Proust had his madeleine; Dorothy Hamilton has her charlotte russe.
The simple confection—a whipped-cream-and-cherry topped sponge cake that has mollified generations of New York’s children—may seem a frivolous favorite food for the founder of the French Culinary Institute. But Hamilton cherishes the beloved edible that ultimately inspired her to produce, well, not seven French volumes on memory, but something as formidable—she expanded FCI into a 76,000-square-foot think tank, complete with a dean of culinary technology, regular visits from the likes of David Chang and Harold McGee, and a $1 million textbook.
Growing up in Marine Park, young Hamilton’s expansive dietary canon included much more than that beguiling 18th-century dessert invented by French chef Marie Antoine Carême in honor of his Russian employer Czar Alexander I. “It was all ethnic,” she remembers: crackly kaiser rolls; 50-cent Lundy’s pies; Ebbinger’s crumb cake (which sustained her mother during pregnancy); Brennan & Carr drippings-dipped roast beef sandwiches; authentically undersize bagels (never mind those modern behemoths); and cardoon and eggplant from an Italian vegetable monger’s truck—”a million times better than the Bohack,” the now extinct grocer that once blanketed Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens. Hamilton’s Czech grandmother, who washed vegetables at a Wall Street restaurant, set a Sunday table for 15, complete with three meats, six or seven vegetables and home-baked bread. But the trifle that put the kid in charge left an impression on Hamilton’s young tongue.
She’s not the first to assign mythic meaning to the pastry. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn longingly observes that “beautiful charlotte russes” were only for “those that were rich enough,” (although born-and-bred Brooklynities Lou DiPalo, Arthur Schwartz and Ed Levine remember it as affordable enough to be a “sometimes treat” for even the poorest family). Don Delillo’s Underworld muses on faded identity: “you forget a certain food you used to devour, like charlotte russes when they were popular.”
But Hamilton didn’t forget it, and when she went searching for that haunting sweet, she was disappointed to discover that her childhood source, Leon’s Bakery in Gerritsen Beach, had shuttered (and that their supplier of cardboard cups went belly up). (Tom Cann, Hamilton’s brother, a retired firefighter and legendary firehouse cook, suggests Leske’s in Bay Ridge as another option.)
A tip that a certain Greenwich Village bakery offers a modern incarnation of the treat some New Yorkers pronounce “charla rue” sent Hamilton down memory lane.
“The art of eating charlotte russe,” she began, sizing up the treat before positioning her thumb on the underside. “You start eating around the top.” She licked and nibbled. “And you’ve got to push it up as you go. And you know it’s going to fall. Oops. See. It’s falling out. And the whole point is you get it all over you. It’s a high-risk dessert.” With food, as with life, you don’t get anywhere without taking risks.
For such a lithe frame, Hamilton managed an impressive sampling of sweets and savories, but was ultimately let down. “When you see charlotte russe today it looks so fake. It looks 14 days old and you don’t want to touch it.”
Photo credit: Akiko Nishimura