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England: Cornish Clotted Cream

Clotted cream topped with jam
on freshly baked scones

To most people in Britain, the phrase "clotted cream" instantly summons up an image of teatime. Not just any teatime, either, but a slightly special tea, the famous Cream Tea, maybe experienced in a small country hotel or pub somewhere -- someplace cozy and homey -- with a spread of scones and sweet cakes, and little individual tubs (never big enough!) of rich, lovely clotted cream to spread on them.

Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be as clear an understanding of the clotted cream concept elsewhere in the world. Part of the problem may be the name itself, as the word "clotted" no longer sounds terribly appetizing to many English-speakers -- and Heaven only knows how the phrase translates into other languages. Sometimes even the way it looks, right out of the container, may put people off. EuroCuisineLady remembers one teatime on a transatlantic British Airways flight some years ago, when across the aisle an Asian gentleman opened up the little single-serving container of clotted cream that had come with the scone on his snack tray, took one look at the contents -- slightly crusted with golden butterfat on top -- and put it hurriedly aside as some bizarre Western dairy product that had gone terribly wrong.

Well, appearances can be deceiving, as clotted cream is one of the most delicious things imaginable to spread on a scone or other sweet biscuit -- faintly sweet, beautifully thick, rich and buttery, with a slight nutty aroma and flavor that comes from the ever-so-gentle cooking of the cream. Besides just spreading it on baked goods and spooning it over fresh berries or other fruit, clotted cream is great to use in baking and confectionery, if you've got enough of it. Clotted cream fudge is a favorite with the tourists in Cornwall and Devon, and clotted cream also can be used as an ingredient in ice cream as well as a wickedly rich and yummy topping for pies, cakes and other desserts. It even works well in hot drinks: hot chocolate or cocoa with a dollop of clotted cream melting gently in it becomes truly (as chocolate's botanical name Theobroma implies) a drink for the gods.

Fresh clotted cream

Possibly the ambiguity or potential unattractiveness of the phrase "clotted cream" is why some producers prefer to label this luscious stuff as "Devon cream" or "Devonshire cream", as a nod toward Devon and Cornwall, from which the best clotted cream still comes and where the high art of the Cream Tea is celebrated in tiny country tea shops and hostelries everywhere. In that westernmost of English regions, there is a long tradition of making extra money from home dairying by selling clotted cream as what would now be called a "value added product". In earlier times, making clotted cream at home was usually too much trouble for anyone who didn't already have a dairy of their own: city people were entirely delighted to buy it ready made on site (or by mail). It was also a great way for the home dairy owner to deal with all the extra cream that can pile up around the place when you'd already made all the butter you needed.

If you've never had clotted cream, you may first want to try some to see whether it's a delicacy you'd like to make at home. US readers can find it at online sources like The English Tea Store, British Delights and Britshoppe. (See also this Google search for more online sales sources.) UK and European users have a different range of sources: in the UK many supermarket chains and specialty food stores carry clotted cream, and you can also order online from the famous Rodda's of Cornwall. Irish readers, please note that the artisanal dairy Glenilen Farm of West Cork is now making and marketing its own clotted cream in the Republic.

If you're ready to try your hand at making your own clotted / Devonshire cream, it's not at all difficult. Click on "read more" for a complete description of traditional techniques and the easy modern method.

The original technique was simple, but somewhat intensive in terms of equipment and space. Here's a glimpse at how clotted cream was traditionally made in the last century:

Choose a wide, shallow earthenware pan. Strain very fresh (a cow is useful for this!) milk into this and leave to stand, overnight if summertime or for twenty-four hours in cold weather.

Then slowly, and without simmering, raise the temperature of the milk over a low heat until a solid ring starts to form around the edge.

Without shaking the pan, very carefully remove it from the heat and leave overnight, or a little longer, in a cool place. The thick crust of cream can then be skimmed off the surface with a large spoon or a fish-slice.

Serve spread on scones or tea cakes, or spooned over desserts such as fresh berries.

(from "Cornish Recipes: Old and New" by Ann Pascoe,
Tor Mark Press, Penryn, Cornwall ISBN 0 85025 304 7)

This approach would obviously strain the patience and equipment of the average cook working in a modern kitchen, as broad earthenware pans and (clean!) cold space to leave them in for a day or two are not going to be universally available... and neither is the cow. These days, commercial clotted cream makers use thermostatically controlled steam baths, which are also going to he hard to lay hands on: no casual cook could be blamed for seeking an alternative method.

You should be warned, though, that there are a lot of clotted cream recipes on the Web that suggest that their authors may never have seen the real thing, let alone tasted it. Some of these recipes suggest that you simply drain cream until it goes solid: while producing a nice homemade version of cream cheese ("green cheese", it would've been called in the old days, referring to the cheese not having been ripened), this isn't clotted cream at all.

Other recipes suggest that clotted cream is something like creme fraiche (it's not: clotted cream isn't at all sour) and get all tangled up with buttermilk cultures. Still others suggest cooking cream by itself. Unfortunately these come out too stodgy -- sometimes even greasy -- and lack the faintly sweet, distinctive, nutty taste of cream which has been allowed to rise naturally out of milk and then has simmered gently just to the scalding point on top of the milk below.

The following recipe produces a result with the right taste, due to that leisurely, gentle cooking on top of a layer of milk which shields the slowly concentrating milk sugars in the cream from the excessive heat that would break them down. Our recipe is adapted from Jane Grigson's take on the subject, which appears in her invaluable Observer Guide To British Cookery.

The crust on top of the simmering milk/cream

The ingredients:

  • 250 ml / approximately 8 fluid ounces heavy cream
  • 500 ml / approximately 16 fluid ounces fresh milk

For this recipe you will need a double boiler deep enough to hold all the liquid with at least an inch left around the top, to avoid spillage.

In the top of the double boiler, pour in the milk. Then add the cream, stirring it in gently.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap / clingfilm and put it in a very cool place for at least 24 hours. You can of course do this in the refrigerator, but what works slightly better is if you leave the milk in a part of your house that is not as cold as the fridge but still quite cool (say around 45-50 degrees F) and safe from marauding life forms (such as cream-loving cats).

During the 24 hours it's allowed to sit, the cream will rise to the top of the milk. When it has risen, get rid of the plastic wrap and meanwhile put just enough water in the double boiler to avoid the whole business overflowing when you put the top of the boiler in.

Now comes the only tricky part. Heat the water to 82 degrees C (180 degrees F), no higher. (The first time we did this, we spent an hour or so "calibrating" the element on the stove by putting a candy-making thermometer in the water to make sure the temperature remained even, and then making a note of the right setting for that burner.) The temperature is important because the cream must not under any circumstances be allowed to boil. If it does, the cream won't solidify correctly afterwards.... so be careful about this.

Skim off the clotted cream

Once you've got the temperature of the water steady, carefully put the top bowl of the double boiler in place and leave it there untouched and uncovered (to avoid having steam or other condensation drip on the clotting cream) until the top of the cream crusts over to a nubbly yellow-cream colored surface. This will take at least 1 1/2 hours, but it is smart to allow a significantly longer time, as the thickness of your local cream may vary. Check the heat every now and then during this period, as the water will increase in temperature on the old burner setting due to the top pan of the double boiler being in place.

When the top of the cream has crusted over, remove the top of the double boiler from the bottom and cool it rapidly in a bowl of ice water. Store the bowl in the refrigerator until it's very cold.

Using a skimmer or wide flat spoon, gently remove the crust of thick cream from the bowl. Put it in another bowl along with a certain amount of the creamy liquid from underneath. (This helps the cream firm up, for some reason or other.)

The clotted cream ready to be refrigerated

Then put the remaining milk/cream mixture back over the hot water and allow another (thinner) crust to form. Again, this may take a good while, so count on at least another hour and a half. Remove this crust as well, adding it to the first.

When you're finished, the remaining milk can be used in cooking (it makes really good rice pudding, by the way, and baked goods like yeast buns). Drain off the last liquid from the removed clotted cream, put the clotted cream in a small clean jar, cover and store in the refrigerator. You need to use this within four or five days of making it.

Clotted cream can be:

  • spread on scones or other small baked goods, with jam or jelly
  • used as a rich and yummy cookie filling
  • spooned over berries or other fresh fruit
  • used as a topping for cakes and pies
  • incorporated in pastries, sweet baking (especially brownies and fudge) and ice cream
  • stirred into both sweet and savory sauces

...the possibilities are endless!


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