again, afraid of overcooking the filling. Still obsessing about it the next day, I had a renewed vigor to salvage what was left; with the rest of the tart leftover, I cut two slices and put them on a foil-lined pan, then slipped them into the toaster oven for another twenty minutes. It was partly an experiment, but sure enough, it didn’t take long much longer for the crust to crisp up and get some color. Kyla and I both agreed that although it was good that first night, it was even better the next day, re-crisped and revived. It turned out even lighter and puffier in the center, and magically flaky on the outside, as tarts should be. The slightly tangy custard gently enveloped the earthy, buttery mushrooms, which were fleshy and delicate at the same time. It was difficult, we thought, not to resist a second sliver, albeit a tiny one, for that all-important last bite. It’s as lovely on its own as it is with an arugula salad, lightly dressed with lemon and olive oil. We toasted ours with a glass of sparkling rosé, then later, watched the Olympics.

In the 2007 film Waitress, the main character Jenna, played by Keri Russell, waits tables and makes pies for a small-town diner, and names each pie-of-the-day after an event from her own life. She hates her husband and dreads going to work because of her boss, but she loves to bake. Even when she is full of rage or sadness, she puts all her energy into that daily pie, which she takes great pride in making. Jenna is charming and sweet, but has this toughness about her too, and I like that. Literally, she pours her heart into those pies, and in return, they give her life, in every sense of the word.

Sometimes, I feel a little like Jenna after a particularly trying day, especially in February around a certain much-hyped holiday. Never mind all the heart-shaped chocolate cakes and pink frosting, which have their place, first I need some real food to get me through the night.* It doesn’t snow in San Francisco, but it does get cold when the sun goes down - that is, if we see the sun at all. From my experience, the best thing to do is such situation is to first lounge about for an hour or so upon returning home, maybe read the parts in the newspaper you neglected earlier, then make sure you have flour, butter, and some ice cubes around. After those steps, it’s time break out the tart pan and get baking already, for there might be a crust in your future just waiting to be filled with mushrooms and crème fraîche. There, in a round pan with a jagged edge, lays a hard shell with a soft center, to be eaten, and loved.
*For the record, I’ll never be one to refuse a truffle or two some time after dinner, when the kitchen is still warm from the oven. There, in the quiet void that takes place somewhere between eating and sleeping, you’ll often find me, looking for a treat. It’s a nice spot to visit, if you haven't been there for a while.

Homemade crème fraîche (French Cultured Cream)
Adapted from David Lebovitz

Serve with practically anything sweet, or find a savory use for it, like a quiche or tart. I also read that it makes a sauce when tossed with hot pasta. Mixed with equal parts whipped cream, it is nice on top of fresh berries, in summer.

- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 ½ tablespoons buttermilk

Place cream and buttermilk together in a small bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm place for 12 – 24 hours, or until sufficiently thick (cream will continue to thicken slightly once chilled). Stir once, then refrigerate in a covered container. Use within one week.