A family affair, with Chocolate

One of my most prized possessions is a copy of the notebook where Abuelita (my grandmother) wrote her favourite recipes. It carries years of family traditions in her own handwriting. Crema Automóvil is one of them.

This rich chocolate cream is a family showstopper that has been in our hearts and tables since the 1920’s. It is a staple on Birthdays, Christmas, New Year’s and the occasional Sunday lunch ‘just because’.

While my friends were asking their mothers to bake them cakes or cookies, I asked for Crema Automóvil. So did many of my aunts, uncles, cousins and relatives.

My mother learned how to make Crema Automóvil through Abuelita, her mother-in-law. Abuelita was taught by Tía Elena, my Grandfather’s aunt. Abuelita always said that Tía Elena was the closest she had to a mother-in-law and the woman who taught her how to cook.

Tía Elena got the recipe from La Nonna, her mother-in-law, four generations before me. It is clearly a unique and special family tradition, or so I thought, with a very particular name.

Names can be misleading.

If you’ve never had Crema Automóvil before, I understand you might be apprehensive just with the name. I agree, to an extent. I wouldn’t crave a dessert called Car Cream if I didn’t know better.

No offence to whomever came up with the idea, but the name of this dish is incredibly misleading.

A dessert so luscious and elegant deserves to be known for something that is more appealing. ‘Chocolate creme’, although basic, is better than ‘Car cream’. 

However, the name has sweet origins. A story that feels so remote these days, that centennials may imagine it happening in black and white. Crema Automóvil became popular back in the day when cars new to Caracas, my hometown. The thick, dark cream served on flat dishes resembled the puddles that car oil left on driveways.

I find that endearing. Although a terrible name, it reminds me of a time when people dwelled on what that really matters, and marvelled on new things, albeit simple.

Crema Automovil
Crema Automóvil. Photo by Félix Ríos.

Coming of age, and skill.

I remember the first time I made Crema Automóvil. My mother tried to manage my expectations, warning me that it is difficult to get it right on your first try. But Abuelita’s recipe made it seem so simple that I was confident I could do it.

The truth is I was 12 and, as every teenager, I was stubborn or borderline arrogant.

To make Crema Automóvil (the Boccardo way), the cook must achieve a sweet spot between a dense pot-de-crème and an airy mousse. Thus, the core of the instructions includes two complicated egg preparations. 

The first is creaming the egg yolks with the sugar, and incorporating the mixture into the melted chocolate, without letting it curdle. 

Eggs start cooking when exposed to even the lowest heat. This occurs because, as explained in Harold McGee’s encyclopaedia of kitchen science, heat breaks the egg’s proteins which coagulate very easily. Hence, if the melted chocolate is still very warm, the residual heat will cook the egg, causing the mixture to curdle. 

The other tricky step is foaming the egg whites into medium-stiff peaks. This is something that can be easily under or overdone in a millisecond.

According to McGee, egg whites form a protein network that can collapse when the proteins cluster too tightly. Therefore, the same proteins responsible for curdling the chocolate mixture make and break the peaks of strongly beaten egg whites.

My first Crema Automóvil looked far from a velvety Chocolate cream and closer to a melted Hershey’s ‘Cookies and Cream’ bar. I insisted on eating that split, spotted goo. My stubbornness earned me a two-day belly ache.

Resilience and my interest in keeping family traditions pushed me to try again, and again. 23 years later, Crema Automóvil holds firmly in my fridge every once in a while.

Traditions, old and new.

The Crema Automóvil of my father’s generation, and of those that have followed, is Tía Elena’s adaptation. She noticed that the original Boccardo recipe was too rich. So, she reduced the amount of sugar and butter for a lighter result.

Abuelita never changed the recipe, and like Tía Elena, always served Crema Automóvil on its own. My mother started serving it with a slice of pound cake. She knew that my father finds the cream too rich, so she added the pound cake so he could enjoy it a bit more.

I see that as a gesture to her marriage, but also to her family. The recipe of my mother’s pound cake is her aunt Nena’s, the Queen of desserts on my mum’s side of my family. Without realising it, my mum created the perfect dessert with the best of my two worlds.

These days, I honour my mum’s gesture by serving Crema Automóvil in the same way she does. Now the pound cake is the beloved Torta Pon of my husband’s aunt Olga. Again, the best of our worlds.

Crema Automovil with pound cake
Crema Automóvil with Torta Pon. Photo by Félix Ríos.

It is unique, but not as I thought.

I grew up thinking that Crema Automóvil was a unique, original family recipe. One that belongs in a safety-box, with other high-value possessions.

I remember asking about the name, but not if it was exclusive to our family. That, I chose to assume. Perhaps the way family members spoke so fondly about this dessert, as well as all the stories of occasions when it was enjoyed, enabled my romanticised naive thoughts.

In August 2019, Venezuelan Journalist Alberto Veloz published this article (Spanish) on Bienmesabe, the gastronomy section of news portal El Estímulo. As I read, each statement made me smile a bit wider.

Not only do other Venezuelan families have similar recipes, but they also call it Crema Automóvil. Furthermore, it was prominent enough to earn a spot in Don Armando Scannone’s Mi Cocina, a key reference book on Venezuelan cookery. In his book, the recipe is under a different name.

I never considered experimenting with Crema Automóvil, either by altering the ingredients or serving it with something other than, or in addition to, pound cake. Perhaps out of respect to family traditions, or maybe because of personal nostalgia. Veloz’s article opened a world of possibilities, giving me the excuse I thought I needed to free myself from all that.

As it turns out, Crema Automóvil is pleasanter when made with chocolate of at least 60% cacao concentration. But if using one with a higher concentration (70% or more), it is best to increase the amount of sugar in the mixture, or serve it with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream.

Crema Automovil with raspberries
Crema Automóvil with raspberries. Photo by Félix Ríos.

Raspberries or cherries on top make a sweeter Crema Automóvil dance in your palate. Nuts such as pistachios, walnuts and hazelnuts will make a slightly bitter version sing. These combinations of flavours and textures are all very obvious, yes, but I’m only getting started with this experiment.

The results might be fascinating, though nothing will ever beat the one for which I waited impatiently at Abuelita’s dining table. 

Our Crema Automóvil is clearly not a family original, or a one-of-a-kind recipe. Yet, the stories we have created around and alongside this dessert for nearly a century are unique to us. Those are carved in our collective memory so strongly that by now this dessert is likely part of our DNA. The same that gave us prominent noses, a passion for food, and fierce love for each other.

And that’s all that matters.

Crema Automovil recipe

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