“Hm-hmm! Damn that liquor smells good!”
I stood in Charlene Absalon’s high-rise Long Island City apartment, watching the IT professional pour a bowl of dark rum into a bigger ceramic bowl, already full of sweet-smelling ingredients. Charlene was making Cremas, a Haitian cream liqueur that I grew up sneaking sips of at family parties.
“Haitians historically use 95 proof,” Charlene said. “I find that dark rum works better, then by the time I add everything, Cremas Absalon comes out at 15 percent alcohol.”
By comparison, Kahlúa is 20% ABV and Bailey’s is 17%. Whether the 15% alcohol found in cremas is enough for you is really a matter of taste.
“Some people are like, ‘Well this isn’t enough! We need more! It isn’t strong!'” Charlene told me. “And some people are like, ‘Whooo! It’s hot!'”
I was drawn to Charlene’s story for the same reason she was drawn to starting her brand: We both grew up knowing that a Haitian household just isn’t complete without a bottle of Cremas. Similar to Puerto Rico’s Coquito, minus the eggs, the cream liqueur is traditionally made with boiled milk, coconut milk, and enough dark liquor to make any lush blush. Now the Haitian staple is ready to make a craft culture debut thanks to Absalon. But delivering a new liqueur to the mainstream isn’t the end game here. It’s really about pushing Haitian culture in America to new heights, and getting the country’s culinary tradition the attention it deserves.
Charlene had no idea that concocting Cremas in her kitchen would make for a great side hustle when her aunt showed her how to make the sweet, boozy beverage a decade ago. But Haitians, rocked by earthquakes and hurricanes, have a way of embracing life’s surprises. A longtime food passionista, Charlene tinkered with her aunt’s recipe for years before mixing the perfect blend of ingredients and making a bottle of Cremas she wanted to share.
The feedback from family and friends was so positive that in 2015, Charlene’s sister insisted she’d make Cremas as wedding party favors.
“I was like, ‘Oh that’s stupid. Who would–who does she think I am?’” Charlene explained, as I fought to stay focused with the smell of spices swirling around me. “She finally convinced me, and I made these five-ounce bottles and people loved it!”
A perfectionist, Charlene continued playing around with the recipe before she felt it met her high standards. Once she brought the product to market, it took Charlene six months of selling Cremas Absalon to be convinced that her beloved beverage could be a legit side-gig.
“I realized, Haitians have great product, they have great food, they have great culture.”
Charlene’s pride in her Haitian roots is why all six of her hand mixed Cremas flavors are labeled in Haitian Creole, the official language of the island nation. As she explains, no one searches for other ethnic foods by their translated American names, so why should she have to dumb her labels down?
“You have French products; they’re French. It’s the norm, right?” she asked me. “It’s like, as an American, you go to the store, and you see, even if you can’t pronounce it right, it doesn’t matter. I feel like Haitians kind of change their culture a lot to adapt to others cultures rather than the other way around. So I figure I’d keep the names. This is our culture. We have to own it.”
In Haitian creole, Cremas Absalon‘s flavors are Kafe (coffee), Zanmann Chokola (chocolate almond), Epis Joumou (pumpkin spice), Kannèl (cinnamon) and Noisette (hazelnut). It’s always about keeping the product as authentic as possible for the first-generation American.
While Absalon’s distinctive cremas is legit and hits the nostalgia receptors, it’s not exactly the same as the cream liqueur Haitians are used to. Natives of the island nation are much more familiar with a coconut-milk based cremas with a thicker consistency — a drink that would require ice cubes to be drinkable. Traditional cremas is also heavy on the alcohol, thus overpowering the other ingredients. That’s not the case with Cremas Absalon, which is made with sweetened condensed milk, spices, vanilla and a mix of dark liquor.
“Mine is lighter and smoother. It’s not as gritty because at times you have that grit in Haiti,” Absalon explained to me while mixing her cremas ingredients with a spatula in a ceramic bowl. “Mine you can put in the fridge to thicken a little, but it still doesn’t require ice.”
The smoother texture makes Cremas Absalon perfect for any fellow food obsessives. It’s permutable and natural for baking, desserts, syrups, etc.
“You can cook with it. You can bake with it. I feel like with the traditional recipe, you couldn’t really do that. I’ve made glaze for pancakes,” she said, using the spatula to waft scents in my direction. “I’ve put it in my pancake. I put it in my cakes. I put it a lot of times in my banana smoothies!”
Charlene also makes truffles and ice cream — which feels thrilling to me, as the daughter of a Haitian immigrant. I can rarely find the foods I grew up loving on store shelves, to see them get remixed like this is awesome.
After finally deciding that her recipe was completely dialed in, Absalon felt ready to experiment again. Pushing the envelope of what Cremas is capable of, she began working on an ice cream, acting on the suggestion of a friend. The alcohol content made this trickier than it first seemed — in fact, it took the perfectionist two years to feel confident in her product.
“Oh man, I was so shocked that [the ice cream] turned out so bad!,” Charlene laughed as she remembered her initial foray. “But you keep doing it until you get it!”
The oldest of three siblings, Charlene is excited to showcase the different ways you can use cremas. It’s not just about the liqueur and as of yet it’s most certainly not about money, what it is about is a desire to uplift the Haitian culture.
“I want the world to see what Haitians can do because we are not all about poverty,” she said. “When I talk to people, it often feels like they didn’t know Haiti existed before the earthquake.”
Eventually, the New York-native hopes to move her business from her Long Island City apartment to a factory. The goal is to have Cremas Absalon in restaurants, stores, and bars, placed side-by-side with other cream liqueurs.
“I feel that we’re going through like a Haitian renaissance right now. It’s like a whole bunch of Haitians doing a whole bunch of things,” Absalon said. “They’re improving. They’re making things better. I think we should strive for that.”
The goal is a lofty one, but worthy one, too. If Charlene gets her wish and Cremas goes mainstream. Not only would it show the world that Haitian culture has plenty to offer, but it would also help with keeping traditions alive.
Often, first-generation Americans get stuck between two different cultures growing up. As they become older, American culture becomes the more dominant culture while the culture of their parents falls to the wayside. Eventually, each generation slips further away from their roots until there’s no longer a connection to the past and the native culture dies. With Cremas Absalon, Charlene hopes to do her part — acting as a gatekeeper of sorts and preventing such a disconnect for Haitian-Americans.
“That’s what Cremas Absalon is about,” Charlene told me as we got ready to drink. “It’s about how we can improve not only the product but aspects of the culture as well.”