The History Behind Charlotte Russe Cake

This chilled dessert can range from simple to over-the-top.

Charlotte Russe
Photo: Becky Luigart-Stayner; Food Styling: Angela Sellers; Prop Styling: Lydia Pursell

Charlotte Russe has long and delicious history on some Southern tables, especially for holidays and formal parties, yet some dessert lovers have never heard of one. So what is a Charlotte Russe?

Charlottes are a category of chilled desserts made by pouring some type of mousse into a flat-bottomed mold lined with cake strips or often ladyfingers. A Charlotte Russe features a whipped cream mousse set with gelatin that's known as Bavarian cream. (There are also baked Charlottes made from fruit and small pieces of buttered bread, but that's a story for another day. We're chilling here.)

Charlotte Russe is not a Southern-born dessert. Some people think the name indicates it's a Russian recipe, but it's most likely French, dating back to around 1800. It was, however, likely created to honor someone with Russian roots or connections, or at least someone named Charlotte who was important enough to warrant an elegant namesake dessert.

Simplified versions of Charlotte Russe have had their moments over the years. For example, in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, individual Charlotte Russe were a popular treat sold in bakeries, candy stores, and luncheonettes in some New York City neighborhoods. They came in little frilled cardboard holders with moveable centers that eaters could push up to reveal more yellow cake as they worked their way through the whipped cream.

Another streamlined version of Charlotte Russe was nothing more than a square of sponge cake topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry, and maybe a smattering of chocolate sprinkles on a good day. These treats don't sound bad, but they might be unrecognizable to people who expect Charlotte Russe to be a large elaborate cake.

Charlotte Russe Cake
Micah Leal

The full-size and full-fledged Charlotte Russe found in some Southern family recipe collections and most Junior League cookbooks are fancier and required considerably more work, especially back when using gelatin in any recipe began with a days-long task of extracting it from animal carcasses instead of tearing open a little paper packet. (Mercy.)

The purpose of the gelatin was to set the mousse filling so that the Charlotte could be unmolded and sliced for serving. The ring of ladyfingers that encircled the mousse were often dipped or brushed with brandy, sherry, or fruity liqueur.

The classic recipe also required a Charlotte mold, which was a two-quart vessel with a flat bottom and tapered sides that resembles a flower pot, although it's possible to make do with a two-quart soufflé dish or other baking dish deep enough to hold the ladyfingers upright.

These days, anyone with knack for making a simple mousse and a package of store-bought ladyfingers on hand (although some cooks insist on homemade, at least on special occasions), can have a Charlotte Russe ready to pop into the fridge in well under an hour—it needs to chill overnight for a proper set.

An unadorned Charlotte Russe doesn't look as special as it tastes, so many cooks garnish their unmolded creation with fresh fruit, chocolate curls, or colorful jam.

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