Recently, my thoughts have been wandering around a bit about the concept of family and food. The typical scene it evocates is the picture of the extend family, including Uncle Billy, sitting around the dining room table while Mom brings out the Thanksgiving turkey. In my house, the Thanksgiving scene is somewhat different. We are gone, split, vamoose. After 360ish days a year of making dinner, this reluctant cook wants a real break. So we head up to San Francisco and have that great meal in the company of 40 other friends and family. It’s an amazing pot luck meal (no, I don’t bring the salad) and every year we come home having made new friends. But that’s not the family concept that I’ve been thinking about, it’s more about mothers, recipes and continuation.
My wonderful French mother, a cook of cooks, has been slowing down for the last four years. Her balance is gone, her speech is disintegrating, and her memory is weakening. During the past four years, I’ve been bringing her to my house so she can speak with her granddaughters and have dinner with the family. To her annoyance, she can no longer follow a recipe, and her glorious Charlotte Russe is now a soggy mess of ladyfingers and coffee pudding.
My mother didn’t start as a great cook. She started out as a competent secretary for a furrier in Paris. After WWII, her mother, three other sisters, and a brother moved from Tarascon to the bright lights. I only assume that her mother cooked while the girls went off to work. Mom didn’t inherit any great cooking skills from her mother, and any ancestral knowledge disappeared in Auschwitz.
However, life changed and she married an American, who brought her to the United States in the early ’50’s. Once people found out that she was French, their replay was “You must be a terrific cook”. And so the legend was created. Mom studied cookbooks, learned techniques, tested and retested recipes, and became a great cook before Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” was in print.
Now, in my mother’s head were thousands of recipes, and techniques. As she got into her ’80’s this knowledge is disappearing. It’s a good thing that I have been able to learn from her as my daughters are learning from me. Suzanne is a fabulous baker, and Christie now can make spaghetti and meatballs. So find those old wonderful recipes, and learn from parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles their secrets. Oh yes, and now you can make the glorious Charlotte Russe à la Mina (in honor of my mother). And it is easy!
Glorious Charlotte Russe a la Mina
This is a two-step recipe; first you make the coffee cognac gelatin, then once it is cool, you mix it in a bowl of freshly-whipped heavy cream and pour it into a spring pan lined with lady fingers and chill until serving time.
1 tsp. powder expresso coffee
2 packets of unflavored gelatin
1 cup of sugar
3 cups of whole milk
1/8 cup of cognac
1 tsp. vanilla
1 pint of heavy whipping cream
2 packets of ladyfingers*
In a heavy pot, heat milk, expresso, gelatin, sugar and whole milk until sugar and gelatin are melted (just before the boil). Stir often. When mixture is melted, take mixture off of the burner, and add the cognac. Cool for ½ hour. Place in refrigerator for 2 hours (approx). You want this cold but not like harden aspic (if that happen, just whip it in the mixer once you’ve made the whipped cream – trust me, I’ve done it).
Using parchment or wax paper, trace the bottom of the spring pan, cut and place. Then do the same for the sides of the spring pan. This is done so you can easily separate the spring pan from the charlotte. Split the ladyfingers and place it around the sides. Do the same for the bottom of the pan using torn pieces to cover any holes.
On the high setting of your mixer, whip the cream and vanilla until the whip cream can hold up a spoon. Add gelatin mixture and mix until it is blended. Pour into the spring pan. Decorate with powder cocoa or semi-sweet chocolate shavings. At serving time, open the spring pan, and remove the paper around the sides. To really dress this up, run a ribbon and tie a bow around the outside.
*Sometimes stores don’t carry ladyfingers but instead their bakery department can sell them to you. They only buy them to make their cakes. So if you can’t find ladyfingers, just ask in the bakery department.