By Sam Bojarski
When Maybelle Jadotte sits down for Thanksgiving dinner with her two children in their Brooklyn home, extended family members will join them virtually. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the smaller in-person gathering is just one more safeguard to take in a year filled with uncertainty and anxiety. But one thing that will be the same for the family, and in the homes of many Haitian-American families throughout the holiday season, is kremas.
“It reminds me of the best parts of growing up,” said Jadotte about kremas. “It’s like making gingerbread cookies,” she added. “There’s a family smell, taste and flavor.”
Whether made from an age-old family recipe or store-bought, the warmth of kremas’ sweetened milk, coconut aroma and cinnamon spice is sure to permeate many a household. And in a year filled with loss and anxiety, the eggnog-like beverage, spiked with Haitian rum or moonshine and strained to silky smoothness, will be a source of familiar comfort.
Flavored with ingredients native to the tropics, kremas is a mainstay at holiday events, weddings and other celebrations. As it spread throughout North America and beyond thanks to the diaspora, individual mixologists have put their own spin on the silky beverage. While flavorings and texture can vary, the tradition of sipping kremas is a part of every feast.
That’s why, the week before Thanksgiving, Leonne St. Louis was in her Leavenworth, Kansas, residence preparing kremas, as she does nearly every holiday season. As a pot of kremas bubbled on the stove, St. Louis shared part of her family history with the drink.
“My mother used to make it as a business, for a long time, when I was a little girl,” said St. Louis, 61, a native of La Gonave, the island northwest of Port-au-Prince. After starting out making her homemade kremas for family, St. Louis has begun building a wider clientele.
Family and close friends still enjoy St. Louis’s homemade recipe for the holidays and during special events like weddings. Although her nine children and 16 grandchildren won’t all spend Thanksgiving together this year due to COVID-19, St. Louis is still preparing kremas to distribute to loved ones.
“Any kind of event, when they know they need some, they just order,” she said.
The St. Louis family recipe contains mainstay ingredients like Barbancourt rum, cinnamon and condensed milk, blended with coconut. Instead of lime juice, St. Louis said she flavors her kremas with grated lemon peel.
However, throughout Haiti and the diaspora, flavoring and methods of preparation vary.
“There’s some people that make kremas really thick, some that make it really liquidy,” said Myriam Jean-Baptiste, co-founder of LS Cream Liqueur in Montreal. “It all depends on your family recipe.”
Jean-Baptiste, 36, saw the widespread appeal of the drink decades ago, when friends started asking how her parents made the cordial. This inspired Jean-Baptiste and her husband Stevens Charles to create the commercial version of kremas sold through their site.
LS Cream’s drink contains familiar spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla, but none of the condensed milk that gives kremas its traditional thickness, Jean-Baptiste said.
Queens-based Cremas Absalon, started by entrepreneur Charlene Absalon, makes variations of kremas with coffee and hazelnut. Kremas Nou, based in Brooklyn, sells drinks with tropical flavorings like pineapple and mango.
Down in Florida, Valmas Cremas makes bottled drinks with chocolate, strawberry and almond flavorings.
Regional variations exist within Haiti itself. In the south, Haitians tend to use coconut heavily, but in the north, pineapple flavoring is far more common. Individual families may choose to put raisins inside their kremas bottles, regardless of geography, Jean-Baptiste said.
People like St. Louis, who make the drink at home, need to adjust alcohol content based on personal preference. To feel an appropriate buzz after drinking a glass, certain family members might order “hot” kremas.
“I really control the alcohol,” St. Louis said. “But some people when they order say, ‘I need it a little hot,’ and some people say, ‘not too hot.’”
Chef Alain Lemaire, who runs a Florida catering company called Sensory Delights, makes a particularly hot kremas with grain alcohol that he says is 190-proof.
“It’s something they do in Haiti,” said Lemaire, of Miami. “I grew up on kremas not made with rum.”
An enduring tradition
Traditionally, the sugar cane derivative clairin, or kleren, has been used to spike kremas. Sugar cane has grown in Haiti since the 15th century, when the Spanish first brought the crop to the island of Hispaniola.
Aficionados like Jean-Baptiste have tried unsuccessfully to determine exactly when and how kremas first originated. What’s clear from their research however, is that Haitians, like other Caribbean peoples, used ingredients readily available to them to create a trademark spirit.
“It came into everybody’s life after a certain point, and everybody made it their own,” said Jean-Baptiste.
Lemaire said he is a traditionalist when it comes to the drink. His favorite personal recipe combines coconut milk, evaporated milk, sweet condensed milk high-proof alcohol, or moonshine. Spices include cinnamon, star anise nutmeg. He boils these ingredients, lets the mixture cool, then adds lime juice.
After letting it stand for a couple days, Lemaire strains the spices and serves his kremas with ice cubes, often garnished with lime zest and cinnamon powder.
“People flavor it with strawberry, banana, chocolate,” Lemaire said. “There are so many flavors that people do nowadays, but me, I just stick to the traditional.”
For Jadotte in Brooklyn, the unchanging family kremas recipe is part of what makes the holidays so special.
“What makes is that it’s familiar, and it’s the same,” she said. “We made it as a family, the same way that we learned how to cook traditional meals and baked goods.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this article included a recipe card that referenced a toxic type of alcohol. The correct distilled spirit to use in is alcohol, also called moonshine when homemade. Please use all alcohol responsibly.