Monday, November 12, 2012
When making this dish I was sure I was making an authentic Russian dessert. I had grown up hearing about it and eating it only at Russian tables. In Russian this dish is called Charlotka (phonetic: Sharlotka) which is the "familiar" version of the female name Charlotte. But upon further research I learned that, as with a number of dishes, its origins are a little more complicated.
According to the Wikipedia page on the dessert Charlotte, it is of vaguely Franco-Anglican origins. Presumably the dessert must actually refer to some actual Charlotte or another. According to the same page, it was either Queen Charlotte, Queen consort of King George III or the daughter of King George IV, Princess Charlotte. There is also an old English word "charlyt" which refers to a custard-based dish.
There is a French version of this dessert, called "Charlotte Russe" (which translates to Russian Charlotte) that is made with ladyfingers and sweet custard or cream.
Whether this dish is traditionally Russian is thus questionable.
The way it is made varies. According to my mom, in Russia a more traditional version involves bread that is soaked in an egg and sugar mixture, then mixed with chopped apples, baked and inverted onto a serving plate. However later versions are sometimes made with flour rather than bread.
Charlottes in general can be made with soaked bread, with a sponge cake base, or even a biscuit base along with fruit or cream. The Russian version is usually made with apples.
Rather than delving further into historical details, which are for the most part inconsequential, more important are the cake's practical qualities.
It is remarkably easy to make. The Russian Charlotte is made with only four ingredients: either bread or flour, eggs, sugar, and apples. Because the holidays are fast approaching, I made it with seasonally appropriate spices: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and a little bit of cardamom. The latter I borrowed from Norwegian baked desserts, which are known to use a little (or a lot) of the spice, especially in the winter.
As a result, the cake is perfect for the upcoming holidays. It requires you simply to chop the apples and beat eggs and sugar for two minutes. Afterwards everything is dumped into a springform pan and put in the oven for about one hour, during which you can be free to focus on more important dishes.
The cake can easily double not only as a dessert, but also breakfast for the next day. It is just as delicious cold as it is when it's warm.
Butter for greasing
5-6 Granny Smith apples
1 1/2 tbsp lemon juice
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/8 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Grease a 9" springform pan with butter. Peel, core and slice the apples into 1/2 inch pieces. Add to a bowl and toss with lemon juice to prevent from browning.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom and salt. In a separate large bowl, place sugar and eggs and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until the mixture is roughly doubled in size, about 2-3 minutes. Turn off the mixer and gently whisk the flour mixture into the egg mixture until well blended. Fold in the sliced apples. Scoop out the mixture into the springform pan; even out the top with a wooden spoon.
3. Bake for 55 minutes to 1 hour, until the top of the crust is golden brown and the top springs back when pressed lightly. Place on a wire rack to cool slightly. Run a knife along the edges of the cake to help separate from the sides of the pan. Carefully release the springform band and lift to remove. Run a knife between the bottom of the cake and the base of the pan. Let cool on a wire rack for 15-20 minutes longer before removing from the bottom of the pan and removing the cake onto a serving platter. Serve warm or chilled.