Growing up Jewish in the Bronx and noshing whipped cream on the street

    June 2010            
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“Charlotte Russe: The Pastry that went from the Tables of Royalty to the Streets of New York”

By Phyllis B. Grodsky

The confection, labeled # 32, was one of many ornate pastries on a long narrow shelf in my neighborhood bakery in New York City. Wrapped in dark chocolate, filled with dense cream, and set on a thin slice of spice cake, it swirled upward to a pinnacle crowned with a maraschino cherry. A sign said # 32 was called Charlotte Russe, but except for its cherry, the pastry bore no resemblance to the little treat I enjoyed growing up in the Bronx.

The Charlotte Russe I knew in the 1950’s was a simple confection: A mound of sweetened whipped cream set on a thin layer of sponge cake topped with a maraschino cherry. It came in a container that was pushed up from the bottom when the top layer of whipped cream was nibbled away. A few pushes, and all too soon not an iota of cream nor a crumb of cake remained.

The delicious morsel could be found all over New York, but it was especially prized by Italian and Jewish kids in the Bronx and Brooklyn who considered it “ambrosia”. The pastry may have been a good fit with Italian kids because maraschino cherries and whipped cream were mainstays in the savory confections their mothers and grandmothers made for dessert. On the other hand, the tasty tidbit may have been appealing to Jewish kids because whipped cream was not often served at home. Dinner was usually a meat meal, and in a kosher home eating dairy after meat was a no-no. Cherries may have been on the dessert menu, but they usually came from a can of fruit cocktail.

So whenever my mother sent me to the store, I looked to see if a Charlotte Russe was in the window of a tiny sliver of a cheese shop. If it was, I rushed in and secured it. The tiny delicacy wasn’t always available, and there was no telling when it would be on display again.

Going home, juggling groceries and hoping my little feast would last forever, I wondered about a girl named Charlotte Russe. I imagined her living in a far-off time somewhere in the snows of Russia; she was dressed in a white fur coat and matching fur hat; a lavish red feather adorned her bonnet. Charlotte sat on a large wooden sled, surveying her world with carefree abandon.

As I got older and times grew more affluent, tastes changed. The tasty morsel disappeared from the street with no crumbs left behind.

But there it was, a twenty-first century pastry labeled # 32, called Charlotte Russe. It may have been topped with a maraschino cherry, but there was no soft whipped cream, no push-up container. What’s going on here? I thought I’d glean a few items on the internet that would put my curiosity to rest. But no. The surf was strong and I felt as if I were catapulted into a time warp.

The humble confection I knew as Charlotte Russe had a royal ancestry that went back three hundred years. It’s said to have been created by French chef Marie-Antoine Careme. Careme, who worked for the future King of England, George IV, as well as Czar Alexander I of Russia, is considered one of the first culinary superstars. His 1834 cookbook (available on-line), is so crammed with elaborate pastry recipes, variations of those recipes, and detailed illustrations of presentations, that I felt as if I were looking over the master chef’s shoulder.

In a nutshell, Careme wrote that Charlotte Russe should be made in a large octagonal mold lined with chilled biscuits and pistachio nuts cut in a diamond shape. The mold should then be filled with cream flavored with crushed pistachio nuts and thickened with isinglass -- a non-kosher ingredient made from Russian Beluga sturgeon -- and chilled before serving.

So how did an elaborate pastry made for a royal table morph into a simple confection noshed by kids on the sidewalks of New York? Google as I might, I couldn’t find clue, not even a hint. I did learn that the revision took place before the turn of the twentieth century. An 1894 cookbook with pastry recipes suitable for restaurants and hotels, included directions for making Charlotte Russe close to Careme’s original. The book also mentioned an individual Charlotte Russe -- whipped cream set on a base of sponge cake -- sold in confectionary shops.

It’s only speculation, but perhaps a Jewish merchant remembered the pastry from the old country and realized that without isinglass the confection was kosher, set on sponge cake it was kosher for Passover, too. But whether or not the pastry had Jewish roots, Jews clearly embraced the reworked confection; an 1896 advertisement for Horton’s Ice Cream in the American Hebrew (an English language weekly journal), listed Charlotte Russe among its offerings.

The sweet morsel found it’s way out the door and onto the streets, although not always as intended. A 1921 New York Times article reported that when Abraham Griesberg’s horse-driven cart filled with Charlotte Russe was overturned by its runaway “sorrel steed”, “youngsters” on the street had a “fluffy feast”.

How, then, are we to understand pastry # 32? It may not have been a “fluffy feast,” but like the street treat, it was topped with a maraschino cherry; in the manner of Careme’s chef d’oeuvre, it was made in a mold with thickened cream. Did pastry # 32’s creator try to bridge tastes and styles that spanned centuries? We’ll never know. The economy turned down, and the shelf of pricey confections disappeared from the bake shop.

But wait! A bakery in deepest Brooklyn is again making Charlotte Russe in push-up containers. The bakers replaced whipped cream with a nondairy cream; the pastry is pareve and can be eaten with meat. The nondairy cream is thick and sits on the rim, not inside the container, so the push-up feature is only decorative. The confection may not be a “fluffy feast”, but it’s a hit; folks wait on long lines hoping to scoop one up before the last piece leaves the store.

Could Charlotte Russe be a pastry for all seasons: A regal dessert in the nineteenth century; a delicious snack in the mid-twentieth century; an indulgence in the early twenty-first century; and a back to basics treat in the century’s second decade?

Could a reconstructed Charlotte Russe in working, push-up containers, pop up on the street carts and food trucks that dot New York? It’s possible. After all, New York is a town where tracking food is a competitive sport. Here’s how I see it: With a nod back to Careme, and a wink ahead to going green, the pastry’s soft whipped cream would be sprinkled with crushed, green pistachio nuts; it goes without saying, a gleaming maraschino cherry would crown its high point.

I can picture twenty-first century “youngsters” navigating the streets of New York, nibbling their “fluffy feast”, and texting friends about whether it’s better to polish off the maraschino cherry first, before a drop of cream touches their lips, or last, so the memory of Charlotte Russe stays with them until it is again seen -- some where -- some time -- in a form they may only recognize once they spot a maraschino cherry.

Phyllis B. Grodsky, Ph.D. is a retired social psychologist who has previously published in The Jewish Magazine (see for example, "My Father's Quest.")


from the June 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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