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.

Equipment:

  • 1 8-inch spring form pan

Ingredients

  • 1 package lady fingers or Italian Savoiardi cookies (about 25)

  • 1 quart strawberries

  • 2 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)

  • 1.5 envelopes of gelatin

  • 1 cupwater

  • 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

Prepare the Strawberries:

1. Clean berries, reserving half of them (the prettiest ones) for the top of the cake.

2. Slice the not-as-pretty half, and mix with about 2 tablespoons of sugar, depending on the sweetness of your berries. Set aside.

Assemble the “crust”:

1. Trim Lady Fingers as shown, cutting off about 1/3 of each cookie and setting it aside.

2. With the sugared side out and the cut side down, begin to assemble the cookies around the outer ring of the spring form pan.

3. With the trimmings, fill in the space on the base of the spring form (as shown).

With any extra trimmings, chop them into coarse crumbs and sprinkle them over the base, allowing crumbs to fill in any of the cracks.

4. Layer sliced strawberries on top of the crust, reserving any extra juice.

Prepare the Lemon-Strawberry Filling:

1. In a small bowl, sprinkle 1.5 envelopes of powdered gelatin over the water. Let stand to soften.

2. Meanwhile combine reserved strawberry juice and lemonade concentrate in a small pot and bring to a boil.

3. Temper the egg yolks: In a small bowl, slowly pour a very small amount of the hot lemon concentrate into the egg yolks and quickly whisk thoroughly, being careful not to scramble the eggs. Little by little, add a bit more liquid and whisk.  When you’ve added about half the liquid, pour the whole mixture back in the pot with the remaining lemon concentrate.

4. Continue to heat the mixture on low, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens a bit and coats the back of a spoon.

5. Pour the softened gelatin and water into the pot, and whisk to combine. Continue to heat gently to warm until gelatin is dissolved. Be careful not to allow the mixture to boil.

4. Once the gelatin has dissolved, pour the mixture into a large bowl, set the bowl into a cold water bath (no ice), and stir, allowing the mixture to just cool, allowing it remain liquid.

5. In another large bowl, beat the egg whites to stiff, but not dry peaks.

6. Fold the whites into the cooled gelatin mixture.

7. In a chilled large bowl beat the cream until it holds soft peaks. While continuing to whip (using an electric mixer or stand mixer), add the lemon/egg white mixture, beating until the mixture is just combined.  

8. Pour the mixture into the ladyfinger crust, and refrigerate until set- at least 3 hours, or overnight.

Decorate the finished cake:

1. When fully chilled and completely set, slice the remaining strawberries, decorate the top of the cake, remove the sides of the spring form pan from the cake, and serve.

Variation: This can also be made with limeade concentrate and any other berry of your choosing. Lime and blueberries or blackberries would be a nice variation. You could also leave the berries out entirely, if you want.