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.

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.

Codfish Ahoy!

Cod fillets with grapefruit, plated on a late-19th-century Limoges china dish and with spinach on the side.

Cod is not at the top of my list of preferred fishes, though I happily devour it when it is turned into that British delicacy fish and chips. Yet Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Cuisine de France (Orion Press, 1961) has a curious recipe for it that marries this humble denizen of the sea with grapefuit juice and a silken cream sauce. I’m not entirely sure of the origins of this unlikely combination of ingredients but I can attest that the flavour is superb. The grapefruit cuts through the richness of the fish and the sauce and lends a flavourful piquancy. Plus the pink grapefruit wedges used to garnish the platter look so jolly, especially alongside the chopped-parsley garnish. It’s like a dish intended for readers of The Preppy Handbook.


FILETS DE CABILLAUD AUX PAMPLEMOUSSE (COD FILLETS WITH GRAPEFRUIT)

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

SERVES 6 PERSONS

INGREDIENTS

6 large cod fillets

Flour

7 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup heavy cream

4 tablespoons oil

1 grapefruit

2 hard-boiled eggs

1-1/2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

Cod fillets browning in butter.

Wipe the cod fillets well and dredge them lightly with flour. Heat half the butter and oil in a skillet and sauté the fillets over a moderately low heat for 12 to 15 minutes or until they are nicely browned on both sides.

Cod fillets browning and cream-and-egg sauce warming.

At the same time, heat the rest of the butter in a saucepan. Add the cream, the juice of 1/2 grapefruit, and the eggs crushed fine with a fork. Season with salt and pepper and keep warm, but do not allow the sauce to boil.

The fried cod fillets arranged on a white-ceramic platter and awaiting the sauce and parsley.

Put the fish on a heated platter and pour over the sauce. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Garnish with half slices of grapefruit and serve.

A Spinach That Pleases

Spinach cooked, drained, chopped, and ready to sauté in butter.

Vegetables never terrified me as a child, and I happily consumed Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, and, yes, even spinach. Even now it remains my favourite green, second only to watercress. Our daughter, Catherine, however, loathes the stuff.

She knows it’s healthy and understands it is full of iron, thanks to a conversation she had with her new pediatrician. But Catherine has never developed a liking for this leafy vegetable, which is blessed additionally with a stunning colour that reminds me of deepest, darkest jade. But we recently discovered that she will at least down one substantial forkful if the spinach is prepared simply, in the manner suggested in La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion Press, 1961).

Epinards au beurre, or buttered spinach, is arguably the most most basic of preparations in Toulouse-Lautrec’s book. But it does have one significant refinement—after the spinach has been boiled, it is drained and transferred to a cutting board, where it is chopped, an action that adds a note of sophistication as well as reduces the slimy appearance that seems to offend our only child the most. Then the spinach is placed in a skillet and cooked with a bit of butter. Voila! As Catherine said before placing her fork down, “It doesn’t taste awful.” Admittedly this was not the most ringing endorsement but surely it was better than outright disdain.

EPINARDS AU BEURRE (BUTTERED SPINACH)

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

SERVES 4 PERSONS

INGREDIENTS

3 pounds spinach

6 tablespoons butter [use much less if you prefer]

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

Wash the spinach thoroughly, using only the leaves and smaller stems. Boil 15 minutes in a large kettle of boiling salted water. Drain in a colander. Spinach that stays in hot water once it is cooked becomes brown and ugly.

Drain well and chop finely. Reheat in a saucepan with butter, salt, and pepper. Add heavy cream with you wish, but do not let the cream boil. Serve immediately.

Out of India

An Indian-style curry dinner from the pages of a 1961 French cookery book. The china is a mix of 1970s Japanese porcelain and late-19th-century Limoges. The place mats, made by Lady Clare and bought at Goodwill, depict landmarks of London.

I have never been to India though it seems everybody else I know has, from Delhi to Simla to Goa and beyond. Two of our dearest friends lived in India for years, and one day we hope to emulate them. Until we find ourselves flush with funds, however, it looks like the closest my family and I will get to that storied subcontinent is when we make curry.

We came across an Indian-style lamb curry in La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961), and it was terrifically easy to make. Lovers of Indian cuisine, take note: It was not authentic, being more of a denatured Eisenhower-era variation, a sort of safe curry for fearful palettes. Nonetheless it was enjoyable, though I would frankly add a few more tablespoons of curry powder to up the Indian ante. Our daughter, in particular, found the individual toppings (chutney, slivered almonds, et cetera) a lot of fun.

CARI DE MOUTON (LAMB CURRY)

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

SERVES 6

INGREDIENTS

5 tablespoons butter

2-1/2 pounds lamb or mutton neck meat, cut for stew

5 tablespoons curry powder

1/2 teaspoon allspice

2 bananas, peeled and cut into large pieces

2 apples, peeled and cut into quarters or eighths

4 tablespoons slivered almonds

4 tablespoons seedless raisins

1/2 cup orange marmalade

Chutney sauce

Salt

DIRECTIONS

Heat the butter in a deep heavy pan until frothy. Add the meat and cook over a low fire until the meat is slightly cooked on all sides. The meat must not brown.

Add the curry powder, allspice, and a pinch or two of salt to 3 cups of water, mix thoroughly, and pour over the meat. Add the bananas and the apples. Cover and simmer for at least 2 hours. If the sauce thickens too much, add water.

Serve very hot with boiled rice, and in little side dishes serve the slivered almonds, raisins, orange marmalade, and chutney sauce.

Our recent Indian-curry dinner, served on Bell Flower by Fine China of Japan, a 1970s pattern of which I'm not fond. And, yes, I drink Champagne with almost everything.

Duck + Beer + Grapes

Duck cooked with beer and grapes—and garnished with sliced tomatoes.

Last night we dined on another culinary surprise from the pages of Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Cuisine de France, a 1961 classic that has been too long overlooked and out of circulation—canard à la bière aux raisins, or duck with beer and grapes.

The ingredients don’t sound exactly appetizing but trust me on this combination. Even when my husband looked in the refrigerator for some beer to use and could only come up with a couple of bottles of Guinness stout, it worked. I have a feeling Mme de Toulouse-Lautrec intended a golden lager instead of a dark Irish brew. Still it worked. Presumably the French-cookery icon intended green grapes in her recipe too, but I imagine seedless red grapes would work just as well and might be strikingly attractive.

FYI: We cooked the duck for almost an hour and 15 minutes in a classic Le Creuset French oven, only to find the bird was still a bit bloody. So it was taken off the flame, covered with the lid, and placed in a 400-degree Fahrenheit oven for 15 minutes to speed things along. That did the trick.

For those of you following the reactions of our eight-year-old daughter to our culinary experiments, she actually applauded the roast fowl, saying she liked it almost as much as chicken. She thought the hot grapes were odd though.

CANARD A LA BIERE AUX RAISINS

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

SERVES 4

INGREDIENTS

4- to 4-1/2 pound duck

1 onion

6 tablespoons butter

10 ounces beer (presumably lager)

Bouquet garni (thyme, bay leaf, parsley)

1 large bunch seedless grapes (presumably green)

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

Prepare the duck as for roasting.

Chop the onion very fine. Heat the butter in a large pan, and when very hot, sauté the duck and onion together, turning the duck so that it will brown lightly on both sides. Add the beer and the bouquet garni and season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook until tender, basting often. When the duck is cooked, remove it from the pan and keep hot.

Remove the bouquet garni from the sauce and add the grapes. Simmer for a few moments.

Divide the duck into serving pieces. Cover with the sauce and serve with boiled rice.

A Barbecue-Chicken Alternative

Poulet au Vinaigre, placed on an old Limoges platter.

Chicken is a staple at our house. It is rustic, easy to cook, and our daughter loves it. So we typically have chicken at least twice a week—fried, roasted or sautéed. But this basic fowl can be boring, frankly. Often I crave barbecued chicken but it’s impossibly messy, staining napkins and rendering fingers sticky.

There is a chicken recipe in Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Cuisine de France (Orion 1961) that has a barbecue appearance and flavour but without the mess I associate with it. Poulet au vinaigre, or vinegar chicken, is cooked in a heavy covered pot instead of on a grill. The sumptuous sauce incorporates several ingredients that one finds in traditional barbecue sauce, such as tomato purée. But instead of being slightly sweet, as so much barbecued chicken often is, the dish is infused with a subtle but sprightly tang of vinegar. (A reader recently commented that the balance between acid and sweet reminds him of Indonesian cookery.)

Our daughter agreed and proceeded to speedily devour both drumsticks, saying it was “the best barbecued chicken I have ever had.” As for my husband, he is sold on the splash of vinegar, which, he observed, brought “an intense dimension I didn’t expect.” He is also increasingly sold on preparing chicken in a pot on top of the stove, which cooks the meat quickly and in this instance richly caramelized the skin.

POULET AU VINAIGRE

SERVES 4 PEOPLE

INGREDIENTS

2-1/2 or 3-pound chicken

6 tablespoons butter

5 teaspoons white wine

4 tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 cloves garlic

3 teaspoons French mustard

4 teaspoons tomato purée

4 teaspoons heavy cream

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

Choose a chicken that is not too fat. Have it cut in pieces and cook it in a covered heavy pan with the butter and unpeeled garlic, salt, and pepper for 25 to 30 minutes, until the chicken is cooked.

Meanwhile mix in a bowl the mustard, tomato purée, and white wine.

When the chicken is cooked, add the vinegar. Cover the dish and cook until the chicken is almost dry. Remove the chicken and keep hot on a serving platter. Pour the mustard mixture into the pan and cook down a little without a cover. Add the cream and the Worcestershire sauce. Stir well and pour over the chicken. Serve immediately.