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Spring's Cold Comfort: Fresh Cream Desserts

I don't remember the first time I ate creme brulee, but I do remember the sensation. What I expected was something like pudding, quick to slide down the throat and vanish from memory.

What actually happened, of course, was something completely different. The first quivering spoonful was so smooth, I almost doubted it was there. Then the sheets of rich, sweet silk coated my tongue, bringing the world to a standstill. Shards of brittle caramel followed, underscoring that momentary satin sensation.

I'm not sure there is a luxury more absolute than the taste of real cream. It is the very taste of excess. Maybe it's not surprising that I've forgotten the circumstances of that first taste, because the shocking richness of cream has a way of erasing everything else in the room — the sound of silverware, the clatter of dishes, the conversation of your dining companions.

Anne Mendelson, the author of the vastly entertaining Milk (Knopf 2008), told me cream wasn't always so highly regarded. It wasn't until the 17th century, she says, that it even occurred to anyone to try to whip cream — which they did laboriously, using bundles of straw or twigs and carefully removing the foam, layer by layer, to a sieve. If you've ever beaten cream by hand with a whisk, you know it takes about 15 minutes if you're feeling perky, and the cream's nice and cold. (It's five minutes with an eggbeater.) But in the centuries before the invention of balloon whisks, using the straw-and-sieve method took an hour. Whipped cream was a rich man's dish then, and it still feels a little over-the-top.

But when I talk about cream desserts, I'm not speaking of whipped cream, which so often serves as a sugary afterthought to some other confection. I'm talking about desserts that are all about cream for cream's sake, such as creme brulee, pot de creme and the old-fashioned, mouthwatering Bavarian creams. Or the desserts that are basically cream discreetly corseted by starch — cream puffs or rice pudding. I harbor no prejudice when it comes to the spectrum of cream desserts. I think I'm woman enough to love them all.

Now, there are those who prefer their cream desserts in the fall, when their pure, go-for-broke spirit falls right in with one blowout holiday dinner after another. I favor them in the spring, when the cows traditionally come into their new milk. (And also when hens traditionally start laying again, and eggs abound. It's a time to be prodigal with the yolks, the secret agent that so often sets the cream.)

If you're lucky, you can get top-notch milk and cream from small farms with Jersey or maybe Golden Guernsey cows, whose milk has higher butterfat content and creamier flavor than your average Holstein's. In the spring, you may notice the milk taking up the grassy freshness of the new pasture after a winter spent indoors on hay and grain. When we've eaten our last sweet potato, when we've exhausted our inventiveness with cabbage, when the deprivations of Lent — real or imaginary — are fresh in our minds, that's the time for dairy decadence.

In my quest to resurrect springs past last week, I managed to dig up my first recipe for creme brulee — six varieties, torn out of the back of a Gourmet magazine. It's yellowed now, torn in several places and stiff with the splashing of countless egg whites separated with varying degrees of skill.

I also went hunting for some record of an excess of cream in my diary that year (let's boldly not say what year it was), only to be greeted with a chronicle of excess of my own: Did I really spend three hours after work each day making dinner for myself? Did I really go out dancing for another three hours, nearly every night? Didn't I have anything to do?

The voice of my 8-year-old son brought me back to reality. His favorite part of creme brulee, he was saying, is cracking the sugar crust. "Not the propane torch?" I remark in surprise, adding, "I suppose it's one of your top three favorite desserts." "No," he corrects me, listing them: lavender lemon bars, chocolate orange rinds, apple pie. I may think of cream as the very symbol of irresistible excess, but for Noah, it's what he thinks of as, well, perfectly adequate.

Mothers and sons, I presume, will always disagree on what is sweetest in life. But still, I dare to hope that someday, he too will stumble on the lesson of real cream: Once in a while, too much of a good thing turns out to be exactly enough.

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T. Susan Chang
T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.