It didn’t look like a crime scene, but it was.
The occasion was a Sunday brunch for food bloggers and writers at a pretty village café in a still-bucolic corner of upstate New York. Penetrating questions and brave attempts at answers about the once and (we hope) future food-writing profession flew across a sunny room for a couple of hours, abetted by satisfying eats. The backbone of the simple menu was Belgian waffles topped with a choice of fresh peaches or strawberries. And the crowning glory was an accompaniment of whipped cream. Lordly, generous bowls of it on every table, looking like poufs of cloudlike whisper but promising the enveloping richness that no other substance delivers. One glance and you knew that it wasn’t any old whipped cream — have I mentioned that we were in very fine dairy-farm country? This cream, whipped to delicate heights, was clearly as noble a collaboration as has ever been achieved between the right cows and the right people.
Two hours later, it sat there untouched.
Well, I exaggerate. One or two out of maybe a dozen bowls might have been missing a dab. But at our table, nobody except me even looked at the stuff. Whole quarts of beautiful — and undoubtedly costly — heavy cream must have gone into its making; lord knows if the restaurant was able to salvage it for any other purpose. And mind you, this meal was the finale of a rousing, collegial, all-too-short country jamboree for people who love food! “Crime scene” is a mild term.
How to explain the tortillas?
Would smart, motivated foodies enjoying another kind of meal have been equally happy ignoring Winesap apples? Tuscan lardo? Pedigreed Spanish almonds? I know they wouldn’t have ignored handmade tortillas, because at the previous evening’s dinner they had demolished dozens of these turned out by a one-woman assembly line to wrap around morsels of Mexican-style spit-roasted pig. Brunch-time whipped cream, however, might as well have not existed.
I’m not sure I understand all the reasons. One clear lesson is that devotees of excellent locally produced food can have a strange talent for not seeing it when it appears under their noses; misplaced priorities aren’t limited to proletarian demographic segments. And somehow fresh dairy products tend to escape foodie notice unless tagged with some epithet like “chef,” “handcrafted” or “Greek.”
But why? Is whipped cream just too simple to command respect? (If that’s the problem, I can promise the insecure that one part of it is anything but simple: finding the right cream. Nothing whips as easily and beautifully as unhomogenized, non-ultrapasteurized heavy cream from well-managed cows, but the difficulty of scoring any at supermarkets, groceries and even many gourmet stores ought to confer some snob value on the result.)
Missing the foodie train of thought
Is it a matter of lingering fallout from the 1980s phobias that set food-industry flacks to glorifying fat-free surrogates for anything from French fries to chopped liver? Disdain of all farm products that can’t hitch a ride on the artisanal-passengers-only express? A constitutional superiority to anything whose essential flavor and texture invite the awful epithet “bland?” Whatever the reason that bowls and bowls of heavenly whipped cream could sit in reach of 50 or so engaging, intelligent food writers without being fought over to the last smidgen, the thought of pearls before swine is hard to suppress.
Still, I refuse to give up the cause for lost. Not to diss the molecular-gastronomy contingent’s joy in the wonderful world of aerated colloids, but I’ll take plain whipped cream over trendier “foams” any day. What’s more, I think thousands of people would join me if they knew how it really ought to taste: freshly and corporeally there, but as “bland” — or more accurately, elusive — as the touch of air or dew or thistledown.
The trick to whipped cream
Yes, it really is an aerated colloid — what you get by taking an emulsion of butterfat globules dispersed in whey and agitating it until the globule membranes become halfway disrupted and begin forming fragile bubble-walls around tiny pockets of air introduced by beating. The hitch is knowing the right point to stop, before the process slops over into a second chemical card trick known in plain English as butter-making. But anyone can whip cream, without fancy equipment or scientific knowledge:
1. Get some heavy cream. If ultrapasteurized and/or homogenized products are all you find, the cream won’t whip as fast or taste as magically fresh, but it will still be gorgeous. Chill 1 or 2 cups of cream along with a beating implement and container — a food processor or electric stand mixer with bowl, a hand mixer, a whisk or an old-fashioned rotary egg-beater with any bowl able to accommodate about 2 cups per original cup of unwhipped cream.
2. Put the cream in the bowl, start whipping and watch it quickly or more slowly thicken and expand to a light airy mass. Pause from time to time to judge the texture; stop when it’s either softly billowy (the orthodox gourmet preference) or very stiff, almost ready to turn to butter (my preference). If you like, sprinkle in a little granulated sugar and a touch of vanilla extract in the last minutes; I’d suggest 2 teaspoons of sugar and a drop of vanilla per cup of cream, but there are people who like much more of both.
3. Bask in the enjoyment of what you’ve just made.
4. And if you’re ever lucky enough to attend one of Molly O’Neill‘s Long House Food Writers’ Revival sessions in Rensselaerville, N.Y., I hope you’ll devour any real, honest-to-God whipped cream you see on the brunch table at the Palmer House Cafe.
A bowl of whipped cream. Credit: iStockPhoto