A charlotte is a dessert that has been made in various forms since perhaps the 16th century. Today’s charlottes benefit from modern refrigeration because they are typically molds of sponge cake, or other types of bread or ladyfingers, layered with creams or custard and fruit. The whole dessert is chilled, often in a large bowl, and when ready, it is inverted and served upside down. You could compare sweet charlottes to an upside down trifle.
Charlotte Russe is a special type of charlotte, which references the Russian Czar Alexander I, (Russe is French for Russian). This particular version was the creation of Marie Antoine Carême, and invented in the early 19th century. Carême was a renowned French chef, in the employ of the Czar. There are some differing accounts on who created the recipe for Charlotte Russe, when it occurred, and who it was truly named after. Some suggest that Carême was merely improvising on a recipe long known and created for Queen Charlotte of England, and yet others say the dessert was named after a sister in law of Alexander I, who was also named Charlotte.
No matter what the origin, Charlotte Russe today is typically considered a molded French dessert made by lining a bowl, or small individual cups with soft ladyfingers. Madelines may be suggested in some recipes instead. The mold is then filled with Bavarian cream, a gelatin thickened vanilla pudding. Once the whole dessert has chilled, it is inverted onto a dish. The presentation, provided the custard is dense and not runny, can be exciting. Cutting into layers of the mold reveal beautiful ladyfinger cake surrounding the layer of vanilla pudding.
A variant of Charlotte Russe, called by the same name, was popular in Brooklyn at one time. This substituted virtually all the elements of the original. Instead of using ladyfingers, sponge cake was baked in rounds and topped with cream and chocolate sprinkles. The desert was frequently garnished with a cherry. This would certainly be an easier version to make, since you don’t have to go through the process of unmolding the dessert, but for purists, it wouldn’t satisfy.
Some complain that Charlotte Russe is too plain, but this can be easily remedied by serving fruit with the cake. Garnish a slice of Charlotte Russe with fresh strawberries, peaches, or wild berries to add extra taste and texture to the dish. Of course, if you’re not interested in producing an authentic version, you can change many aspects of this dessert. You could use chocolate mouse in the center, substitute any variety of sponge cake for ladyfingers, or sprinkle the top with toasted almonds.