This is a deliciously simple, autumnal dessert that, although it can be assembled from very few, ordinary ingredients, ends up tasting so much better than the sum of its parts – the crisp, golden outside, hot and sharp insides and cool cream or hot, rich custard make this a dish of delicious contrasts. It is one of the many British desserts that evolved to use up stale bread and cooked fruit. Whilst the filling can be almost any fruit purée you have to hand, the construction needs to observe a few rules if it is going to look as impressive when served as it tastes.
Firstly, the fruit purée needs to be relatively firm and ‘dry’, with little or no visible liquid. If your cooked fruit is especially moist, then just set it in a sieve to drain – the resultant liquid can be sweetened and served as a pouring syrup or saved for use in/on other desserts. Alternatively, set it over a low heat in a wide pan, to help evaporate the excess liquid. If you think your fruit is still too soft, you could consider whisking in an egg yolk or two to help thicken it during cooking, making it more of a fruit custard.
The bread should not be plastic-wrapped and pre-sliced. The best charlottes are made when the bread can absorb some moisture from the filling in much the same way as it does in Summer Pudding, and sliced bread just doesn’t have a suitable surface for this. Not that having your bread sliced by a machine is bad – it can make it wonderfully thin and regular – just buy a whole loaf and get the bakery to cut it for you on their machine. If it’s not stale, just leave the slices you intend to use out on the counter for an hour, they’ll dry just enough. During baking, the dry outside will, thanks to the coating of butter, crisp up and turn wonderfully golden, and the inside will draw moisture from the filling and pull everything together, so that you have a firm pudding to turn out.
The final important consideration is the shape of the bowl in which you construct your charlotte. It needs to be both oven-proof and domed/tapering. Straight-sided charlottes are usually cold desserts such as the Charlotte Russe, which uses sponge fingers and a firmly set cream and is also thoroughly chilled before being served, which helps greatly with presentation. A traditional, domed pudding bowl, or individual pudding bowls, are ideal. Their tapering form is most conducive to maintaining an impressive shape of your hot charlotte. The fluted tins commonly marketed as brioche tins are also the ideal shape, with the added detail of fluting giving the turned-out dish a very elegant appearance.
This is an adaptation of Mrs Rundell’s recipe from 1808. Her version calls for raw apples, sugar and butter and is baked slowly for 3 hours with a weight on top to help compress the apples as they shrink during cooking. This recipe is much shorter, just over one hour, but this length of time is necessary for the bread to crisp, turn golden and be sturdy enough to support the fruit filling until serving time. Higher heat and baking for a shorter time means that, when turned out, the pudding slowly sags and collapses, like a Victorian matron with her corset removed. The use of an already-cooked puree makes preparation that much quicker and the cooked pudding less prone to loss of volume.
I used some apples from a friend’s garden for this recipe, and added no sugar – the sharpness was a great contrast against the rich, buttery crust. I highly recommend this approach. If your fruit is especially sharp, consider using a sweet custard as an accompaniment.
750g fruit pulp
stale white bread slices
pouring cream or custard to serve
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan.
- Butter the inside of your bowl(s) generously with softened butter.
- Cut the crusts from the bread. Cut a circle or flower shape for the bottom of your bowl and put it in first. It will make for a neat top once you turn out the pudding, and also hide the ends of all the side pieces of bread.
- Line your bowl(s) with the crustless bread. How you choose to do this is up to you. Personally, I keep the pieced of bread whole and patch where necessary. If your bread is fresh and springy, you can make things easier for yourself by using a rolling pin to flatten them slightly. If you are using individual pudding bowls, you might want to reduce this to a width of 1.5cm, as the smaller form will need thinner slices if it is still to look dainty when turned out. Place the slices inside the pudding at a slight angle and press into the butter. Leave the excess sticking out of the top of the bowl for now. Make sure there are no spaces or holes for fruit to leak through. You can see on the above photo that a little apple juice has squeezed out and been caramelised by the heat of the oven. Delicious, but a flaw if you’re after an unblemished exterior to your charlotte.
- Fill the lined mould with the fruit puree.
- Butter slices of crustless bread for the top of the mould. Fold the ends of the bread at the sides inward and place the final pieces of bread butter-side upward over the top.
- Spread a little butter onto a sheet of parchment and place this butter-side down over your filled bowl.
- Add a cake tin on top together with an oven-safe weight, such as a foil-wrapped metal weight or quarry tile.
- Bake for about an hour until the outside of the buttered bread is crisp and golden brown and the filling piping hot. For individual puddings, bake for 30-40minutes.
- Remove the weight/tin/parchment and bake for a further 10 minutes, to allow the lid to crisp up.
- Remove from the oven and turn out onto your serving dish.