By Sharon Biggs Waller
I have, and always have been, a voracious reader of English novels, and I’d often come upon references to “a cream tea.” This, I believed, was tea with cream in it until I reached the part where the characters tucked into scones and clotted cream. When I first traveled to England I had clotted cream myself, in a little teashop in Devon. It’s what heaven would taste like should heaven have a taste, I thought. And, as is my usual process, I then wondered how such a thing was made.
To American ears, clotted sounds like something’s gone wrong. To us, clotted refers to a bodily healing process, so it’s hard to make the leap to something tasty. But in England, clotted simply describes the look of the cream as it clings together. Once you bite into a golden scone spread thickly with this unctuous concoction, dotted with fresh sliced strawberries, you won’t care what it’s called because it is simply delicious. Clotted cream is also called Cornish cream and Devonshire cream (a nod to its geographical origins). Each area will claim that their clotted cream tastes different from any other. Devon’s cream’s flavor supposedly arises from the peat fires it is cooked over. I have to assume this is the way it once tasted historically, because in the UK today burning peat is frowned upon. Cornwall’s cream is said to have a coarser texture. Incidentally, Cornish Cream was awarded the EU’s Protected Designation of Origin status in 1998. In the past, clotted cream was also called clowtyd, clouted, clowted, and clawted.
In Devon, the clouting of cream goes back to the Tavistock Abbey estates in the early part of the fourteenth century. Because they had no churns to make butter, they scalded their milk. The resulting clotted cream was stirred and then made into butter. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Cornwall, clotted cream and butter became the best ways to preserve milk. Later, in British dairies, farmers’ wives would set out a bowl of cream to “settle” for several hours. They would then scald it and let it simmer overnight on their kitchen ranges. As it cooled the next day, the thick, yellow cream was skimmed off and layered into a bowl. Countries other than England also enjoy clotted cream. In Serbia it’s called kajmak, in Turkey it’s kaymak, and in India it’s malai. Clotted cream is often described as having a nutty flavor, which is achieved by cooking the cream without boiling it
Clotted cream is hard to find, if not impossible, in the United States, but it is simple to make. It takes a lot of cream to make a small amount of clotted cream. Hmm, you might say, as you survey the small amount of clotted cream that is yielded, but understand that clotted cream is really the cream of the cream of the crop. A pint of cream makes a little less than half a cup of the good stuff. If you’re cooking for a crowd, plan accordingly and make multiple batches!
Here is a recipe from Cornish Recipes Ancient & Modern by Edith Martin, published by the Women’s Institute in 1929:
Use new milk and strain at once, as soon as milked, into shallow pans. Allow it to stand for 24 hours in winter and 12 hours in summer. Then put the pan on the stove, or better still into a steamer containing water, and let it slowly heat until the cream begins to show a raised ring round the edge. When sufficiently cooked, place in a cool dairy and leave for 12 or 24 hours. Great care must be taken in moving the pans so that the cream is not broken, both in putting on the fire and taking off. When required skim off the cream in layers into a glass dish for the table, taking care to have a good “crust” on the top.
Here’s a simpler recipe, along with a recipe for a traditional English scone. Top a freshly baked scone with clotted cream and berries, and prepare to swoon!
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Clotted Cream Ingredients
- 1 quart (4 cups) heavy cream
English Scone Ingredients
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tbsp baking powder
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 4 tbsp unsalted butter, diced
- 1 egg, beaten
- 5 tbsp milk
- 1 egg beaten, to glaze the tops of the scones
You will also need
- For Cream: a double boiler or heatproof bowl and saucepan, pan of ice water. For Scones: mixing bowl, baking sheet, butter or parchment for the baking sheet, rolling pin, biscuit cutter or water glass
To Make Clotted Cream
- In a double boiler over medium heat bring the cream to 175 degrees. If you don’t have a double boiler (and I don’t) place a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of water. Stir a little so that the cream heats evenly. Once you reach 175, bring up the temperature—180 to 200 degrees. Keep that temp for about 45 minutes to an hour. At this point the cream will take on a cracked, yellow skin. Next, remove the bowl or top of your double boiler and settle in a pan of ice water to cool quickly. Cover with plastic wrap and stow in the fridge overnight. Then carefully skim the clotted cream off the top with a shallow spoon and layer it into a bowl. It will keep for about a week in your fridge. Use the rest of the cream as you would regular cream (it will be thinner than heavy cream, but can still be added to beverages).
To Make English Scones
- Preheat the oven to 425 and prepare a baking sheet with butter or parchment paper. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together and then work in the butter. Make a well in the middle and then add the egg and milk. Mix to form a soft dough.
- Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and then knead quickly until the dough comes together. Roll out the dough to an inch thick, then cut into rounds with a biscuit cutter or water glass. Move to the baking sheet and brush the tops with the beaten egg. Bake for 8 minutes or until golden.
- Serve your clotted cream with strawberries or jam on a scone, a slice of pie, or anything that lends itself to cream.
Thorne, John (1996). Simple Cooking. North Point Press, New York, NY.
McGee, Harold (1984). On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Scribner, New York, NY.
Trewin, Carol (2005). Gourmet Cornwall. Alison Hodge, Cornwall, UK.
Lane, John. In Praise of Devon: A Guide to its People, Places, and Character. Green Books, Cambridge, UK.
Mendelson, Anne (2008). Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk through the Ages. Knopf, New York, NY