Pots de crème is a type of French custard. It literally translates to “pots of cream” and was named so because the dish was usually served in delicate porcelain cups in 17th century France.
Custards are very simple, yet very versatile. They can be used as a carrier for many flavors, which is great when you can’t use a straight-foward, alcohol-based extract. When I have a botanical flavor that I want to contribute to a dessert, the quickest way I do it is by infusing the botanical into the liquid of my recipe, like a tea. The hemlock is a very delicate flavor, and I found an infusion to be the best way to get the essential oils to come through the flavor profile.
And just to be clear, we are talking about the hemlock TREE, not the poisonous herbaceous plant of the same common name. I wish it had another common name, but alas, the botanists before us have dictated the literature, and now we are stuck with a confusion of species. Always learn a plant by the scientific name to make doubly sure of its identity….anyways, the hemlock TREE is a lovely edible tree with subtle hints of citrus and evergreen. To me, it tastes like how a pine tree smells, but in all the right ways – I’ve tasted raw pine sap before, and trust me, it doesn’t taste like how the pine smells. While Christmas trees and car fresheners smell wonderful, it’s hard to imagine such pungent flavors in a dessert, but I’ve found hemlock to impart all the pleasantries of these aromas without the harshness. Lemon is a great pairing for the hemlock because it brings out the citrus notes and dulls some of the vegetal taste.
Pots de crème is very easy to make, but be sure to give yourself a full day to make it – especially if serving to guests – because it needs time to chill and firm up. The end result is a smooth, creamy, sweet dessert with a novel flavor twist. I think it’s so much fun to take something so familiar, like the smell of a Christmas tree, and reinvent it for another sense. And any gourmand at your dinner table will appreciate being served something a little new and exciting for his/her palette.