This year marks the 235th anniversary of the birth of Antonin Carême, a French chef whose recipes influence French cuisine to this day.
What is his connection to Russia, you ask? Well, 200 years ago, in 1819, Carême was invited to Russia to cook for Emperor Alexander I. But, when he arrived, the tsar was out of the country – and he stayed away for another year. The French chef got so homesick that he returned to France without cooking a single meal for Alexander.
Nonetheless, the French chef left his mark on Russian cuisine in the form of the dessert known in Russia as sharlotka and everywhere else as charlotte Russe.
The most interesting thing is that charlotte Russe, which was Carême’s haute cuisine take on English bread pudding, and sharlotka as it has been cooked in Russia for over a hundred years, have very little in common save the name.
The original charlotte – a cold pudding made with slices of bread interlaid with pieces of fruit and fruit juice, was upgraded by Carême, using ladyfinger biscuits and Bavarian cream, then flavoring it with cooked fruit, jelly and brandy. This aristocratic recipe was included in the French chef’s tome The Royal Parisian Pastry Cook and Confectioner, and it is quite possible that this was how it was served in the homes of Russian gentry throughout the nineteenth century. But the twentieth century gave us a much simpler version of both the charlotte Russe and sharlotka – one in the United States, and the other – in the Soviet Union.
The American version, which was especially popular in New York, was transformed into a simple sponge cake topped with whipped cream and served in special paper cups. The variations could include a layer of jam between the sponge and the whipped cream, some chocolate sprinkles, and a Maraschino cherry on top. This dessert was very popular with schoolkids and could be found throughout the city through the 1970s, but today it is nearly extinct.
Not so with the Soviet sharlotka, which in the early twentieth century also underwent transformation from its aristocratic origins into something far more common: a sort of angel food cake filled with apples. Over the years it became a staple in Soviet kitchens, likely because the basic recipe required just four ingredients – flour, sugar, eggs, and apples, and because a fresh cake could be whipped up and on the table under an hour.
In the decades when only seasonal fruit were available, apples were that rare foodstuff that was available from summer all through the fall and winter, as long as they were kept well – wrapped in newspapers – somewhere not too warm and not too cold. The recipe also was “ripe” for home cooks to experiment with different fillings, toppings and spices, so that every family’s sharlotka recipe was “the same, yet different.” (How very Tolstoyan.)
My mother, who even at the height of late-USSR food shortages managed to spoil us with all manner of baked goods, usually made the simplest sharlotka when confronted with unexpected guests and nothing to accompany the tea. For my mother-in-law, sharlotka was the only cake she ever baked, and she always added walnuts. My good friend came up with a very special topping for this simple cake, and so hers is the recipe that I share. Enjoy!
1 cup of flour
1 cup of sugar
1 tsp of baking powder
2-3 medium apples, de-seeded, peeled, and diced (about 2 cups)
Ground cinnamon, ground cardamom (optional)
½ - ¾ cup sour cream
Several spoonfuls orange jam or marmelade
Dried lavender and red peppercorns for decoration (optional)
Heat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
Using a stand or hand-held mixer, beat the eggs and sugar well. The more you beat them, the airier your batter will be. Add the baking powder and spices. Then add the flour, but don’t overmix. Finally, stir in the diced apples. (The measure of apples you add is up to you – you may use less or more, depending on what you want in the end – an cake with apples or apples with cake.)
Pour the batter into the baking tin lined with baking parchment. Bake for about 35-40 minutes, but start checking it after 30. A toothpick inserted should come out clean.
Meanwhile, prepare the topping by mixing together the sour cream and orange jam.
When you remove the cake from the oven, don’t wait for it to cool down, but immediately spread the mixture on top. If you have lavender and red peppercorns, feel free to use them as decoration. Allow the cake to cool before cutting.
If you make the cake with the topping, leftovers are best kept in the fridge. If you make the cake without topping (as pictured), a sealed container at room temperature is enough to keep this cake from drying out. In summer, you may substitute plums or pears for apples, and, as my mother-in-law insists, walnuts are always a good idea.
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