Diva Researching: Charlotte Russe…

I watch a lot of period pieces. Many with formal etiquette and lifestyles. I tend to observe china patterns, silver patterns, recipes and fashion. I then research to find out how authentic they are for the time periods and history, if any. I became interested in Charlotte Russe; I hope you share my enjoyment….Recipes to follow…
Charlotte russe makes an elegant end for a meal (1976)

by Isabel Du Bois

During this Bicentennial year, many of the great desserts of old are being rediscovered and enjoyed — luxurious offerings like Charlotte Russe.

According to culinary historians, that great French chef, Antoine Careme, while on the staff of England’s George IV (1820-1830), created the first Charlotte, a handsome apple pastry that he named Apple Charlotte, in honor of the king’s daughter, Princess Charlotte.

It is said that later, while on the imperial staff of Russia’s Czar Alexander I, Careme concocted a sister dessert — a custardy mixture, circled with a crown of ladyfingers — which he called Charlotte Russe.

Apocryphal or not, it is believed that Careme was nostalgic for London and the elegance of the English court, and so the name. Others discount this theory, saying that the Charlotte Russe was so named because it resembled the French “Charlotte” hat of the era.

Be that as it may, the Charlotte Russe was esteemed by high-ranking 19th century French and foreign ministers. and soon found its way to America via the French chefs who migrated here.

In her writings about the city of Washington in the 1830s and ’40s. Jessie Fremont reported the city had many great French chefs, “The foreign ministers all brought them; when they returned – if not sooner – the cooks deserted and set up in business for themselves.

These not only went out to prepare fine dinners, but took as pupils young slaves sent by families to be instructed.”

President Martin Van Buren (1837-41), who, brought a fine chef from London, where he had been minister, is said to have esteemed the Charlotte Russe. It also was one of First Lady Sarah Polk’s choice for serving at state dinners when her husband was President (1845-49).

During Abraham Lincoln’s administration (1856-65), Mary Todd Lincoln also reportedly offered it at White House functions. And during President William McKinley’s term (1897-1901), a French chef brought from New York for formal dinner parties is said to have prepared his version called Chantilly Charlotte (flavored with the essence of violet), which Mrs. McKinley esteemed.

The Charlotte also was a favorite dessert offering outside the Washington social circuit. A cookbook, “Housekeeping in Old Virginia,” published in 1879, gave six different Charlotte recipes, from as many Southern plantation hostesses.

The Charlotte has come a long way since those early days and is now far superior in flavor. Prior to 1890 unflavored gelatin was unknown, and cooks made their own either by boiling calves’ or pigs’ feet, or using isinglass, a whitish semi-transparent gelatin found in the air bladders of some fish. And because such gelatin had a pronounced flavor, spices and other flavorings were used with a heavy hand to mask it.

Today, Charlottes are made with all kinds of creams and Bavarians. Numerous flavorings are also added — nuts and chocolate, citron, chestnuts, jams. Some are circled with ladyfingers, buttered bread, cake slices and so on. They come to the table sauced in a variety of ways.

There also were a number of other desserts in the 19th century that were greeted with equal acclaim — desserts like Creme au Chocolate, Bavarian Creme. Chocolate Mousse — all names applying to heavenly molded custards stiffened with whipped cream, gelatin or beaten egg whites.

A “boiled” custard, England’s contribution, was the base of these many offerings. But it was the French who adopted it and made it famous under the name Creme a L’Anglaise (giving England her just recognition).

The same Antonine Careme is said to have stuck his finger in the English pudding and made it famous. He devised the method of adding gelatin to the Creme a L’Anglaise, converting it to Creme Francaise. Depending on the flavoring added to the creme, a succession of desserts followed — Creme Vanille, Creme au Chocolate and so on.


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