There are several ingredients, butter and cream cheese are two of them, that are so ubiquitous that we would never consider making them from scratch. These, like ketchup and mustard, are the prime materie — the primary materials — that inform daily cooking. But how edifying it is to watch a cup of heavy cream solidify into something to spread on bread! Cream cheese, on the other hand, is more passively derived by “drip evaporation” — where sour cream sits in a coffee filter for hours, emitting extraneous liquid, to become a delicious fresh cheese firm enough to cut with a knife. It is, in fact, the same method that turns yogurt into labneh, a voluptuous thick yogurt not unlike the Greek yogurts on the market today. Who knew?
But first, the butter. Two years ago when I wrote EAT FRESH FOOD: Awesome Recipes for Teen Chefs, I was interested in exploring how certain foods came to be the way they are–to help kids (and myself) understand the origin and alchemy of turning one product into another. It turns out to be easy and fascinating to produce butter at home. All you need is heavy cream and salt…and a sturdy electric mixer. You beat and beat the cream and after a while the solids separate from the whey (the milky liquid), leaving you with a ball of pale butter. The flavor develops as it sits and it can be used right away (talk about immediate gratification!) or left in the refrigerator for up to 1 week — allowing the taste and color to deepen. The cream is beaten on high speed for 7 minutes at which time it begins to thicken and become smooth. Then it will change suddenly and separate into small solids; a few seconds later a ball of butter will appear. It might be fun to take your camcorder and document the process! One cup of heavy cream will make approximately 1/2 cup of butter.
And it was fun to figure out how to make cream cheese. Trial and error and a large leftover container of sour cream lead to the serendipitous result. I have made my own labneh from yogurt for years by letting it sit in a large coffee filter placed in a plastic cone — just like you were making coffee. The idea is to let all the residual liquid drain from the yogurt. Sometimes I let it get so thick that I could roll the resultant “yogurt cheese” into balls and then suspend them in olive oil and spices — just like they do in Israel. This recipe for cream cheese is quite similar and hardly needs instructions. Simply put 1 cup of sour cream in a coffee filter or in a paper-towel lined sieve. Place over a measuring cup or bowl to catch the liquid. Drain overnight in the refrigerator; the mixture will be very thick. Add salt to taste. One cup sour cream makes approximately 3/4 cup of cream cheese. Yum. The taste is cleaner and fresher than the stuff you buy and very satisfying to do. Here today, a smear tomorrow. Enjoy!
1 cup heavy cream
large pinch salt
Put the cream in the bowl of an electric mixer. Let sit 15 minutes to warm up. Use a bowl guard or wrap the bowl and top of the mixer in plastic wrap to prevent cream from splattering everywhere. Beat on high speed for 7 minutes until the solids separate into small pieces and the milky liquid is extruded. A few seconds later, a ball of butter with form. Drain off the liquid and press down on the butter to release any remaining liquid. Mush it around with a large spoon to “knead” it. Add a large pinch of salt and stir. Put the butter in a small crock or ramekin. Cover and refrigerate up to 1 week. Makes 1/2 cup
Homemade Cream Cheese
1 cup sour cream
large pinch salt
Put a large paper coffee filter in a large coffee filter cone or mesh sieve and place over a bowl to catch the liquid. Refrigerate overnight until very thick. Discard liquid. Turn out cream cheese; it will be very thick. Add salt to taste. Makes 3/4 cup