Lemon Strawberry Charlotte
This week’s recipe was supposed to be easy. Especially for me. I’m a trained pastry chef. I’ve made puff pastry, croissants, petit fours, sugar showpieces, and wedding cakes. For this week’s recipe, all I had to do was open some pre-packaged ingredients, do a little stirring, and stick a pan in the fridge to chill, and voila!, I would have a beautiful, refreshing, delicious cake to write about for my blog.
Things didn’t quite go as planned. First off, there was the weather issue. Next, the pre-packaged ingredients weren’t so easy to come by. And then there was the problem of the eggs. Here’s what happened, starting from the beginning:
Unlike my Grandma Rose (whose cooking has been featured in previous entries of this blog) my mom’s mom, Grandma Margot, never especially liked to cook. But, she had a sweet tooth, and a visit to my grandparents in Florida invariably began with welcoming hugs and kisses and something sweet to eat. Usually, Grandma served a slice of cake or German fruit tart, or cobbler, or a bunch of home made chocolate chip cookies. Wanting to showcase the first gorgeous quart of local strawberries I’d happily toted home from the Greenmarket, and feeling it was time for a really dessert-y dessert on my blog, I decided I would cook something I remembered from my Grandma Margot’s repertoire of desserts.
Enter problem #1: The weather. Last week, before early spring’s unexpected and unseasonal return to New York City, it was HOT and HUMID. So hot I couldn’t bear to turn on the oven and heat up my tiny apartment even more. Luckily, this problem was easy to work around. Thinking through the list of goodies I enjoyed at Grandma’s, I remembered this light, fluffy, creamy and satisfying lemon ice-box cake she sometimes made. The cake, really a classic charlotte, filled with a Bavarian cream, had a sweet-tart smoothness that was perfect on hot Florida days. Knowing how my grandmother didn't like to cook anything complicated, I figured any recipe that she made as often as this one would likely be easy to throw together. Even more appealing was that it required no oven, and I thought that my beautiful strawberries would make a lovely addition.
So, full disclosure: this lemon ice box cake does not come from “The Old World.” Unless you consider the 1950s America to be “The Old World.” In the 1940s, during their first years in America, my grandparents learned the ropes of American domesticity when, as a young couple, necessity forced them to work as butler and maid for wealthy New York families. It was then that my grandma had to learn quickly to cook American favorites. As new immigrants, my mom’s parents did their darnedest to assimilate into American culture. They changed the spelling of their last name, they never spoke German again, and they learned to cook the foods Americans cooked. Eventually, they relocated to upstate New York, where they led typically American lives. My grandfather became a small-town doctor, and my grandmother was an archetypal 1950s-1960s housewife, head of the hospital candy stripers, and an avid garden-club member. As a child, my mom watched Howdie Doodie, played Monopoly, and was a flutist in the marching band. To me, this Lemon Ice-Box Cake recipe speaks of that life.
Given our obsession with freshness, clean-eating, and eating local, the foodies I know hardly make this kind of recipe anymore, because of its reliance on processed, pre-packaged foods. Nevertheless, I think it is worthy of reviving. Still, actually making the cake wasn’t as easy as I expected it to be.
Enter stumbling block #2: It turns out (surprise, surprise) that the Snooty McSnooterson groceries of Park Slope, Brooklyn don’t carry an ingredient as mundane and processed as frozen lemonade concentrate. Not even Key Foods had it. I also discovered that the small 6oz. container called for by my grandmother’s recipe is no longer made at all. In lieu of using the frozen lemonade, I decided to experiment with replacing it with fresh ingredients. I tried to come up with the proper ratio of lemon juice, liquid, and sugar to recreate the lemonade concentrate, and my attempt failed—the result was not lemony or sweet enough, and although I kept the same amount of liquid as before, somehow, the proportion of gelatin ended up being too high as well.
And now, for challenge #3: the eggs. Upon taking a closer look at the method provided by my grandmother, I noted with alarm that the way she suggested incorporating the eggs was not terribly food-safe. I experimented with leaving them out, and it just didn’t work.
The happy ending: Luckily, I was finally able to track down some lemonade, and decided to make one last attempt. Ultimately, in my frustration with failed experiments, I decided I had to use the eggs after all. I managed to do away with the raw egg yolks, but the egg whites in the recipe remain uncooked. I decided not to let it bother me. As my mom reminded me, raw egg whites are everywhere from cocktails to salad dressings. The following recipe is the relatively successful outcome of my experimentation. Despite the fact that the recipe appears long, don’t worry; the cake comes together very quickly.
Lemon Strawberry Ice Box Cake, or Charlotte
This recipe contains raw egg whites. Therefore, don’t serve this cake to a very young child or an elderly person, or anyone whose immune system might be compromised.
1 8-inch spring form pan
1 package lady fingers or Italian Savoiardi cookies (about 25)
1 quart strawberries
2 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)
1.5 envelopes of gelatin
6 oz. frozen lemonade concentrate, fully defrosted (It seems they only make 12 oz containers these days… make lemonade with the other half).
2 eggs, separated
1 1/4 cups heavy cream