In theory, it seems as though cream sauces should be a snap, right? If you heat cream, which is a liquid, and add cheese, which melts with heat, the result should be a happy, easy peasy, yummy swim of delight for your pasta, right?
Well, of course, anyone who’s tried cheese sauces knows that it’s just not that simple. There’s that moment when you think you’ve done it, when the whisking has done its job, when you’ve got a velvety sauce in the pan, and then – whap! The sauce shatters into unappealing globules sitting in watery liquid. You have no more emulsion going on — as in no more bridge between the fat and liquid, no more diplomacy, no more getting along. They have taken their toys and gone home. Whoever said that breaking up is hard to do never knew a cheese sauce.
So yes, there are ways to recover from such heartbreak, but I’m never able to remember them while I’m swearing at the pan. Shouldn’t there just be some way to avoid it? Thankfully, there is. Enter the magic ingredient – crème fraîche!
I was first introduced to this product several years ago when I interviewed Sadie Kendall of Kendall Farms. Once on a career path to become a lawyer, she became a cheesemaker instead (crème fraîche is essentially a cheese). In doing so, she not only helped introduce this product to a larger market than just chefs, but also became one of the first artisanal products to emerge from San Luis Obispo County.
But why is crème fraîche able to come to the rescue? That question was answered thanks to the innate culinary knowledge and sleuthing abilities of Deborah Scarborough, chef/owner of Black Cat Bistro in Cambria. She explained that curdling occurs in almost all dairy products when they are heated because the milk proteins bind up together so tightly that all of the moisture gets squeezed out of them. Crème fraîche contains a higher fat content than most dairy (about the same as heavy cream), and it’s already an emulsion — the fat and protein molecules are already bonded together. Essentially then, the fat molecules in crème fraîche act as a barrier, as vigilant chaperones so the proteins don’t get into a nasty street fight and ruin your sauce.
Well, there you are! And yes, I can hear your cries of “Oh no, higher fat content!” from here, but calm down. You’re not going to be using an ice cream scoop to portion out the crème fraîche for your pasta sauce – you’ll only need a tablespoon or so for it to work its magic.
Given that you’re only using a bit at a time, it should also lessen the sticker shock. About half a cup will set you back a few bucks, but the Kendall Farms crème fraîche will also last about 12 weeks. You can freeze crème fraîche, but the texture will change considerably because that emulsion breaks down a bi, so use it in cooking, not something like dips where you’re relying on its creaminess. (Freeze some dollops in an ice cube tray for easy access to pop into sauces, soups, and such.)
You can also make your own crème fraîche, but keep in mind that it does take about 24 hours to develop so plan accordingly. Also, the taste won’t be as nuanced and multi-layered (unless you get an active culture specifically for making it.
Alright, now that the fear is gone, go forth and be saucy!!