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Crema Mexicana

June 23, 2013

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Crema,  crema espesa (thick cream),  crema Mexicana are a few names of the thick velvety cream used to enrich sauces or top foods like enchiladas or quesadillas.  It is also used in sweet settings as with breakfast or dessert crepes.  It is very similar to crème fraiche,  the French counterpart and in fact many homemade recipes are the same.  D. Kennedy notes that the cattle,  feed, and weather produce the flavor differences between the French and Mexican variety.  You can find crema in supermarkets that stock Latin-American products but I haven’t come across a brand that is thick enough to dollop on my tostadas. They tend to be more on the runny side.  Maybe you’ll have better luck finding one.  The original authentic style crema or crème fraiche  uses natural bacteria present in heavy cream that has not been pasteurized.  The natural bacteria is killed in the pasteurization process for commercially made heavy cream.   Yogurt, buttermilk, or sour cream is therefore used in the homemade versions of crema to provide the bacteria needed to get the fermentation going.

So what is crema or crème fraiche? In very general terms it is heavy cream that has fermented with the right kind of bacteria.  Heavy cream is the part of milk separated or skimmed-off that is richer in fat.  Bacteria breaks down the lactose in the cream into lactic acid which thickens and gives the crème tartness.  Because of its higher fat content, crème fraiche or crema will not curdle like sour cream when heated.  It also has a smoother texture.  Harold McGee explains and puts it all in perspective with great detail in his classic “On Food and Cooking, the Science and Lore of the Kitchen”,  a highly recommended book for those interested in the how and why of all aspects of food.

I found several recipes which were very similar except for the amount of buttermilk.  Rick Bayless’ recipe uses 2 teaspoons buttermilk per cup of heavy cream while Diana Kennedy uses 3 tablespoons of buttermilk.  To find out how they differed I made a sample of both and one with 1 1/2 tablespoons buttermilk.

At the end of about 8 hours,  they all had the same thickness,  however the bowl with 3 tablespoons buttermilk thickened a little faster than the one with 1 1/2  T. buttermilk and much faster than the 2 teaspoon version.   They were already thicker than the commercial brands I had tried.   After refrigerating them overnight, they all greatly increased to the same degree of thickness.  I noticed that after the refrigeration and then sitting at room temperature for a while, they all began to soften to the 8 hour fermentation phase.  It will thicken again when put back in the refrigerator.  As far as flavor,  I could not detect that the 3 tablespoon buttermilk batch had become anymore tart than the other 2.

Put 1 cup of heavy cream in a saucepan and gently heat over low flame to take the chill off.  Do no let it get over 100 degrees.  Put it in a bowl and stir in 2 teaspoons buttermilk. Cover with plastic and let it ferment at least 8 hours in 80 to 90 degree ambient temperature.  If you don’t have a warm enough room, maybe setting the bowl near a pilot light will work.  I let my testers go for 12 hours. It should thicken within the 8 hours.   Put the crema in the refrigerator for further thickening.

A typical use for crema is to top tostadas as in the above photo.  You can flavor the cream with chopped fresh herbs,  fresh squeezed lime or lemon juice,  roasted Poblano pepper,  chipotle pepper,  whatever you want to add. How about roasted red bell pepper puree?

Or you might lace the crema with a bit of honey to go along with your favorite fruit for a simple but luscious dessert.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 3, 2013 6:23 am

    I actually went to two different stores looking for Mexican crema today with no luck. After reading your post, I want to try making my own. I’m planning on using crema to make rajas con crema.

  2. August 3, 2013 10:46 am

    Sounds like a very good use for it! It’s also a great way to use up any extra fruit you have in the refrigerator.

  3. Laura permalink
    May 25, 2014 6:27 am

    I love you right now!! I was so confident to make one recipe until I saw another with less buttermilk. Thanks for experimenting for me 🙂

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