Charlotte’s web

Categories: Expert guidance

Bored by functional cooking, Laura Hutton gets caught up in creating the most ridiculously complex dish she can think of: a charlotte aux fraises

Part I
Every day ends with the expectation of a hot meal. Perhaps you have noticed already.

Every one of my days, mostly, ends in the kitchen, standing in front of the fridge, after having consulted the kitchen calendar on which no one bothers to update their activities to see who will actually be home for dinner. Then I commence throwing something together.

On occasion, I have been known to start early in the day, or even a day ahead, in time to actually plan or defrost something. I can usually manage this if people are coming over. But otherwise, for normal days, forethought is beyond me.

Recently, on just such a day, as I stand stirring microwave-defrosted mince in a pan for bolognese I think about what a waste it all was. Not the food. My skills.

I have a degree in pastry.

I used to make ridiculously complicated desserts on a weekly basis. I was taught to make puff pastry from scratch. And chocolates. I had an exam where I had to make an opéra (buttercream layer cake). I seem to remember I succeeded.

There is no escaping it: dinner every day is boring. But if I unpack this, there is an imbalance in my kitchen between functionality and frivolity and perhaps it is this disconnect that causes the discord.

Suddenly it becomes clear. That which is lacking—the thing I am craving—is to be the opposite of useful, of practical, of economical. Stop trying to please everyone all of the time. Sod the lot of them.

Make something no one will like, something complicated, time consuming and likely to fail. Make a ridiculous dessert and be sure it involves a piping bag. A charlotte is the first thing that comes to mind.

I turn down the heat and step away from the bolognese. I reach for the old cookery school notebook from the top of the cookbook shelf, where it lives and collects dust.

This old notebook is a testament to the ridiculous: croquembouche, marquise alice and diagrams of petits fours. It is full of things no one would ever dream of making at home; I have certainly never cooked from it since my school days. Nor will I now because, alas, there is no charlotte recipe in it and my heart is firmly set on a charlotte. Why? Probably because I have never actually made one.

It is time.

Part II
Charlotte recipe sourced, things start off well. My biscuits a la cuilliere are a success, eventually, plus they involve a piping bag. So far, so good.

But after several days of culinary effort, all I have to show is a tray of leftover soggy biscuits and a sort-of charlotte which, when unmoulded, resembles a sad multi-legged turtle. Not only is it misshapen, it tastes rather bland. Attempt number one results in an epic fail, as predicted above.

Soldiering on, I Facebook a friend—my old cookery school chum in Paris and pastry guru of the moment—who replies to my photo of the disaster by saying it has a lovely colour. There is much comfort in his praise.

Alongside helpful tips, he sends links to a few ‘modern’ French recipes, all of which include photos of lovely charlottes with ribbons tied round their middles. Note to self: get some ribbon. He also relays my plea to his friend who teaches at Le Cordon Bleu.

The feedback is: I didn’t wait long enough before pouring the bavarois mixture into the biscuit-lined charlotte mould. I actually knew that the minute I poured it in, because as soon as the mixture hit the charlotte mould, the biscuits started bobbing up all over the place. Clearly I did not wait long enough but, really, how set is ‘almost set’? I do so hate it when recipes are unclear.

The CB lady hints that charlottes are over-rated and she has a point. A bavarois, which is the wobbly inside of a charlotte, is actually just gelatinised custard. Doesn’t sound so good anymore, does it? For a strawberry charlotte, some whipped cream and puréed strawberries are stirred in, which does help, but only on paper. It tastes really rather ordinary.

To achieve charlotte perfection, the advice is to set the bowl of custard in a tray of ice and stir until it begins to set. Then add the purée and the whipped cream. However, I was cautioned by my CB ally: “Be careful when putting the gelatinised creme anglaise in an ice bath—once it starts to gel there is no stopping it and you'll never be able to fold the whipped cream in properly.”

I have no faith in my ability to know the right moment when I see it, nor do I want to spend the next week making charlottes. I’ve gone off them. Besides, my fantasy of pastry making does not involve an ice bath. Plan B involves a simplified recipe, without custard and ice cubes.

Part III
There is a mountain of washing up: in the sink, next to the sink and on most available kitchen surfaces, as there has been since this debacle began. But, in my fridge, taking up an entire shelf, there is also a strawberry charlotte, minus one slice. It is very pretty, even without a ribbon, and surprisingly good as well.

Was it worth it? Would I make it again if asked? Would I make it again for a special occasion?

Maybe, no, unlikely.

And yet, like clockwork, the question comes back: what’s for dinner?

Click here to find Laura’s epically long recipe for charlotte aux fraises

Washing up