culture club

Friday, Mar 28th, 2014


Spring has yet to spring here in Chicago. Temperatures still hover around freezing, and snow flurries obscured my vision as I walked home from work earlier this week. This hasn’t stopped my internal clock from sounding the bells of seasons change with no regard for the wintery climate outside. Without even a suggestion of the seasons first fruits and vegetables my own internal spring is growing restless and deeply unsatisfied.

To distract us from the doldrums of this long winter, we purchased Kilgus cream and milk and a handful of dairy cultures, and have been experimenting with the subtle changes we can occur in cows milk with a variety of bacteria.

Our little excalibur dehydrator is filled with various yogurts and keifers, all hoping for a spot on Avec’s brunch menu.

My oven spent the night on low, clotting cream for me, which came out nubbly and thick, and somewhere between velvet and butter.

Cream has been thickened at room temperature with the help of a sour cream culture, making me ask why we’ve ever purchased the stuff.

But the real excitement came from a half gallon of creme fraiche. I’ve fraiched many a cream in kitchens spanning the country, adding buttermilk and a little lemon to heavy whipping cream, and setting it in a warm place in the kitchen to perform it’s magic trick. 48 hours later a rich and tangy dairy product could be harvested and chilled to thicken. It was for all practical purposes a hack, and at the time it was all I cared to know about creme fraiche.  With my heavy handed introduction of acid, my creme fraiche was much more like sour cream than the expensive and seemingly bland creme fraiche I purchased for 9 dollars a pint at a fancy grocery store.

This time, however, armed with a little pouch of live culture, we made a legit creme fraiche. I was quite impressed with the end result. It was richer, more nuanced, and possessed a pleasant acidity that didn’t hover as close to sour cream as my previous attempts.

Also excited by this batch of creme fraiche was my Pastry Cook Molly Svec. This batch was promised to Molly, who promptly bludgeoned it in a Hobart mixer until it broke completely. She patiently hand massaged the buttermilk from the fat, and shaped the newly formed cultured butter into a beurrage for the croissant on our menu.

We have been purchasing a european butter and pounding it into a malleable submission with a french rolling pin, a noisy endeavor to say the least. Molly promised she could do better.

Molly had spent some of her formative years as a bakers assistant to a passionate baker who makes some of the most fantastic croissants I’ve had.  His company, aptly named Beurrage sells their outstanding wares at the farmers market in Pilsen, the previously Polish, now predominately Hispanic neighborhood just southwest of the Chicago city center (and also where I call home!). Each beurrage folded into Beurrage’s dough is shaped from hand made cultured butter. It seems like a daunting task, hand making the butter for croissants. Don’t be put off, however. It’s a labor of love, for sure, but in a way as streamlined and time consuming as pounding and pounding and pounding cold butter into submission.

Culturing the cream is as easy as heating cream to 86 degrees, stirring in a packet of culture, setting it on a counter for 12 hours, then transferring it to the refrigerator for 12 hours. The cold creme fraiche is made easy work of a hobart mixer, and the only real hands on task in this process is kneading the buttermilk from the butter. Once the buttermilk has been pressed out, the soft butter is immediately shaped as a beurrage and chilled. It sets into the correct shape, and multiples can be made at a time. Because the burrage is given it’s shape before the butter sets up, it retains a flexibility that can’t be found again by manipulating butter from a block, and the risk of the fat leaking from the dough when baked is drastically reduced.

Ok, so you need to get a 2 day jump on this. But once built into a production cycle in your kitchen, it’s quite easy to manage.

The end result? Less greasy, crisper, and more flavorful croissants. In a world where the laminated doughs used by restaurants and hotels are so easily purchased in a frozen case, a croissant laminated in house with handmade cultured butter will truly stand out.

If you never laminate a croissant with handmade butter, take one thing from this post. Embrace the discovery brought into our kitchen by a few boring weeks, that the many of the dairy products we are using can be created in our own kitchens with ease, and the results alone are as worthy of a place on our plates as the recipes that call for them. The craftsmanship of culturing an outstanding dairy outshines many recipes that manipulate the same purchased products.

Croissant dough with cultured butter