If your parents or grandparents lived in New York City between the 1930s and '50s, they might remember charlotte russe, an irresistible confection consisting of whipped cream and yellow cake in a paper cup topped with a maraschino cherry, typically sold at bakeries run by European immigrants.
The original charlotte was quite different. The dish, which dates back to the 18th century, consists of syrup-soaked ladyfingers pressed around the edges of a mold, then filled with fruit and Bavarian cream. This elegant dessert was popularized by Marie-Antoine Carême, the father of French cuisine, who served French, Russian, and British royalty and supposedly named the dish in honor of King George IV's only child, Princess Charlotte.
As impressive as it appears, the dessert is actually quite easy to make. This version incorporates poached pears, but one could omit any cooking and substitute fresh fruit, such as berries, or even canned pears.
Part of the fun is in decorating the top of this architectural dessert. This version has a delicate rosette of sliced pears, but anything goes. For a minimum amount of effort, you'll have a dish that adds panache and delight to any holiday dessert table.
Special equipment: an 8-cup charlotte mold or a deep 8-cup pot
2 cinnamon sticks
2 star anise pods Zest and juice of 1 lemon
½ cup maple syrup
¼ cup honey
1 cup sugar
2 cups water
7 Bartlett pears
1 T unsalted butter Salt
4 sheets gelatin or two ¼-oz. packets
1 package ladyfingers (24 pieces)
1 ½ cups heavy cream
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Line a charlotte mold with plastic wrap so that the bottom and sides are covered. In a medium saucepan, bring to a boil the cinnamon sticks, star anise, lemon juice and zest, maple syrup, honey, sugar, and water. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the syrup from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Set aside ¼ cup of syrup.
Transfer the remaining syrup to a large shallow baking dish. Peel, quarter, and core four of the pears and slice them thinly (about ¼ inch thick). Immediately transfer the slices to the baking dish and mix them with the syrup to prevent oxidation. Cover the dish and place in the oven to poach the pear slices for about 15 minutes.
Peel, quarter, and core the remaining three pears and roughly chop into small chunks. In a medium saucepan, combine the pear chunks with the butter, a pinch of salt, and the reserved ¼ cup of syrup; set the saucepan over medium heat, cover, and cook for 15 minutes, or until the pear mashes easily with a spoon. Use a handheld immersion blender to puree until smooth. Bloom the gelatin in a small bowl of cold water and add it to the pear puree; mix well and transfer to a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for about 45 minutes.
Remove the poached pears from the oven and let them cool slightly in the syrup. Using a slotted spoon, gently transfer the pears onto a plate lined with paper towels. Quickly dip the ladyfingers in the syrup and set them aside; they will slowly absorb the syrup.
In an electric mixer fitted with a whisk, whip the cream to stiff peaks, then, using a spatula, gently fold the pear puree into the whipped cream; do not overmix.
To assemble the pear charlotte, line the walls of the charlotte mold with the syrup-soaked ladyfingers, arranging them vertically side by side. Pour half of the pear-cream mixture into the charlotte, then add a double layer of sliced pears. Pour in the remaining pear-cream mixture. Lay four more ladyfingers across the top and trim the four remaining ladyfingers to fill in gaps so that the top (which will be the base of the charlotte once inverted) is covered. Place in the refrigerator for at least four hours to set completely. To serve, unmold the charlotte onto a plate and arrange the remaining pear slices on top in a circular pattern.
WHAT TO DRINK
"For this lightly spiced dessert, I like to match the sweetness of the cooked fruit and the cinnamon accents with a slightly off-dry Riesling from Germany," says Raj Vaidya, head sommelier of Daniel restaurant in Manhattan. He suggests Carl Von Schubert's 2013 Maximin Grünhäuser Riesling ($18), produced from grapes grown in the Ruwer Valley. "It has pear and apple aromas and a mineral balance that pairs with the spices in the dish." As a richer, sweeter alternative, he recommends Von Schubert's 2011 Maximin Grünhäuser Spätlese from the Abtsberg vineyard ($35), left. "It has the same aromatics, but with a touch more ripeness and finesse," he says.