Creme fraiche is not nearly as fancy as its French name would suggest.
It is easy to find, easier to make and imparts a tart but sophisticated taste to everything from raspberries to smoked salmon.
"It is like an even more wonderful cream," said chef Frances Chumley of Whole Foods in Annapolis, who demonstrates how simple it is for home cooks to make their own.
"The flavor is kind of tangy and a little bit nutty," she said. "And my favorite way to use it is on a nice cobbler, right out of the oven."
More versatile than its sweet cousin, whipped cream, or its common cousin, sour cream, creme fraiche ("fresh cream" in French) was once a rare commodity until it was popularized by television chefs.
Now, every bistro worth its accent grave has a soup, an entree or a dessert that features creme fraiche.
Anne Mendelson, author of Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages, writes that Normandy is considered the premier French source of cream and butter, and "Norman creme fraiche has long been the gold standard."
American versions can be found in most grocery stores. (Don't look for it in the dairy aisle; it's usually displayed among the specialty cheeses.) But it can be pricey, perhaps $4 to $5 for an 8-ounce package.
So why not make your own? Combine a quality heavy cream and a little buttermilk, and overnight you will have something that will make baked potatoes, a pear galette or homemade tomato soup just that much better.
Creme fraiche also provides a pleasing visual element, said Dawn Walls, a catering supervisor at Whole Foods. Its rich ivory color is a contrast in the center of asparagus soup, carrot soup or chili. It is best known, perhaps, for its elegant contrast atop caviar.
"On something like butternut squash soup, you can add a dollop and then draw a toothpick through it to create something beautiful on top, and it is strong enough to hold itself together," she said.
She likes to use a dollop on top of a heavy spread slathered on a slice of baguette. Or on a fig, sliced in half and wrapped in prosciutto.
"That's pure sweet, pure salt and the tang of the creme fraiche," said Walls.
The secret to creme fraiche is the bacterial culture added by a small amount of buttermilk or, in some recipes, sour cream. It is "good" bacteria, which means it is safe to leave creme fraiche at room temperature while it develops overnight.
Its strength is its versatility. Creme fraiche can be flavored with anything from horseradish to anise to add another level of complexity to the food it accents.
Kathy Farrell-Kingsley, author of The Home Creamery, says that home cooks can use creme fraiche every day, flavoring it with fresh herbs and a tiny bit of lemon juice and serving it over fish or vegetables or eggs.
She also suggests adding it at the last minute to enrich pan sauces or adding a bit of honey or vanilla and spooning the creme fraiche over fresh fruit.
Creme fraiche can rescue recipes with more than visual charm. Add it to whipping cream that will not whip, or cream sauces that have "broken."
"Is creme fraiche better for you?" asked Chumley with a smile. "No." Not with something like 30 percent butterfat, it isn't.
creme fraiche tips
* Make sure all bowls and utensils are very clean to avoid contamination.
* Use pasteurized heavy whipping cream because ultra-pasteurized will take longer to thicken.
* This process can take anywhere from 24 to 36 hours. Stir and taste every 6 to 8 hours. The creme fraiche is ready when it is thick, with a slightly nutty, sour taste.
* Chill creme fraiche for several hours before using.
* Be careful not to heat the mixture more than about 85 degrees because it will separate.
* Don't add creme fraiche to hot food until the end of the cooking process or just before serving.
Based on interviews, books and Internet resources
(makes about 2 cups)
17.6 ounces heavy cream (about 2 cups)
1 ounce buttermilk (about 1/8 cup)
Over medium heat, stir together heavy cream and buttermilk in a saucepan. Heat to body temperature. (Check by touching with your little finger.) Remove and place the mixture in a bowl and cover with a tea towel. Let sit overnight to thicken.
Serve or store in refrigerator for up to a week.
Recipe courtesy of chef Frances Chumley of Whole Foods in Annapolis
Per tablespoon: : 52 calories, trace protein, 6 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, trace carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 20 milligrams cholesterol, 7 milligrams sodium