Napoleon invaded Russia and lost. Embarrassed and frustrated, he declared that it wasn’t the Russian generals who had defeated the hitherto victorious French army, but General Frost – the harsh Russian winter.
Some of the non-military, auxiliary French personnel decided not to risk frostbites or even death, and to remain in Russia. A barber is a barber, they figured, and a French chef is always a French chef, and a whiff of civilization will only benefit the Russian bear. The bear proved quite appreciative, and a French chef Marie-Antoine Carême got a coveted position at the emperor’s court – the Russian emperor’s, Tzar Alexander I The Blessed.
The Tzar ordered his new chef to create a dessert that would be definitively and recognizably not French. The chef encountered a problem: there was no flour left in the royal pantry. “Don’t be silly, – advised his sous chef, also French, – make something out of stale bread, they always have plenty of that, these barbarians won’t know the difference!” There really was, and always has been plenty of dried stale bread in Russia, as Russians preserve bread by drying slices of old bread in the oven to make a type of crackers called sukhari – literally dry bread. The chef took up the idea, tweaked it a bit, filled it with jam, and the new cake was born. Even though he wanted to call it Alexander, to honor his new employer, modest Tzar insisted that the cake be dedicated to his sister-in-law Charlotte, thus the name Charlotte Russe. The name immediately got russified into charlotka, to rhyme with lodka (boat), vodka (no translation needed!) and molodka (young woman).
This is only one of the several legends about the origin of this well-known and well-liked dessert. There are at least two more royal Charlottes to whom it might have been dedicated. There is a theory that disregards all ladies named Charlotte and ascribes the name to an old English word charlyt which means “a dish of custard.” The chef’s name appears constant in all sources, though, as well as the name of his boss, the Tzar. Most importantly, no one disputes the classic recipe based on stale bread, even though there are many variations nowadays that include bread crumbs, sponge cake, and – the most popular! – ladyfingers. Filling also varies, from jams, to fresh fruit, to custard, to gelatin.
The classic recipe is a perfect way for me to avoid cluttering my freezer with a collection of leftover challah pieces. As soon as I have enough for a charlotka, I grab a few apples and make my husband very happy (this is the one he likes the most). Technically, frozen bread is not stale, but it’s not fresh either, and it works just fine. My grandmother preferred rye bread leftovers, sometimes mixed with challah. That was the best! I don’t have rye bread but my challahs are either spelt or whole wheat, or a combination of both. Also, usually there are either raisins or chocolate chips in them which contributes to the final product. I add more raisins, though, as well as chopped walnuts, both brown sugar and Blue Agave, Smart Balance instead of butter, a pinch of cinnamon, and a dash of salt.
I cut bread into 1/2 inch (about 1 cm) cubes first. I’ve seen it crumbled or processed into bread crumbs, but I stick to the classic cube method that lends more texture. If it had been frozen, it will be easier to cut when it’s defrosted a little.
Melted butter substitute, brown sugar, cinnamon, and a dash of salt are added to the bowl with bread cubes and mixed in. Put it aside and let it rest for now. Let’s do the apples.
Actually, charlotka could be made with any fruit, not necessarily apples, as well as jam, or custard, or both jam and custard. I make apple charlotka only because it happens to be my husband’s favorite. So apples get peeled and cut into pieces roughly 1/2 of the bread cube pieces.
In a separate bowl, mix apples with raisins, nuts (I use walnuts, but pecans are also good here), and agave. This has to be done quickly before apple pieces start turning brown.
Finally, you grease your baking dish and layer bread cubes and apple filling, starting with bread cubes on the bottom and ending with them on top.If you like, you can also just line the bottom with bread cubes, place all the filling on top of it, and then cover it with the remaining bread cubes. It will give you less overall saturation but more intense filling taste. Your choice!
I love baking it in a crock pot, but it could be baked in the oven, too. Elementary, my dear Watson, – what did they do before they invented crock pots? They baked in ovens.
It sits there for quite a while, but it’s always a good idea to visit it before your timer beeps at you. Pick up an apple piece and test it by rubbing it between two fingers. If it feels soft, a second indicator is required. Stick a spatula between the side of the cake and the pot. If it separates from the pot easily yet holds together, it’s done. Remove from heat and run the spatula around the sides and on the bottom, making sure it isn’t sticking anywhere. Let it cool off. Even if you intend to serve it warm, it still has to cool a little in order to come out of the pot.
When it is still pretty warm but not piping hot, carefully flip it onto a serving platter, in the same way as you would flip an upside down cake. With a spatula, tuck in all stray pieces to preserve a uniform shape. You can serve it with whipped cream, custard, or mousse, but we prefer it just like this, naked.
- 8 slices (4 cups) stale of frozen bread, cubed
- 3 – 4 large apples (2 cups), cut
- 3/4 cup butter or substitute (Smart Balance), melted
- 1/2 brown sugar
- 1.4 agave
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
- 1 – 2 oz raisins
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- dash of salt
- Cut bread into 1/2 inch (1 cm) cubes, place in mixing bowl.
- Add melted butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, mix well. Put aside.
- Peel and cut apples into pieces 1/2 size of bread cubes, place in separate bowl.
- Add walnuts, raisins, agave, mix well.
- Grease crock pot or baking dish. If baking in oven, preheat oven to 350. Layer bread cubes and apple filling, starting with bread cubes on the bottom and finishing with bread cubes on top.
- Alternatively, line the bottom with 1/2 of bread cubes, place entire filling in the middle, cover with remaining 1/2 of bread cubes.
- Crock pot: bake on high for 1 1/2 – 2 hours, on low 3 1/2 – 4 hours.
- Oven: bake covered for 30 – 35 minutes.
- Check for doneness: test apple piece for softness by rubbing it between two gingers. Check cake by running spatula between cake and crock pot or baking dish. Charlotka is done when it easily separates from the pot / baking dish.
- Remove from heat, cool slightly. While it is still warm, f;ip onto serving dish upside down. With spatula, pick up any pieces that have fallen off and pat them onto the cake, to preserve shape.
- Garnish and serve.