Lost foods of New York City: Charlotte Russe

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Charlotte Russe from Holtermann's. (Leah Koenig)
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Leah Koenig

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Lost Foods of New York City is a column that will, from time to time, celebrate the food and drink that once fed the city, but have disappeared.

Considering how popular the Charlotte Russe once was in New York City, it is a remarkably elusive dessert. For starters, it has two identities.

Eighteenth-century European aristocrats knew Charlotte Russe as a cake made of ladyfingers pressed into an elegant mold, filled with thick custard or Bavarian cream, and flavored with cooked fruit, spices or brandy. The dish, which falls into the larger category of “charlottes” (molded desserts), was likely named by French chef and noted Russophile, Marie Antoine Carême. Considered by many to be the father of French cuisine, Carême included a recipe for “Charlottes à la Parisienne or à la Russe” in his 1815 cookbook The Royal Parisian Pastry Cook and Confectioner.

By the time the Charlotte Russe had made its way to New York in the early 20th century—especially to sweet shops in Brooklyn and the Bronx—the confection had taken a dramatically simplified form. There, it was made from a thin disk of sponge cake topped with a lofty spiral of whipped cream and crowned with a Maraschino cherry. Variations included sprinkles, chocolate-flavored whipped cream, or a spoonful of jam nestled between the cake and the cream. The treat was available seasonally, typically autumn through spring while the weather was cool enough to support a food primarily made out of whipped cream. It was sold from pushcarts, candy stores, and bakeries (primarily, but not exclusively Jewish ones) mainly to eager school kids seeking the ultimate afternoon snack.

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How this dessert made its transition from European dainty to beloved Brooklyn street food is murky.

“For my grandmother’s generation, the Charlotte Russe symbolized something within their reach that tasted really special,” said Stanley Ginsberg, co-author of Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking. Ginsberg suspects that it was a proletarian adaptation of a food that represented upper class indulgence to striving European immigrants.

Suffice it to say, New Yorkers were enamored with what they came to call their “Brooklyn ambrosia”—enough so that the dish received swooning mention in Betty Smith’s iconic 1943 novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. For many children, as well as young-at-heart adults, half of the allure lay in the packaging. According to The Brooklyn Cookbook, each Charlotte Russe was “surrounded by a frilled cardboard holder with a round of cardboard on the bottom. As the cream went down, you pushed the cardboard up from the bottom, so you could eat the cake.” People like myself who grew up in the '90s eating candy Push Pops by Topps can understand the appeal.

There is something intrinsic to the Charlotte Russe—perhaps it’s the scalloped edges on the cardboard cup, the reckless quantity of fluffy whipped cream, or its utter simplicity—that embodies a sort of wholesome, black-and-white nostalgia. But as post-World War II America gave way to a more global era and, among other things, faster food, the Charlotte Russe’s popularity began to decline. By 1976, an article in the New York Times proclaimed, “The Charlotte Russe, that venerable New York specialty that left generations of city kids with white mustaches on their faces, is not extinct but, like ancient Chinese jade, it is hard to come by.”

Unlike the egg cream, another fallen New York icon that has enjoyed periodic comebacks through the decades, today the Charlotte Russe is a breath away from extinction. My search for a bakery or candy shop that still makes them proved nearly vain, as hopeful calls to longtime sweets hotspots like Philip’s Candy in Staten Island (formerly Philip’s Candy Shop of Coney Island) and Teena’s Cake Fair in Canarsie turned up nothing. The one bakery I found in New York that still regularly churns out Charlotte Russe was Holtermann’s, and it’s located not in Brooklyn but across the bay in Staten Island.

Founded in 1878 by a German immigrant named Claus Holtermann, the bakery built up a modest business of delivering freshly baked Pullman loaves, cookies, and pecan Danish rings by horse and buggy (and later truck) directly to customer’s homes—a service that lasted for nearly a century. The company’s early history mirrored that of another New York bakery founded by a Germany-to-America transplant named William Entenmann. But whereas Entenmann’s mushroomed over time into a nationally recognized brand with widespread distribution, Holtermann’s kept things in the family and in Staten Island, continuing to produce everything by hand in the bakery behind their Staten Island storefront.

When I got in touch with Holtermann’s semi-retired co-owner, Cliff Holtermann, he said that Charlotte Russe has been on the menu since at least 1941, when he started working there as a teenager. Back then, they cost a nickel, and even now the dessert will still only set customers back $1.75. In an act of thrift and ingenuity common to many professional kitchens, Holtermann said, they “sometimes use the scraps and ends from jellyroll cakes as the base” instead of plain sponge cake. The day I stopped in to sample one, I found a slice of raspberry pinwheel at the bottom of my cardboard cup.

While Holtermann’s typically sells about four dozen Charlotte Russe each week, primarily not to today’s teens but to their old-time customers, the dish’s future there is not necessarily stable. According to present co-owner (and Cliff’s nephew) Billy Holtermann, the required push-up cups, which they currently order from a Brooklyn-based paper goods company called Burke Supply, have become increasingly hard to source.

Truthfully, while I am grateful to Holtermann’s for providing an edible link to the past, I found their streusel-topped crumb buns and jelly doughnuts far more compelling reasons to visit. As for the Charlotte Russe, maybe it will find itself rescued from the annals of history—dusted off and topped with a homemade Maraschino cherry by an artisanal bakery looking to elevate a sweet from the city’s past. Until then I will keep the recipe below on hand for whenever the mood whipped cream strikes.

 

CHARLOTTE RUSSE

I adapted this recipe from one in The Brooklyn Cookbook' by Lyn Stallworth and Rod Kennedy Jr. Makes 15 cakes

For cake:

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1 tablespoon cold water
  • 1/2 cup plus 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

For topping:

  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
  • Raspberry jam
  • 15 Maraschino cherries
  • Chocolate sprinkles or shavings (optional)

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 10x15 inch nonstick jellyroll pan.*
  2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl, set aside.
  3. In a mixing bowl using a wire whisk or electric beaters, whip the egg whites and water together, gradually adding 1/2 cup of sugar, until mixture is thick, bright white, and glossy. Set aside.
  4. In a separate mixing bowl, using a wire whisk or electric beaters, whisk the egg yolks until thickened and slightly lighter in color. Gradually add the 1/3 cup of sugar followed by the vanilla and beat until quite thick and pale. Gently fold the yolks into the whites with a rubber spatula, then fold in the dry ingredients until just combined; be careful not to over-mix.
  5. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared baking dish. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until lightly browned and springy to the touch. Remove pan from oven and set on a wire rack to cool slightly. Cut out rounds of cake with a 2 1/2 inch cookie cutter and set aside.
  6. With a chilled wire whisk or electric beaters, whip the heavy cream until it forms soft peaks. Add the confectioners’ sugar and continue whipping until it forms stiff peaks.
  7. Assemble the Charlotte Russe: Place a round of sponge cake at the bottom of a paper cup or small glass. Top with a teaspoon of raspberry jam, followed by a generous dollop of whipped cream. If desired, spoon the whipped cream into a pastry bag fit with a star tip and pipe into the cup. Top with a cherry and chocolate sprinkles, if desired.
  • A jellyroll pan works best but if you don’t have one, substitute a 9x13 inch nonstick baking pan. Butter the pan generously, and increase baking time to 15-18 minutes.

 

Have a long lost favorite you would love to see resurrected? Suggest a dish for Lost Foods: New York City at LEAHLOSTFOODS@GMAIL.COM