by Margaret Cabaniss
When Zoe asked the other week if we had ever wanted to go by a different name, I said no — but as it turns out, I actually wasn’t supposed to be a Margaret. My parents named me after my great-aunt Monnie (whose given name was Margaret), and they fully intended for me to go by Monnie, too — but, in spite of my grandmother’s valiant efforts to keep the name going, it just never stuck.
Monnie Albritton was the youngest of my grandmother’s ten brothers and sisters, each of whom was more of a character than the last. Most of them settled on the same street (which is still called Albritton Road, since they pretty much overran the place) in the same tiny town in Alabama where they grew up. I have a few memories of visiting my grandmother’s family there when I was a little girl, but many of those aunts and uncles I heard so much about died before I was born, or when I was still too young to remember them.
Sadly, Monnie was one of those: She was the first of my grandmother’s siblings to pass away, a year or two before I was born, so I never got the chance to meet her — but my parents always talked about what a vivacious personality she was. (I love this picture of her: Those glasses, that bemused smirk over an unidentifiable drink…you can tell this lady is awesome.) My mom would always tell one story in particular about helping Monnie make her signature dessert, a charlotte russe: The recipe called for “whiskey, to taste,” which Monnie interpreted as adding a little whiskey to the mix, then having a little taste herself, then adding a little more to the mix…and so on, until the two of them (and the charlotte) had “tasted” significantly more whiskey than the recipe ever had in mind.
Obviously, I was destined to be this woman’s namesake.
I’ve always loved that story, and recently I decided that, in Monnie’s honor, it was high time I figure out how to recreate her charlotte russe — and, along with it, a tangible part of my family history. Never mind the fact that I had no idea what charlotte russe was… Unfortunately, the recipe that Monnie gave my mom all those years ago wasn’t all that enlightening, with the kind of vague instructions that only make sense if you’ve been making the thing your whole life.
Thank heavens for the internet: With a little investigation, I discovered that charlotte russe is essentially just a chilled Bavarian cream set in a mold lined with ladyfinger cookies. It’s an old-fashioned dessert (the creation of a 19th-century French chef, named in honor of two of his former employers), though if it sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because it recently made a cameo on an episode of Downton Abbey – and I can confirm that, yes, it would be a shame to miss such a good pudding.
With the “what” cleared up, I just had to figure out the “how” — another challenge, since most charlotte recipes I found online were made with fruit, which is decidedly not whiskey. Finally, I stumbled across the website of a woman whose own great-grandmother made charlotte russe the way Monnie did, whiskey and all. (Apparently it’s a Southern thing, in addition to being a Dowager Countess thing.) Fortunately, her great-grandmother took better notes on the process, so I was able to piece the dessert together with an assist from my parents, who were in town visiting for the weekend.
After whipping up some ladyfingers for the base (these were seriously easy, and tasty; give them a try!), I turned my attention to the charlotte itself. The process is pretty straightforward: You beat some egg whites in one bowl, whipping cream in another, egg yolks and sugar in a third, add some gelatin and whiskey (remembering to taste…), and then begin the painstaking process of gently, gently folding everything together.
Eventually I was left with a velvety, custard-like concoction, which you’re supposed to spoon into a trifle dish lined with the ladyfingers and then put in the fridge to set up overnight. In deference to Monnie, who apparently didn’t use them herself, I left the ladyfingers out, but I made a smaller version in a teacup lined with the cookies, just to see which I liked better. The resulting dessert is hard to describe: smooth, airy, cool, and delicious — kind of like eggnog in mousse form. (With apologies to Monnie, I think I liked it even better with the ladyfingers.)
The best part may have been seeing the delight on my parents’ faces as they tried a bite and remembered the last time they tasted Monnie’s original, almost 40 years ago. We ate charlotte russe and reminisced about Monnie, at the end of which my mom paid me the supreme compliment of telling me it was every bit as good as my great-aunt’s. For never having met the woman, it was the closest I’d ever felt to her.
I will definitely be making this again; it seems like the ideal thing to serve at a holiday party, or a proper ladies’ luncheon, if that’s how you roll. One day I hope to teach the recipe to my niece Mara, another Margaret namesake — who will, of course, learn the importance of adding whiskey to taste.
Any ancient recipes for mysterious dishes passed down through the generations in your family? Do tell!
Images: Margaret Cabaniss