Mayor Jennifer Roberts thinks we need a song for Charlotte. I think what we really need is a cake.
Charlotte, we ought to own the charlotte. It’s a little British, a little French, a kissing cousin to trifles, tiramisu, bread puddings and summer puddings. What’s not to love? It isn’t hard to make and you can flavor it almost any way you want. It’s less baking and more of a construction project, and isn’t that perfect for us, too?
Like Charlotte itself, the charlotte is sometimes misunderstood, underestimated or dismissed as behind the times. How else to explain that in 27 years of writing about food in Charlotte, I have never tackled a charlotte?
Neither has Ashley Bivens Boyd, the pastry chef for both 300 East and Heritage Food & Drink in Waxhaw. When I reached out for her advice on a charlotte for Charlotte, she admitted she’d never made one either.
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For Valentine’s Day, we both agreed: It’s high time we tried. So we tackled it together, in a string of emails, Facebook messages and phone calls, putting together Boyd’s spot-on taste inspirations and my knowledge of what works in a home kitchen to come up with a charlotte that sings “Charlotte.”
The charlotte may have mostly disappeared in America, but it’s certainly alive in Britain. “The Great British Bake Off,” shown in America as “The Great British Baking Show,” has used it as a challenge.
“Downton Abbey” fans might remember it, too: When Mrs. Padmore was losing her eyesight, she refused to make an apple charlotte because she couldn’t read the recipe.
So, on that name: The original, the apple charlotte, was named for our namesake, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of King George III and a supporter of apple growers.
The other version, the fancier Charlotte Russe, was created by the French chef Marie-Antoine Careme. Careme had worked for George IV, Queen Charlotte’s son, and named his version for his new boss, the Czar of Russia, and George’s only child, the tragic Princess Charlotte, who died in childbirth. (If you’re watching “Victoria,” the death of Charlotte’s child left a void in the line of succession that eventually sent the crown to Victoria, and that’s enough history for today, class.)
So what is a charlotte? At heart, it’s a mold lined with bread or cake and filled with something. The apple charlotte is simple, sort of an apple bread pudding, while a Charlotte Russe is fancier: A ring of ladyfingers, usually, filled with mousse, Bavarian cream or pastry cream.
There’s a third version, too: In New York in the 1950s, bakeries in Jewish neighborhoods sold a dessert sometimes called a “Charley Roosh,” a cup with cake on the bottom, custard in the middle and a cherry on top.
Your move, Queen
Looking for a version of a Charlotte Russe that would make a fitting Valentine for Charlotte, I considered chocolate, raspberry and strawberry versions. I even looked at Paula Deen’s version. Finally, I turned to Ashley Bivens Boyd in a Facebook message: Psst. Got a good charlotte?
After admitting she didn’t have that one in her vast repertoire (“full disclosure: I’ve never made a charlotte”), her ideas started coming: “I'm more intrigued by the apple charlotte that seems to be more closely tied to Queen Charlotte. What about a hybrid version with ladyfingers, milk chocolate and/or caramelized white chocolate bavarian, and apple compote?”
“Brown butter ladyfinger sponge. And Carriage House apple brandy.”
“Now I'm hungry. And I want to make this.”
I knew readers would probably not make ladyfingers (called boudoir biscuits in England, and let’s not speculate on that). But apple brandy made in Lenoir? N.C. apples? And, oooh, what’s this about caramelized white chocolate? I turned the apple compote into glazed apple slices, wrote up a recipe and emailed it to Boyd.
She emailed back, with chef tricks, suggestions and more advice: Add a little lemon juice when you caramelize the apple slices. Instead of browning butter, save a step by melting it with the brown sugar. Here are some tips for caramelizing white chocolate in the oven. After you caramelize it, keep it from seizing by melting it in a little cream.
Armed with her advice and a lot of scribbled notes, I hit the kitchen. There were bumps and adjustments. Getting ladyfingers to stand up straight is a job for four hands, although I finally hit on a trick: Use the crispy kind, called Savoiardi, around the edges and brace them with a bulwark of the soft, cakey kind on the bottom. (Both are usually in the produce section, near the berries).
I glazed thin apple wedges with an easy brandy caramel to decorate the top, then used the caramel to flavor a top layer of whipped cream.
The best trick of all: That oven-browned white chocolate. Oh, where has this been all my life? It’s easy and it adds a little complexity to white chocolate, which can taste a little like Easter candy. Make sure you get white chocolate with cocoa butter in the ingredients: White candy coating or morsels won’t work.
Yes, the recipe is a little long. It’s the product of a pastry chef and a food writer, so what did you expect? I simplified as much as possible. But for Valentine’s, isn’t it worth a little effort? If you don’t want to wrangle ladyfingers, you could just make the caramelized white chocolate Bavarian and spoon it into dessert glasses. Heck, skip the dessert glasses – you could eat that caramelized white chocolate straight off the pan.
Quaking a little, I took a slice by 300 East and Boyd dodged out of the kitchen to grab a fork: Chewy apples, crisp ladyfingers, fluffy Bavarian. She declared it a success and agreed that working together on a recipe was a fun challenge.
“What actually surprised me the most? Thinking about how I’ve done this for 20 years and I’ve never made a charlotte. But I think I’m going to now.”
You’re welcome, Charlotte. Who needs a song?
Caramelized White Chocolate and Apple Brandy Charlotte
From Kathleen Purvis with help from Ashley Bivens Boyd. I used Carriage House apple brandy. Make sure you use white chocolate that has cocoa butter in the ingredients, and apples that hold their shape, such as Granny Smith, Pink Lady or Golden Delicious.
Caramelized White Chocolate Bavarian:
12 ounces white chocolate, such as Ghirardelli Premium White baking bars
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup cold water
3 cups heavy cream, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon apple brandy
Brandy Caramel Glazed Apples:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
3 tablespoons apple brandy
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 to 2 apples, peeled, cored and cut into wedges about 1/4-inch thick
1 package crispy ladyfingers (Savoiardi)
1 package soft ladyfingers
1/4 cup simple syrup (1/4 cup sugar dissolved in 1/4 cup hot water)
1 tablespoon apple brandy
Preheat oven to 225 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or nonstick foil. Break or chop the white chocolate into small pieces and spread on the lined pan. Place in the oven. Every 5 to 10 minutes, stir it with an ovenproof spatula, lifting and turning, until it turns a golden brown about the color of peanut butter. (It might thicken into a paste or get crumbly, which is fine. Make sure you turn it – the bottom browns first.) Cool to room temperature. (You can make it ahead to this point and refrigerate it you need. Chop it up again before you continue.)
Glaze the apples: Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a skillet over medium heat and stir in the brown sugar, cinnamon and vanilla. Add the lemon juice and vanilla, then remove from heat and stir in the brandy. Return to heat over medium low. Peel, core and cut the apples into wedges, then place in the skillet, turning to coat. Cook gently for 10 minutes or so, until the apple slices are tender but still hold their shape. Remove the apple slices and set aside on a sheet of waxed paper and pour the remaining sauce into a bowl and set aside.
Get the springform pan ready: Cut two 8-inch pieces of parchment paper, fold in half lengthwise and tap them together to make a long strip. Place in a 9-inch springform pan to form a collar and tap the overlap. Combine the simple syrup and brandy in a shallow bowl.
Working with a few ladyfingers at a time, dip each one briefly into the syrup and then stand up around the springform pan, sugared-side out. To keep them standing, place a single layer of the halved soft ladyfingers against them in the bottom of the pan. Continue dipping and standing the ladyfingers, adding more soft ladyfingers, until you’ve got a tight layer all the way around. Break a few soft ladyfingers into pieces and feel in any gaps in the bottom.
Make the fillings: Place 1/4 cup cold water in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over the top. Let stand 10 minutes.
Place 1/2 cup cream and 1/2 teaspoon salt in the top of a double boiler over water or in a metal bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Add the caramelized white chocolate and the softened gelatin to the cream and whisk gently until it’s mostly melted, then remove the bowl from the heat and continue whisking until smooth. Whisk in the brandy and set aside until room temperature (don’t cool it too much or it will set and have to be remelted).
Beat 1 cup heavy cream with an electric mixer until it’s stiff. Fold the whipped cream into caramel cream mixture, lifting from the bottom and turning until it’s thoroughly combined. Set aside or refrigerate until you’re ready to assemble the charlotte.
Whipped cream layer: Beat the remaining 1 1/2 cups cream with an electric mixer until stiff. Beat in the cooled caramel from glazing the apples. Set aside.
Pour the white chocolate Bavarian into the lined springform pan, smoothing the top. Top with the caramel whipped cream.
Arrange the apple wedges in a decorative pattern on top. Refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight. Remove the edge of the springform pan and the paper collar and serve. (You can slide the cake off the bottom of the pan, or just leave it on and place it on a serving plate or cake stand.)
Yield: About 10 slices.