CR`EME FRA^ICHE. For an elegant touch to food, do as the French do

CR`EME fra^iche - the satin-textured, luxuriously rich cream - has charmed French cooks for many years. But it has never obtained wide-spread recognition in the American kitchen. This is unfortunate, for cr`eme fra^iche is extremely versatile, and its creamy texture and tangy flavor can enhance a variety of savory or sweet dishes. In France, large crocks of the thick cream are always available at local fromageries (cheese shops). The snow-white mixture is scooped into smaller containers and carried home, where it might be sprinkled with vanilla sugar and served with a bowl of fragrant wild strawberries, or combined with sweet chestnut pur'ee and drizzled with warm, melted chocolate.

French pastry chefs combine cr`eme fra^iche with sugar and whip it to a creamy froth. This concoction, known as cr`eme chantilly, holds its shape better than plain whipped cream and is used as a topping to enrich fruit tarts or to decorate elegant cakes.

When melted, cr`eme fra^iche can be used as a base for desserts or sauces. It can also be used in place of butter in breads and cakes, or used to make soft cheeses like cream cheese or marscapone.

Cr`eme fra^iche is similar to sour cream, yet milder in flavor and lighter in texture. But unlike sour cream, it will not separate when heated or mixed with lemon juice or vinegar, so it is ideal for making sauces.

Cr`eme Fra^iche 3 cups heavy or whipping cream 3 tablespoons buttermilk

In glass jar or mixing bowl combine ingredients, and stir gently and thoroughly. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel. It is important to let some air in.

Set container in a warm place, over a pilot light or on a high shelf in the kitchen. Let mixture ``ripen'' until it thickens - at least 6 to 8 hours, or overnight if convenient. On a warm day, the ripening process will usually take 6 to 8 hours; on a cool day, up to 24 hours.

While cream sits, the acid-producing bacteria, which have been added with buttermilk, will gradually multiply, resulting in a thick cream with an extra tang from the acidity.

Cover tightly and store in refrigerator, where it will keep up to 2 weeks. Chilling will thicken it even more. Once completed, you're ready to try some of the following recipes - or invent your own.

Cr`eme Fra^iche Brioche

This satiny dough produces a fine-textured bread with a tangy flavor. It's delicious toasted and served with orange marmalade or jam. The dough needs to chill overnight, so plan to make it one day in advance. Yield: 2 41/4-by-8 bread pans or 2 1-quart capacity brioche pans.

1 tablespoon sugar 1 tablespoon yeast (dry) or 1 cake fresh yeast 1/2 cup water, warm to touch but not hot 3 eggs, lightly beaten 1 1/2 cups milk, room temperature 1 teaspoon salt 4 1/2 cups all purpose or unbleached flour 1 1/2 cups cr`eme fra^iche 3 cups flour or more to form a soft dough

Glaze 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon heavy cream

Soften yeast in warm water with 1 tablespoon sugar until dissolved. Stir well. Add eggs, milk, salt, cr`eme fra^iche, and 41/2 cups flour, stirring well after each addition. Gradually add more flour until the dough is firm enough to be turned out onto a floured surface and kneaded. Knead for about 10 minutes, incorporating more flour as necessary.

Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Set in a warm place, and let rise 1 hour or until doubled in bulk. Punch down, cover, and place in refrigerator overnight.

The next day remove dough from refrigerator. Oil bread pans or brioche pans. On a floured surface, divide dough into 2 pieces. Shape and fit into pans.

If you are using fluted brioche pans, the brioche is traditionally fitted with a topknot or crown. To do this, set aside about 1/2 cup of dough from each loaf. Mold the remaining dough into a large ball, and fit into prepared pan. Roll the smaller piece of dough into a teardrop shape. Make a crisscross incision on the top of the larger ball and insert the pointed end of the teardrop into the incision.

Set dough in a warm place and let rise until doubled in bulk. Because dough is cold, it may take from 40 minutes to 11/2 hours.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Brush tops of brioche with glaze. Bake 40 to 60 minutes, or until loaves sound hollow when tapped with a finger.

Remove from pans and let cool on rack before serving. Cr`eme Fra^iche Marscapones

These molded, heart-shaped marscapones are fragrantly scented with vanilla, lemon peel, or lavender and served with fruit. Fresh, edible flowers pressed into the top of the cheeses provide an elegant decoration. (Not all flowers are edible, so be sure to consult an authority before experimenting.)

Equipment Cheesecloth 4 porcelain heart-shaped molds with holes for draining

If you do not have heart-shaped molds, any small plastic containers with holes poked in the bottom for drainage will work, as will small wicker baskets. Line these containers with cheesecloth.

1 1/2 cups cr`eme fra^iche 3 tablespoons sugar Seeds from 1/4 vanilla bean, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract Edible flowers for garnish: rose petals, violets, pansies, carnations, or lavender leaves, washed and patted dry. Optional flavorings: 2 teaspoons grated lemon rind or orange rind or 2 teaspoons dried lavender blossoms (a delicate, unusual flavor)

Add sugar, vanilla, and optional flavorings to cr'eme fra^iche. Mix well and set aside.

Cut cheesecloth into pieces large enough to line molds, and fold over on top. Dampen cheesecloth with water and ring out excess moisture. Line molds with damp cloth, letting excess material drape over sides of mold.

Place edible flowers face down on cheesecloth in decorative pattern. Fill molds with cr`eme fra^iche mixture. Smooth tops with a spatula, then fold remaining cheesecloth over tops.

Place molds on plate or cookie sheet (to catch drips). Cover with a sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper. Set another plate or cookie sheet on top and weight with a heavy object. Let marscapones drain 1 to 2 hours at room temperature. Chill before serving. Serves 4.

To serve: Unmold and remove cheesecloth. Serve with fresh fruit. Strawberries, blackberries, cherries, raspberries, and apples are all delicious.

Mexican Gateau With Coriander, Lime, and Cr`eme Fra^iche Sauce 1 1/2 to 2-pound package unboned chicken breasts 4 8-inch round flour tortillas 1 4-ounce can green chilies, roasted and diced 2 whole allspice or 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice 2 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1 1/2 cups cr`eme fra^iche 1/2 cup sharp Cheddar cheese, grated Salt and pepper to taste 2 tablespoons creme fra^iche 2 tablespoons Cheddar cheese, grated

Place chicken, allspice, garlic, cumin, salt, and pepper in saucepan. Cover with water and bring to boil uncovered. Cover and simmer 30 to 40 minutes, until chicken is tender. Remove chicken from liquid and let cool. Skin and bone chicken. Shred into bite-size pieces and set aside. Combine chicken pieces with diced green chilies, 11/2 cups cr`eme fra^iche, and 1/2 cup grated Cheddar cheese. Season to taste. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

To assemble gateau: Place 1 tortilla in bottom of large baking dish. Spread with 1/3 of chicken mixture. Top with another tortilla, spread with more chicken, and repeat until mixture is used up, ending with a tortilla on top. Spread remaining 2 tablespoons cr`eme fra^iche over top of gateau. Sprinkle with grated cheese.

Cover baking dish with lid or foil. Bake 20 to 25 minutes. To serve: Cut into pie-shaped wedges. Serve with Coriander and Lime Sauce (below) and hot salsa. Garnish with coriander leaves. Serves 2.

Coriander, Lime, and Cr`eme Fra^iche Sauce 1/2 cup cr`eme fra^iche 1/4 cup fresh coriander leaves (also known as cilantro), finely chopped Juice of 1 fresh lime 1/8 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Combine ingredients thoroughly. Serve at room temperature.

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