Saturday, November 13, 2010

Beware the Succubus Heavy Cream

Cream soups are my savior when I am home alone with the kids for the evening. If I have a cream soup, and chicken, and a starch, and some kind of vegetable, I feel like that resembles a complete meal and even hits most of the food groups. 

But the other night, as I was preparing to pop open a can of cream of mushroom soup to dollop over my chicken and rice, I was lured to the fridge by that devastating siren of the culinary world, that ingredient that is concurrently evil and divine, and my entire evening changed: It was a pint of heavy cream, rich and fattening and glorious. The cream soup went back in the cupboard, the fresh mushrooms emerged, and it was on.

This was the third time in a week we had cooked with heavy cream, and I could not entirely suppress a feeling of guilt that I was prematurely blocking my toddler's arteries. It was likely, I told myself, that heavy cream and fresh mushrooms have less preservatives than the soup. I argued myself down, and into the saucepan went a waterfall of cream, on top of slightly browned portobellos.

The key to a really beautiful white sauce, I have been taught, is to let the heavy cream reduce and thicken, all the while adding generous pats of butter (not margarine ... why bother?) and sprinkles of parmesan cheese. The butter melts and spirals yellow in the lightly bubbling cream, as the parmesan softens and diffuses flavor. After several minutes of patient stirring with a wooden spoon, and the addition of tomatoes or rosemary or more butter, the heavy cream has abandoned its original form and become a graceful blanket of sauce. 

Done right, such sauce is blissful. Tossed with chewy gnocchi or ladled over chicken and risotto, a perfect heavy cream sauce can transform my Monday night from "dinner is the only barrier between me and the couch" to "maybe I'll linger a little longer at the table and just lick my plate while no one's looking." 

And even more enticing is that the same heavy cream used to dress your pasta can be whisked, with sugar and vanilla, into pillows of whipped cream for your after-dinner treat. Versatile, impressive no matter what it adorns, heavy cream is a decadent gift to noodles and pies everywhere. It is enough to make me forgive the blocked arteries. 

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