A delightful but fiendishly complicated French dessert
This dessert is light as air, and quite the showpiece. It is also, as described in an article about my attempts to make it, ridiculously complicated.
It is important to use the best-quality strawberries you can find. They are the only source of flavour here so if they are watery, you will be doing a whole lot of work for nothing. This calls for ready-made ladyfinger biscuits, the best of which can generally be found in Italian delis and are called savoyardi. Feel free to make your own but the result with store-bought is superior. It is not often you will see me write that. You will need to start at least 24 hours in advance, if not a bit longer. Make sure there is enough space in the fridge for the cake pan. Have fun.
For the strawberry filling:
400g strawberries, washed and coarsely chopped
3-4 tbsp caster sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
4 sheets gelatine (8g)
250ml double cream, chilled
For the pan:
A splash of kirsch, cassis or other fruity booze (optional)
35-40 ladyfingers (but best to allow extras in case of accident)
350g strawberries, preferable small and a nice red colour
3-4 tsp caster sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
Smooth strawberry jam (no bits), to glaze
About 200ml double cream, chilled
2 tsp icing sugar
22-24 cm springform pan
Piping bag with small star tip
Electric mixer (preferable but not essential)
Food processor, immersion blender or food mill
At least a day before serving, prepare the filling. In a bowl, combine the chopped strawberries, sugar to taste (amount depends on sweetness so taste the strawberries first) and lemon juice and mix well to coat. Cover and let stand for at least 1 hour, or overnight.
When the strawberries have macerated, make the purée. I used a food processor but use whatever equipment you have. I made a fine-ish purée with a few small lumps remaining and I did not sieve out the bits. Set aside.
Put the gelatine sheets in a bowl of cold water to soften, about 5 mins.
Meanwhile, heat 2-3 ladles of the strawberry purée in a small saucepan until hot but not boiling. Remove from the heat.
Remove the gelatine from the water and squeeze to remove excess water, then add to the warmed purée and stir until completely dissolved. If the purée is too hot, it will affect the setting ability of the gelatine, so hot enough to dissolve but not hot enough to destroy.
Add the warm purée to the cool purée and stir to blend. Let stand until cooled to room temperature, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn’t start setting before the cream is added.
When the purée is cool, use a mixer or whisk to whip the cold cream until it just holds in firm peaks.
Transfer a third of the cream to the purée and mix gently but thoroughly to blend. Then, using a spatula, carefully fold in the remaining cream until thoroughly blended and no specks of white remain. Take care to blend well but don’t stir too frenetically or you will remove all lightness from the whipped cream.
Refrigerate until firm but still spoonable—a few hours at least, but keep an eye on it so you don’t go past the point of no return.
Meanwhile, prepare the pan. Line with parchment paper by simply covering the bottom then fixing the removable sides to the pan. Leave paper outside the rim for now, but do trim if there is loads. This does make standing the biscuits a bit more difficult but without the paper you cannot remove the metal base at the end.
For the sugar syrup, combine 150ml water and 80g sugar in a small saucepan and heat until the sugar dissolves and it just boils. Stir in the alcohol if using. Set aside.
For the biscuit edge, trim 1 ladyfinger by 1-2cm—enough so it just reaches the top edge of the pan. When you get the right length, keep one as a prototype to use as the measure for trimming all the others. Trim as many as you need to cover the entire inside edge of the pan. It is frustrating as they tend to fall over. Don’t fret, this is just preparation.
Using a pastry brush, coat the inside edge (the flat, un-sugared side) of the ladyfingers with the sugar syrup, and brush the cut bottom as well. Arrange these in the tin, rounded side out, and one at a time, tightly packed until the circle is complete. There will be gaps, but make them as tight-fitting as you can. There will still be falling over but hopefully less.
Begin filling the pan, but first anchor the biscuits. Using a large spoon, I went slowly, removing 3-4 biscuits and covering their ‘patch’ with a thin layer of cream to use as a sort of glue to stand them in and worked around the pan until all the biscuits were more or less firmly planted.
Cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of biscuits, flat side in, that have been brushed with sugar syrup, then add the remaining cream by spoonfuls, starting from the middle and gently spreading out towards the edges, until about half the mixture is used.
Top with ladyfinger trimmings and whole ones as required, brushed with syrup on one side, to form a layer of cake in the middle, then carry on with the cream mixture, filling to the top. Spread to smooth. There should be space between the top of the vertical biscuits and the top of the cream, which will be filled later by more strawberries.
Refrigerate until firm to the touch and fully set, about 6 hours or overnight.
An hour or two before ready to serve, prepare the strawberry topping. Taste the strawberries to determine sweetness. If they are very small and round and pretty, you may not need to cut them. Trim off tops and any white bits. If they are big, halve or quarter lengthwise. Put the strawberries in a bowl, add the sugar to taste, and the lemon juice, and toss carefully but be sure to coat well. Let stand at least 30 mins.
Meanwhile, prepare the glaze. Warm 3-4 tbsp of the strawberry jam and a splash of water in a small pan over low heat; do not boil. Stir well. Set aside but do not let it cool completely.
Remove the charlotte from the fridge. Carefully spoon the strawberries on top, using a slotted spoon so not too much juice gets transferred, mounding them up. You will need to then turn them over so no white cut-sides are visible. When you are happy with the arrangement, use a pastry brush to gently coat the strawberries with the warm jam to give a nice sheen, brush or dab it on and make sure to cover evenly.
Loosen the metal ring and remove carefully. Use the paper sticking out, together with a thin spatula or a palette knife, to help you transfer the charlotte to a serving plate. When it is in place, gently tear away the paper so none is visible, but there will still be paper beneath. It's impossible to get it all out, so remember it’s there when serving.
Combine the 200ml cream and the icing sugar in a bowl and beat until just firm. Transfer the whipped cream to the piping bag and pipe small rosettes all around the base, between each biscuit. Then pipe rosettes all over the top, however you like. If there is any cream left in the bag, pipe it into a bowl and serve alongside the charlotte, for cream lovers.
Chill until needed. Warning: this is not the easiest thing to serve.