When a vintage charlotte pan appears in the kitchen, it stirs up nostalgia for a favorite family dessert. Time for a revisit.
Strawberry Charlotte on a white plate
Credit: Blaine Moats

My kitchen staff—stockpot to strainer—works long hours. We don’t tolerate shiftless sifters, sandwich presses, contraptions that only cube potatoes. We prefer able multitaskers: chef’s knife, wooden spoon, saucepan. Makes for a clear chain of command.

Such discipline, though, is easily disrupted. Friends who know I cook peer deep into their cupboards and ask, “Does this Jell-O form/ cream strainer/egg coddler spark joy? Or do I give it to Leah?” Hence my collection. Each addition is fascinating. Beautiful. And useless. How many times per life will I coddle an egg?

Still, I try. When a friend’s mother-in-law passed along a deep tin with canted sides and fluted handles, I knew it was a charlotte mold. Necessitating charlotte—a classic cookie-clad, cream-filled icebox cake. I remember it from teenaged evenings in Iowa City, when I would dine on a spear or two of asparagus, followed by a wedge or two of charlotte from a late, lamented bakery called First of Fifth. Tender ladyfinger exterior, deep chocolate interior with a texture I’ve never again encountered: craggy on the fork, creamy on contact.

Thinking spring, I picked strawberry. My first attempt achieved admirable poise in the pan, ladyfinger sentinels keeping watch over pale pink custard. Unmolded, the biscuits fainted; custard flattened to the table.

So I bolstered the cream with white chocolate and switched from fresh fruit to freeze-dried. I also ditched the tricky tin in favor of my standard springform. With dazzling results. Just don’t tell charlotte—or the rest of her peers, decommissioned on the highest shelf.

This old-fashioned cake holds up to slicing after 6 hours, but the cookies soften more with a longer rest, making it a make-ahead dream. Get the recipe.