Tuesday, July 06, 2010


A week or two ago I mentioned Charlotte Russe, the classic banquet and dinner-party dessert of the nineteenth century. The ‘russe’ part of the name means that whoever did the formal naming (and we may never find out who that was) wanted it associated with Russia. The ‘charlotte’ is more problematic.

As I mentioned in the earlier post, the Oxford English Dictionary says a charlotte is ‘A dish made of apple marmalade covered with crumbs of toasted bread; also, a similar dish made with fruit other than apple. Hence, charlotte russe, a dish composed of custard enclosed in a kind of sponge-cake’ (a ‘marmalade’ in this context meaning a thick fruit puree, not a breakfast preserve.) The OED gives the first use of the word in 1797 – the first use of the generic word ‘charlotte’, that is, not specifically ‘charlotte russe’. The first reference specifically for charlotte russe that is supplied by the OED is from Barnham’s The Ingoldsby Legends (1847)

A huge variety of sweet dishes go by the name of ‘charlotte’. A charlotte may be hot or chilled or frozen, something like an apple bread pudding, or more like a trifle made with Savoiardi biscuits (‘ladyfingers’), and sometimes it is closer to an ice-cream. It is usually (always?) custardy. Nineteenth century chefs produced a huge range of posh charlottes – a very brief search turned up charlottes muscovite, royale, à la Siberienne, à la Sicilienne, à la Chateaubriand, à l’Arlequine, Carmen, à la Chantilly, Montreuil, Plombière, and Renaissance.

Even under the title Charlotte Russe, there were variations. The great Escoffier noted that ‘the flavour or product which determines the character of the Charlotte should always be referred to on the menu, thus: Charlotte Russe à l’Orange, or Charlotte Russe aux Fraises etc.’ The same brief search session found recipes for Charlottes Russes with Apricots, Burnt Almonds, and au Praline too.

There are several theories as to the naming of Charlotte Russe, and I give you the favourite trio:
- It was invented by the famous French chef Carême (1784-1833), in honour of the Russian Tsar Alexander I (1777-1825).
- It was named for Princess Charlotte of Prussia (1798-1860), wife of Tsar Nicholas 1 and mother of Tsar Alexander II.
- It was named in honour of Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), wife of King George III (which might be an attempt to explain charlotte, but it hardly explains russe)

The OED rather half-heartedly suggests that ‘charlotte’ is related to the female name. Another far more intriguing idea is hidden within its own pages however. Is it not far more likely to be a corrupton of the ancient charlyt or charlet, which the OED itself describes as ‘A kind of custard containing milk, eggs, brayed pork, and seasoning, boiled to a curd’? After all, it is no more fanciful than the development of the idea of modern blancmange from the medieval blanc manger made from chicken and rice and almonds, is it?

Here, from A Noble boke off cookry ffor a prynce houssolde or eny other estately houssolde, a manuscript written in the year 1500, is a recipe for charlet.

Charlet forced [stuffed].
To mak charlet forced tak cowe mylk and yolks of eggs draw throughe a stren and bet it to gedur then tak freshe pork smalle hewene and cast all to gedure in a pan and colour it with saffrone and let it boile till it be on a crud then take it up and lay it on a clothe upon a bord and presse out the whey then tak the mylk of almondes or cow creme and sett it on the fyere put ther to sugur and colour it depe with saffrone then leshe out the crud and couche it in dishes and pour out the ceripe and cast on sugur and canelle [cinnamon]and serve it.

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