From childhood, we are taught to share. We admire a generous spirit, and a commitment to serve all. Yet because we can never trust certain people not to hold back the larger piece of cake for themselves, we love individual desserts.
Actually, we love them for many reasons: A solo serving exudes an "I made this for you" specialness, and is almost invariably prettier than a slab of something, however luscious.
For mom on Mother's Day, or for any bridal or baby shower when "oohing" and "aahing" is in order, consider serving individual Lemon Charlottes, which combine tender homemade ladyfingers, tart lemon curd, a cloud of lemon mousse and fresh berries. The results are far more impressive than the actual labor involved, and isn't that how we all want our mothers to think of us?
Homemade ladyfingers similarly are marvels of humble beginnings. A simple meringue batter is spooned into a pastry bag, piped into long shapes and given a double-dusting of powdered sugar before baking. Store-bought ladyfingers -- if you can even find them -- are pale imitations of these moist spongecake batons, crackling with just the sheerest veneer of caramelized powdered sugar.
Ladyfingers first appeared in the late 15th century at the court of the Duchy of Savoy to honor a visit by the King of France, which is why they sometimes are referred to as savoiardi. Apparently they were especially popular with young members of the court; the fact that Twinkies pay homage to long tubes of sponge cake is merely coincidence.
Now, while we're all in favor of having the right tools for any task, we must note that it's not necessary to own eight metal charlotte ring molds. We bought a 3-inch mailing tube from an office supply store and cut it into eight 3-inch lengths with a serrated knife. Lined with strips of parchment paper, these work admirably and can be re-used.
Chilled for several hours, a charlotte holds together well (and remember, you're not sharing this with anyone). But we like the final touch of encircling each dessert with a length of ribbon, so your guests feel like they're opening a gift.
Which, of course, they are.
Makes enough for 8 individual charlottes, plus extra.
Note: Cake flour is finely textured with a high starch content that makes tender desserts. You can find the flour in boxes in the baking aisle. Adapted from "The Joy of Cooking."
1 cup plus 2 tbsp. cake flour (see Note, above)
6 eggs, separated, divided
1/4 cup plus 1/3 cup granulated sugar, divided
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
½ cup powdered sugar
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place racks in the lower and middle positions.
Place parchment papers on 2 baking sheets, anchoring them on the bottom with a dot of baking spray or butter. With a ruler, mark a guide to measure 5-inch ladyfingers.
(If you want to pipe discs for the base of the charlottes, trace eight 23/4-inch circles; otherwise, you can cut and fit ladyfingers to make a base.)
Sift cake flour into a medium bowl. If you don't have a sifter, whisk the flour briskly to remove any lumps.
In a medium bowl, beat egg yolks, 1/4 cup granulated sugar and vanilla on high speed until thick and pale yellow, 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape into larger bowl. Return the flour to the sifter and sift evenly over the top of the eggs. Do not mix in. (No sifter? Just distribute evenly.)
In a large clean bowl, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar to soft peaks. Increase speed to high, gradually add 1/3 cup granulated sugar, and beat until peaks are stiff.
With a spatula, fold a third of egg whites into egg yolk mixture, gently stirring until almost no streaks remain. Fold in the remaining whites in two batches, gently lifting from the bottom and folding over the top until few streaks remain, taking care not to deflate the whites.
Spoon the batter into a large pastry bag fitted with a 5/8-inch plain tip. (It helps to stand the bag upright in a vase to fill it. No pastry bag? Fill a plastic bag and snip off one corner.) Pipe the batter onto the parchment paper. Each ladyfinger should be about 1 inch wide and 5 inches long. You'll need 16 to 20 ladyfingers for the charlottes, plus about a dozen more for the bases (or make discs).
To give the ladyfingers a thin veneer of crispness, here's a tip from the new "Sprinkle Bakes" by Heather Baird (Sterling, $19.95). Instead of sifting only once with powdered sugar before baking, Baird sifts half of the sugar over the ladyfingers, then waits 5 minutes until the sugar begins to melt. Sift the remaining sugar over the pastries.
Place pans on oven racks and bake for 6 minutes, then switch positions. Bake for 6 minutes more, then slide the parchment onto a wire rack to cool. Gently peel the ladyfingers from the parchment and store in an airtight container not more than a day, or use immediately.
Makes about 1 2/3 cups, enough for 8 charlottes.
Note: This recipe is from "The Joy of Cooking."
1/3 cup sugar
Grated zest of 1 lemon
½ cup strained fresh lemon juice (from 2 to 3 lemons)
6 tbsp. (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, cut in small pieces
1/4 tsp. vanilla
In a medium saucepan, whisk together eggs, sugar and zest. Add lemon juice and butter. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly until the butter is melted.
Continue whisking until the mixture is thickened and simmer gently for a few seconds. Scrape curd into a bowl and stir in vanilla. Let cool, cover and refrigerate to thicken. May be made several days in advance.
MINI CHARLOTTES WITH LEMON MOUSSE AND CURD
Note: To make your own molds from 3-inch-diameter cardboard tubing, use a serrated knife (or saw) to cut 3-inch-tall pieces. Line them with parchment paper if using cardboard. Each charlotte will use 2 (5-inch) ladyfingers plus more for each base (either broken ladyfingers or a 3-inch disk made from ladyfinger batter).
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar
16 ladyfingers plus more for bases (see Note)
1 2/3 cup lemon curd (homemade or commercial)
Selection of fresh fruit: raspberries, strawberries, kiwi, blackberries, blueberries.
Whip cream and powdered sugar to stiff peaks. Set aside.
Place 8 ring molds (3 inches tall and 3 inches in diameter) on a rimmed pan. If using cardboard rings, line with parchment paper (see Note).
For each ring, cut and piece together about 1 ½ ladyfingers to make a base, or insert pastry made into disks that fit. Cut 2 ladyfingers in half and line the ring with the sugared sides facing out. (If there's a large gap, cut another ladyfinger to fit.)
Place a rounded tablespoon of lemon curd on each base, then fold remaining curd into the whipped cream to make a mousse.
Place a rounded tablespoon of lemon mousse on the curd, then add a few blueberries or raspberries. Add additional mousse to within 1/4 inch of the top of the ladyfingers.
Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 2 to 4 hours.
Just before serving, arrange fresh fruit on top of each charlotte. With a spatula, gently transfer each from the rimmed pan to a serving plate. Remove tubes or molds by slipping them off. If desired, tie with ribbon, and serve.
YOUR CHOICE OF FILLING
There are many options for finishing the charlotte. Any flavor of mousse or custard would work. Here are some ideas, beyond the lemon curd and mousse, to get you started.
Layer of melted chocolate on base, topped with chocolate mousse and fresh raspberries.
Chocolate mousse with layers of grated chocolate, mini chocolate chips or toasted finely chopped nuts.
Strawberry mousse (strawberry puree mixed in with whipped cream) with diced berries atop
Vanilla custard with toasted shredded coconut in layers (for a coconut cream pie effect).
Vanilla custard with layers of bananas and graham cracker crumbs or vanilla wafer crumbs (for a banana cream pie effect). Perhaps a drizzle of melted chocolate.
Two flavors of mousse or custard for a layered effect.
Butterscotch custard with whipped cream.
Ice cream of any flavor. (You would need to store charlottes in freezer to keep chilled.) Top with berries or grated chocolate before serving.