Hushing with a sweet Charlotte

“Curving back within myself,
I create again and again.”
—Bhagavad Gita

In recent years, I’ve pondered the word “faith” a lot. I think it’s a term most associated with religion, but beyond that, it is, I think, a firm, reliant belief that there is something beyond us, taking care of things or (here’s one to consider) deeply within us, taking care of things, too. Within or without, it is at the least an inkling, and at the most, an energy that guides virtually everything. If we allow it, this faith brings about, naturally and without effort, things as they should be. If we fight or ignore faith, there can be a delay or a complete death in possibility.

We start out with faith enough (and a little outside support) to rise up from a crawl and take our first baby steps. And throughout our lives — at our best — we continue to rise, “earthbound but aspiring” (a mantra of the author John Steinbeck), and walk forward, sometimes running or even leaping and sometimes just plodding. Or stepping backward (seemingly). Then there are the seeming complete missteps that may take us far from the road, but to the road we must always return.

My career and writing path has gone all over the map, not really making sense, often seeming completely suspended or stuck in a rut. I say to myself all the time that I should be further along (my view and probably others’ as well), but for whatever reason, I’m at this place and continuing to write in spite of myself.

I continue to create in this blog space, with no one else asking for it, but me and that little inkling of faith that I should continue. I write it for myself and for a faith that I must keep it going (if a blog is written in blogosphere and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?). I’m not much for self-promotion. Eight years I’ve kept it going now, out of a love for creating, not for keyboard traffic. Times were that I was so tired or sad or both that I didn’t really feel like making anything for the blog or writing it, and yet, I kept doing so. Sometimes things came out of me at the keyboard that I was surprised by because I truly believed I didn’t have a thing to say. That’s when I know one should never give up faith in creating…it is an act that raises us above ourselves, the attempt to make something out of “nothing.”

I read something powerful this year, and I re-read it all the time. The author and poet Mark Nepo, a survivor of what seemed an insurmountable cancer, writes in his amazing book, “The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have” (Conan Press; 2000):

“Underneath all we are taught, there is a voice that calls to us beyond what is reasonable, and in listening to that flicker of spirit, we often find deep healing. This is the voice of embodiment calling us to live our lives like sheet music played, and it often speaks to us briefly in moments of deep crisis. Sometimes it is so faint we mistake its whisper for wind through leaves. But taking it to the heart of our pain, it can often open the paralysis of our lives. …if we can hear it and believe it, it will show us a way to be reborn.”

I continue, despite there being no “reason,” other than perhaps those flickers or whispers of wind in leaves and a belief that I should live my life like sheet music played. I recall a day a few years back, not long after my birthday, a day when I felt as futile, useless and lost as I could. I stared out at leaves through the window at work, near tears, and voiced the same secret wishes I had been muttering most of my life. And seemingly through that little window, slightly opened, it was if something floated through, and landed in my e-mail inbox. An editor at a Kansas magazine had somehow stumbled across my obscure little blog and wanted to know if I would consider writing a food column for them. Me, at times of little faith, almost thought someone was playing a joke on me. Faith, it seems, while nearly dissolved in one’s conscious heart, can still be present and bear fruit despite ourselves.

Faith takes me regularly to the kitchen, under some notion or spell or craving. It takes me to the kitchen annually to make a celebratory creation to honor my own birth, as well as the birth of the blog. It’s an affirmation of belief.

For my annual tribute this year, I wanted a cake or something cake-like, something simple (seemingly) and something beautiful, but also something delicious. I had long wanted to make a Charlotte, fascinated since childhood with a photo of this retro dessert I remember from a McCall’s magazine cookbook. The beauty of a Charlotte (one beauty) is that it is minimal “cake” (usually ladyfingers) orbiting a vast center of (usually) fruity cream filling. I’ve seen recipes for Charlottes of all types — chocolate, strawberry, raspberry, mixed fruit, tropical fruit, lemon, etc. Mulling all my options over (I did have a year to figure it out), I wanted a lot of favorites to come together for this dessert. I decided to combine two light, fruity favorite flavors — lemon and pineapple — for my Charlotte.

My garnish of candied lemons was inspired from Rye restaurant in Leawood, Kansas. I believe I had one of the best lemon meringue pies of my life there, a tart filling was topped with a spiraling length of perfectly toasted meringue and a delectably sweet-tart, chewy candied lemon slice on top.

I took my recipe for candied lemons from Southern Living magazine. Most of their recipes are can’t-miss and I was sure they knew their way around a lemon. It’s a simple process of making a sugar syrup (sugar and water) and cooking lemons, very thinly sliced and seeded, for a brief period then storing them in a container int he fridge until ready to use.

More lemons would also top my cake in the form of a lemon curd “frosting.” I’ve bought lemon curd often and seldom make it. After making this batch (using Meyer lemons from my own tree), I’ve vowed to never buy it again. It’s so very good, and not terribly complicated to make. I used another Southern Living recipe, which combines softened salted butter, eggs, sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest. All is cooked briefly until slightly thick and custard-y (coating the back of a spoon).

Rather than ladyfingers (which I could readily buy or even make), I ran across Charlotte recipes on the Internet with the delightful idea of using madeleines! I am a long-time fan of these egg-y little pound cakes, baked in pans that give them the shape and appearance of shells. I thought these would be beautiful encasing the Charlotte. I chose Ina Garten’s recipe for Coconut Madeleines, moist little cookie/cakes with a hint of another favorite — coconut.


I took a note from the Royal wedding cake (lemon and elderflower) created for Harry and Meghan this past spring and brushed my sliced madeleine cakes with some elderflower syrup.

Probably the most challenging part of this recipe (and there had to be a moment that was nearly cry-worthy, or it just wouldn’t be my birthday cake) was lining the cake pan with the madeleines. I lined the springform pan first with parchment (extra assurance the cake could release), then the madeleines, which toppled, and I reset them so many times I could not decide if it was a joke domino configuration or a house of cards. Finally, they stayed still.

For my Charlotte filling, I went very retro — to my “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book” for a recipe for Pineapple Bavarian Cream (I laugh here remembering late-night college donut runs and a fellow who called it “barbarian cream”). This simple filling of crushed pineapple, pineapple juice, lemon juice, sugar and unflavored gelatin (and I added a little more elderflower syrup) blended together with stiffly beaten whipped cream. I was concerned the concoction would not set, but decided to have faith in the old-school recipe promising that it would slice “beautifully.” Sampling this delicious cream conjured all sorts of future ideas for it — a filling for cream puffs? A pie with a graham cracker crust? Mmmmm.

I carefully poured the cream mixture into the precariously balance madeleines (no casualties) and allowed an overnight chilling time. I had good news in the morning — the Bavarian Cream had adequately set to a nice firmness.

I ladled on a heavy dose of the sleek, buttery, lemony curd to give the top of the cake a bright canvas for the decorations. I returned it to the fridge for more chilling.

I have been “blessed” with a number of prickly volunteer blackberry vines, which this year happen to be loaded. These “yard berries,” along with some farmer’s market raspberries and the lemon slices, would adorn my Charlotte top.

I don’t consider myself a great “decorator” of anything, but I believe natural elements for cakes and other treats are the way to go, if fitting. Slightly nervous about my garnishment, I had no plan in mind before I started plopping lemons and berries around the cake (less is more). I was not displeased with what I saw. Simple and colorful, I hoped the cake tasted as good as it looked.

It unmolded beautifully. Relieved the odds of toppling were likely behind me, I decided to start a new tradition. Since it was done ahead of schedule, cake (or whatever celebratory dessert) could come prior to the birthday, a preliminary to get the season started!

I lit candles and sliced into this light, lemony, creamy Lemon-Pineapple Charlotte on the eve of my (and my blog’s) birthday. Eating it, I realized every component of this “cake” could stand alone, deliciously, or be made to accompany something else (candied lemon slices on cheesecake or lemon bars; lemon curd on scones or gingerbread, etc.). The elements of my Lemon-Pineapple Charlotte, separately or together, made this “faith cake” my most favorite yet.

Candied Lemon Slices
From Southern Living (www.southernliving.com)
Makes about 12 slices
2 small lemons
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup water

Cut lemons into 1/8-inch-thick rounds; discard seeds. Stir together sugar, lemon juice, and water in a large skillet over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Add lemon slices, and simmer gently, keeping slices in a single layer and turning occasionally, 14 to 16 minutes or until slightly translucent and rinds are softened. Remove from heat. Place slices in a single layer in a wax paper-lined jelly-roll pan, using tongs. Cool completely (about 1 hour). Cover and chill 2 hours to 2 days. Reserve syrup for another use.

Lemon Curd
From Southern Living (www.southernliving.com)
Makes about 2 cups
1/2 cup salted butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon lemon zest, plus 1 cup fresh juice (about 4 large lemons)

Beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer on medium speed until blended, about 45 seconds. Add eggs and egg yolks, 1 at a time, beating just until blended after each addition. Gradually add lemon juice to butter mixture, beating at low speed just until blended. Stir in zest. (Mixture will look curdled.)

Transfer mixture to a heavy 4-quart saucepan, and cook, whisking constantly, over medium-low until mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon, 14 to 16 minutes.

Transfer curd to a bowl, and place plastic wrap directly on warm curd (to prevent a film from forming). Chill until firm, about 4 hours. Refrigerate in an airtight container up to 2 weeks.

Coconut Madeleines
From Ina Garten (www.foodnetwork.com)
Makes 24

1 1/2 tablespoons melted butter, to grease the pans,
plus 1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup sweetened shredded coconut
Confectioners’ sugar, optional

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Thoroughly butter and flour the madeleine pans.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs, sugar, and vanilla on medium speed for 3 minutes, or until light yellow and fluffy. Add 1/4 pound of butter and mix. Sift together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt, and stir into the batter with a rubber spatula. Stir in the coconut.

With a soup spoon, drop the batter into the pans, filling each shell almost full. Bake the madeleines for 10 to 12 minutes, until they spring back when pressed. Tap the madeleines out onto a baking pan lined with parchment paper and allow to cool. Dust with confectioners’ sugar, if desired.

Pineapple Bavarian Cream
Adapted rom “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book” (1955)

1 cup pineapple juice
1 envelope unflavored gelatin softened in 2 tablespoons cold water
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup crushed pineapple
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup whipped cream, beaten stiff

Heat the pineapple juice in a small saucepan until hot but not boiling. Stir in the softened gelatin, sugar, and salt. Blend in the crushed pineapple and lemon juice. Cool, stir occasionally until mixture is partially set.

Beat pineapple mixture with an electric mixture (the cookbook says use a rotary mixer).Fold in the whipped cream.

The mixture can be poured into a 1-quart mold or smaller ramekins (or filling a Charlotte). Chill for 4 hours. If using a mold, untold on a serving platter and garnish with colorful fresh fruits.

To assemble the Charlotte: Candied Lemon Slices and Lemon Curd can be made a few days ahead and stored in the refrigerator. Coconut Madeleines can be made a couple of days in advance and stored in an airtight container.

Line an 8-inch springform pan with parchment paper (bottom and sides…I found it easiest to spray a little nonstick cooking spray in the pan to keep parchment in place).

Slice the rounded “bellies” (tops of cakes) of the madeleines off lengthwise to give them a flat surface (save what you cut off). You can brush the cut side of the madeleines with the lemon syrup saved from the candied lemons or use a sweet syrup (like Toroni) or favorite liquor. Stand about 12 madeleines (shell side facing out) around the perimeter of the pan. Place leftover cut pieces of madeleines to cover the bottom of the pan.

Make Pineapple Bavarian Cream and pour into madeleine-lined pan (you can also pour half the cream in and add a layer of any extra madeleines and top with the rest of the cream). Allow to chill at least four hours. Top with Lemon Curd and candied lemons or other fruit, if desired. Makes about 8 servings.

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