Cream has never struck me as a relative term. But recently, I came to realize that it is. I’m talking about the cream that floats on the top of cow’s milk. As it comes from the cow, milk readily separates into milk and cream. The cream rises to the top.
But you already knew that. It’s the stuff of clichés and metaphors.
That’s ostensibly why homogenization was invented. Homogenization keeps the milk and the cream from separating. One would think that was for the purpose of keeping a certain amount of fat content (cream) inside the milk. But now that I’ve come to question the absolute concept of cream, I’ve begun to question that notion too.
You see, for a few years now I’ve bought my dairy products from an Amish farm. That means that I was able to purchase unhomogenized, unpasteurized milk, butter and cream. The cream I obtained from the farm, while far more expensive than what’s available in your local store, is not even remotely similar to the stuff delivered in those cardboard cartons. In fact, you wouldn’t even be able to get it out of them, because it almost doesn’t pour. In fact, when suitably stirred together–even cream itself tends to separate into layers of different densities–it pours about like blackstrap molasses. When you first remove the lid from its plastic container, the cream on top has to be spooned out. That’s why we tend to mix it with the slightly thinner cream on the bottom.
But even that thinner cream exceeds the thickness of so-called “heavy cream” obtained from the supermarket. Mystified by this, I began to do some research. After all, we already know that everything is figured to a cost-benefit ratio in manufacturing. If it costs more to do a recall and make the repair on a defective auto, for example, than it does to settle the resulting lawsuits for deaths and injuries, then the recall doesn’t happen voluntarily.
So presumably someone somewhere is paid to figure out just how much milk they can put in that carton labeled “heavy cream” before it steadfastly refuses to whip when you beat it with your average mixer. As for putting it in our coffee, most of us are pushovers. We’ll use milk–even skim in some cases–so half-and-half is as much like cream as most people ever expect.
Personally, I’ve been avoiding drinking coffee in public–whether Starbucks or otherwise–in part because I’ve learned to drink my coffee with real cream, not the watered-down stuff.
The classifications, please…
Sure enough, there are several classifications of cream based on how it was prepared the old-fashioned way. I can still remember that when we milked the cows on my grandparents’ farm, the milk got poured from those big stainless-steel buckets into the separator. A separator is simply a centrifuge designed to spin the milk, separating out the cream. Then the cream went into a churner–whose mechanism I can no longer recall–and became butter.
The point is, nowadays we “make” cream, or really separate it from the milk using mechanical processes that are a bit more hi-tech, possibly, than my Amish farm uses. The old-fashioned way to make cream is to pour the fresh milk into shallow pans and wait for the cream to rise to the top. After 12 hours, you have what is called “single cream.” And after 24 hours–probably as long as you would want to let fresh milk sit around–you have la crème de la crème, so to speak: “double cream.” That, it turns out, is what I’d been paying a premium for while enjoying real cream from the Amish farm.
It is also a real snap to make into so-called whipped cream. Simply add a bit of sugar and, if you’re being fancy, a bit of cocoa powder, and by the time you’ve mixed the ingredients, it’s what you’d call whipped cream. No need for an electric mixer, simply stirring by hand will do it. Whip it too much, in fact, and you’ll quickly get butter. (I don’t think you’ll have much luck making butter from the “heavy cream” sold in your grocery store, but go ahead and give it a try if you’re curious.)
Another way to make cream is by clotting the milk, which must be unhomogenized, of course. That means heating it in a pan so that the cream rises to the top. This actually provides an even richer cream than “double cream,” which has about 48% milk fat.
In case you are avoiding using these real creams for fear of dropping dead because of a heart attack, keep in mind that the French still liberally use this stuff, and their coronary health is to be envied by the majority of Americans.