Charlotte à la gélée au coing (1961)

Heinrich Hurter's 1781 miniature of Queen Charlotte, wife of George III of England, framed with pearls and rubies. Formerly a princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, she has been proposed as the namesake of the classic desserts known as Charlottes. The miniature is held by The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection in London, England.

My husband and I were gratified recently when a friend recently told us he looks forward to our dinner and drinks invitations because we always have an unexpected guest list. This set us to beaming, obviously—our gatherings may not be perfect but we do try to make them congenial as well as spirited. Our village is so small that everyone knows one another, so planning a gathering enlivened with a few surprise elements is more difficult than one might imagine—blending old friends, new friends, couples, the unattached, conservatives, liberals, professionals, and free spirits into an amusing whole. The space issue can be another serious challenge: our dining table only seats eight people comfortably, yet we want each meal to be memorable. A stellar dessert always helps.

Recently I have become enamored of Charlottes, an age-old dessert basically composed of fruit purée encased behind a decorative fortress of liquor-soaked lady fingers. Its history is as complicated as its preparation is simple. No book agrees on the origins of the Charlotte though it seems clear that the baked fruit desserts of the Elizabethan age rank early in its genealogy and that the trifle is a close cousin. Given the Charlotte’s popularity in the late 18th century, some sources believe that the wife of George III of England is the dessert’s namesake, perhaps due to her love of apples (apple Charlotte is a culinary classic) or as a tribute paid by Marie-Antoine Carême, superstar chef to an enviable array of crowned heads. Another scholar believes the name can be traced to one Goethe’s fictional characters, a certain Charlotte Buff, heroine of a bestselling 1774 novel called The Sorrows of Werther. Complicating matters is the assertion of Richard Olney, in The French Menu Cookbook, that Charlotte correctly refers to the straight-sided metal mold used to prepare such a dessert—and only, by association, to the dessert itself. Then there’s the thorny issue of capitalization; does one or does one not? I like the formality of the capped C and am sticking to it.

Charlottes have been a frequent dessert in our house of late, washed with crème à la vanille and carried into the dining room on a fancy silver platter of no great age but splendid appearance. My first attempt was just before Christmas, inspired by a cookery book my husband and I often use: La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961). The creative countess offers several Charlotte recipes but one in particular caught my eye. Called Charlotte à la gélée au coing, it interweaves ladyfingers and quince jelly (coing is French for the little-used fruit), which certainly sounded wintery enough to me. Unfortunately I could not find quince jelly in time for a dinner party so resorted to melting down, in a sauce pan, a few shimmering blocks of quince paste I picked up at Whole Foods on Columbus Circle in New York City. This decision, I hasten to add, was not an unalloyed success. The flavor of the paste was too strong and the texture, even when melted, somewhat dense, but our dinner guests finished the Charlotte and asked for seconds. In the end all that remained was a few crumbs and a puddle of leftover crème à la vanille.

Since that evening I have relied on Mme de Toulouse-Lautrec’s recipe as the foundation for other, quite toothsome Charlottes, including one made with apricot jam and another with raspberry preserves, each of which has been resounding successes. I plan on making an orange marmalade version in the very near future.

The finished quince-jelly Charlotte, on its platter, covered in crème à la vanille, and ready to be carried into the dining room.

CHARLOTTE A LA GELEE AU COING WITH CREME A LA VANILLE (1961)

SOURCE: La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961)

SERVES: Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec states that the recipe serves six (6), but we had eight (8) people at dinner and several had second helpings.

CREME A LA VANILLE

INGREDIENTS FOR CREME A LA VANILLE

NOTE: Makes about two cups. You could also double the recipe, as I did, so there will be enough crême à la vanille to put in a pitcher as extra garnish.

1 pint whole milk

1/2 cup granulated sugar (NOTE: I used vanilla-flavored sugar, which my husband always keeps in the pantry; just insert a vanilla bean into a sealed container of sugar and allow the flavor to be absorbed.)

1 vanilla bean, cut in half, lengthwise

4 egg yolks

DIRECTIONS FOR CREME A LA VANILLE

1. Scald the milk and sugar in a sauce pan, with the vanilla bean segments.

2. Beat the egg yolks with a wood spoon in a large bowl.

3. Remove the vanilla bean and pour the hot milk mixture, slowly, into the egg yolks, and stir until well combined.

The vanilla cream, thickening over a low flame.

4. Pour the mixture back into the sauce pan and heat, over low flame, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, enough to coat the back of the wood spoon. Do not allow to boil.

5. Set the vanilla cream aside to cool and then refrigerate until cold and until ready to use.

INGREDIENTS FOR THE CHARLOTTE

1/2 cup kirsch (NOTE: I used the cheapest Polish cherry brandy I could find.)

1/2 cup water

3/4 pound ladyfingers, prepackaged (NOTE: Buy two packages to be on the safe side; either regular or gluten-free will work fine.)

1 jar quince jelly (NOTE: Almost any jelly or preserve will do.)

2 cups vanilla custard cream (NOTE: Recipe above)

DIRECTIONS FOR CHARLOTTE

1. Mix the kirsch and the water in a bowl and dip the lady fingers lightly into the mixture—do not soak them, just fully immerse each one before using. Line the bottom of the Charlotte mold with several moistened lady fingers; you will have to break some of the lady fingers into pieces for them to fit properly. Next line the sides of the mold, with the lady fingers standing upright. (NOTE: Since I wanted the Charlotte to be rather boozy, I dipped the lady fingers a few times, which meant I had to replenish the kirsch-water mixture.)

The Charlotte, in process.

2. Spread the bottom layer of lady fingers with jelly and continue alternating layers of jelly and moistened lady fingers until the mold is full. Finish with a layer of lady fingers.

The Charlotte, weighted with a jar of maraschino cherries and a wine coaster.

3. Cover the mold with a small plate weighted with something heavy so that the cake will be pressed together firmly. (NOTE: I used a big jar of maraschino cherries and a wine coaster.)

4. Chill the weighted mold for several hours in the refrigerator.

5. Gently unmold the cake onto a dessert platter—you might have to slide a knife carefully around the edges to loosen—cover with the custard cream, and serve.

A cross-section of Charlotte à la gélée au coing, drenched with crème à la vanille.

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Strawberry Tart (1964)


Life has been a little hectic on our blustery hilltop of late, which explains for the recent paucity of posts. My apologies for that, and I’ll try to do better.

Now that the apologies are out of the way, might I tempt you with some fragrant strawberries? I know they’re not in season right now and the department-store variety can be imperfect but my husband recently came across a recipe for a strawberry tart in one of our favourite vintage cookery books and couldn’t help making it for dessert a few days ago. Having been educated in France and Switzerland he has a weakness for Gallic culinary delights and often turns to La Cuisine de France by Mapie, Countess de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion Press, 1964). I think it’s likely his favourite cookery book. The dessert section is quite tempting, filled with all manner of delicious possibilities. Strawberry Meringue Tart, or Tarte aux fraises meringuées, is very easy to make, and it includes a step—the arrangement of the strawberries—with which our daughter, Catherine, could help. She’s pretty good in the kitchen, though she claims she most enjoys washing dishes. The tart was incredibly good, and the next morning, I even had a slice with breakfast.

TARTE AUX FRAISES MERINGUEES

SOURCE: La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1964)

SERVES 8

STEP ONE: TART PASTRY

INGREDIENTS

2 cups sifted flour

1 cup minus 2 tablespoons sifted all-purpose flour

2-1/2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 egg

9 tablespoons butter, slightly softened

DIRECTIONS

Heap the well-mixed flours on a working surface and fashion a well in the center. Into the well put the sugar, salt, egg, and slightly softened butter cut in small pieces. With your fingers gradually work the flour toward the center and add just enough water, teaspoon by teaspoon, until you have a very smooth and shiny ball of pastry. The pastry has to be kneaded slightly, but do it no longer than necessary. Let this pastry rest for several hours before using.

STEP TWO: THE FILLING

1-1/2 pints strawberries

2 egg whites

4 tablespoons sugar

DIRECTIONS

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Roll out the pastry and line a [well-]buttered tart tin with it. Prick well with a fork and bake 10 minutes. [After removing from the oven, reduce heat to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.]

Arrange the strawberries, pointed side up, in the tart. Beat the egg whites stiff and fold in the sugar. Spread the meringue over the berries [evenly] and bake at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 to 20 minutes or until the meringue is lightly browned.

One Terrific Tart

Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec's onion-and-anchovy tart, piping hot from the oven.

When I think tart or quiche, creamy egg- or cream-based fillings held within a framework of flaky pastry come to mind. So when my husband announced a couple of nights ago he was going to make an onion tart from the pages of La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961), I had some inkling of what we would be dining on last night.

Boy was I wrong.

Tarte aux oignons brestoise, or onion tart in the style of Brest—an unromantic industrial port and naval base in Brittany, in northwestern France—is like no tart I’ve ever had. (Note: A reader of this blog has pointed out that there is no such thing as a tarte in the style of Brest, however, and this recipe is a pie-size variation on the classic pissaladière of Nice, a sort of flat anchovy-and-onion pizza.) The pastry shell was in evidence,  of course, and it was perfectly flaky, even though, as my husband reported, he didn’t let it chill in the refrigerator before rolling it out. “I just let it sit covered on the counter for 30 minutes,” he said. “But it worked out fine.” (He is prone to blithely ignoring recipe directions that I believe to be carved in stone.) The filling lacked any traditional binding agent such as eggs or cream. Instead it held nothing more complicated than a thick layer of chopped onions that had been cooked in a bit of olive oil until they were meltingly soft. That’s it. The surprising fillip was the topping: a couple of dozen anchovy fillets carefully and decoratively arranged into a latticework.

Onion tart in the Brestoise style is earthy and rudely direct, without an ounce of artifice or gentility. It is unsentimental, unsophisticated, and far from pretty. It is the sort of thing you would eat with a tart frisée salad and a heavy tumbler of undistinguished but tasty white table wine. Could it have been concocted by a cook with few ingredients at hand but who was under pressure to serve something warmly filling in record time? Perhaps the dockworkers of Brest and their families have better things to do than fuss around a kitchen for very long. I’m just speculating, of course. But I am certain of two things—tarte aux oignons brestoise is a bracing, soulful dish that tastily combines two harvests, one of the sea and one of the garden. Eating it makes one feel like a sea captain come home to roost. And it tastes even better warmed up for breakfast, after the salty anchovies and buttery onions have married overnight.

Our young daughter’s reaction? “I don’t like onions or anchovies,” she said politely. “But the pastry was delicious.” At least Catherine gave it a shot. As she observed upon learning of the ingredients, with a sigh of resignation, “You get what you get and you don’t complain.”

TARTE AUX OIGNONS BRESTOISE

SOURCE: La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961)

INGREDIENTS

Tart pastry

2 pounds onions

4 tablespoons olive oil

3/12 ounces anchovy fillets

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

Make the pastry of your choice, and when it is rested, roll it out to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Line a tart or pie pan but do not bake.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Peel the onions and chop them very fine. Cook them gently in a covered skillet in 3 tablespoons of hot oil until tender. Do not let the onions brown.

Pour the onions into the unbaked tart shell.

Rinse the anchovy fillets to remove excess salt and with them make a lattice pattern over the surface of the onion-filled tart shell. Bake 15 to 20 minutes.

Lamb Moroccan-Style

French cuisine, at least a small corner of it, was infiltrated by North African forces beginning in the 1920s. Morocco had become a protectorate and a very stylish destination, and suddenly everybody who was anybody came back praising the virtues of tagines rich with lamb and fragrant with uncommon spices. We have a great affection for the country too, having lived there for several years—a life-changing experience, I assure you. So it was a pleasant surprise to stumble across a startlingly practical version of traditional lamb tagine in the pages of Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Cuisine de France (Orion, 1961).

Last night's menu: sautéed lamb with lemons, braised endive, and peas cooked in butter.

Instead of using the conical ceramic cooking vessel traditional in Moroccan homes, the dish, sautée d’agneau au citron (sautéed lamb with lemon) is simply prepared in a heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid. Thanks to junk-shop journeys we own a large covered cast-iron pot of uncertain provenance that worked wonderfully. Presumably a Le Creuset version would do the job just as well. In any case the sautéed lamb with lemon was shockingly delicious, almost as good as the tagines our beloved cook in Marrakech used to prepare when we lived there—even though for our dinner last night my husband could only find lamb chops at the market instead of the boned lamb shoulder specified in the recipe. The substitution worked like a charm. And it was almost embarrassingly easy. The side dishes we made to go with it were peas lightly cooked in butter and sublime braised endives, which I could have eaten all night, frankly.

A slightly blurry view of last night's meal, as plated on vintage 1970s earthenware.

SAUTEÉ D’AGNEAU AU CITRON

SOURCE: La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961)

Serves 8 people

2-1/2 pounds boned shoulder of lamb

4 tablespoons oil

1 lemon

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 large pinch saffron OR 3 teaspoons turmeric

Salt and pepper

Order the lamb cut for stew. Heat the oil in a deep pan and brown the meat on all sides.

Slice the lemon very thin and spread all of it—except the ends—on the meat. Add a cup of hot water and season with cinnamon, saffron or turmeric, salt, and pepper. Cover tightly and simmer 1 hour.

ENDIVES BRAISÉES

SOURCE: La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion Press, 1961)

Serve 4 people

3 pounds endive

6 tablespoons butter

Salt and pepper

Wash and wipe the endives dry. Put them in a covered heavy saucepan with the butter. Season with salt and pepper and simmer very gently for 3 hours. Watch to see that they are evenly browned.

NOTE: We cooked the endive for 1 hour only, on the lowest flame possible, because they seemed to be getting brown much faster than we expected. The abbreviated cooking time was fine; the result was delicious. Our advice is to follow our lead—cook the endives for 1 hour rather than 3 hours.