It’s not terribly surprising that the apple Charlotte is often mistakenly attributed to French chef Marie Antoine Carême; the so-called first celebrity chef is credited with inventing everything from the chef’s tall toque hat to the taxonomic arrangement of sauces, via creating an entirely new system of dining and service. Some of these have more credence than others; the Charlotte, however, does not have Carême to thank. The first recipe for an apple Charlotte appears in 1802 in at a time when Carême was still an apprentice, in The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined by John Mollard. In fact, the apple charlotte comes from British shores, and it was likely named after George III’s wife, Charlotte.
For a regal pudding, it has surprisingly economical credentials: the pudding is simply an apple purée, encased in strips of butter-licked white bread. The purée itself has just a small knob of butter and a little sugar in it, and the bread is better if slightly stale: it is not a dish that shouts of pomp and circumstance. That said, when it is unmoulded onto the plate, it is a thing of real beauty.
There are a few tricks to a truly show-stopping apple charlotte: the bread really should be generously dunked in the butter, leaving no dry spots. Make sure you press the pieces of bread firmly where they overlap, and that you don’t introduce any rogue gaps. The added bonus of careful overlapping is that it makes the finished product more elegant, with interlocking leaves of bread. And cooking the apple until much of the water has been driven off (while stirring to prevent it from catching on the bottom of the pan) makes for a more stable filling, leaving the whole thing less likely to collapse.
You would have to be made of firmer stuff than I am not to feel a little nervous at the prospect of unmoulding a pudding basin. Whether it’s full of suet pastry steak and kidney pudding, a Christmas pud, or a blancmange, I always start to doubt myself when it’s time to upend it. But this is a particularly forgiving dish in that respect: the bread and liberal quantities of butter mean that it shouldn’t stick to the sides, but will slip straight out of the basin.
There are all sorts of variations on an apple charlotte: introduce blackberries to the apples, swap them for pears, add in spices or citrus, cut the apples with apricots, or stir jam through the apple purée. I prefer to keep it classic, and let those beautiful apples shine. It helps to use really lovely apples: I use a mixture of eating and cooking apples – most recently Pitmastons and Bramley from my in-laws’ garden – to bring complexity to the filling. I’ve also introduced a little vanilla paste, as it pairs so beautifully with apples, and a splash of calvados, an apple brandy from Normandy, which gives the whole thing a gentle hum, but is entirely optional.
Makes: Pudding for 4
Takes: 25 minutes, plus resting time
Bakes: 45 minutes
500g apples, half cooking apples like Bramleys, half eating apples like Cox’s
150g salted butter
50g caster sugar
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon calvados (optional)
7 thick slices white bread, crusts removed
½ teaspoon vanilla paste
- Peel and core all the apples, and chop into rough chunks. Place the apples in a large saucepan with 25g of the butter and all of the sugar. Cover and cook for ten minutes until the apples have begun to collapse, then remove the lid, and stir regularly, until the apples have formed a smooth purée, and much of the liquid has been driven off. Set to one side to cool.
- Melt the rest of the butter in a small pan. Using a cookie cutter, or cutting round a saucer, cut two circles from two slices of bread, each a little larger than the base of the pudding basin. Flatten each disc with your hand. Dip one of the discs in butter, coating both sides, and then lay it in the base of a 16cm pudding basin.
- Slice each of the other five slices of bread into two, and flatten slightly with your hands or a rolling pin. Dip one in the melted butter, being sure to generously coat each side. Lay the piece of soaked bread vertically into the basin, overlapping the disc you’ve already placed on the bottom; it should overhang the edge of the basin. Dip the second piece of bread into the butter on both sides, and then place it alongside the firs in the basin, overlapping slightly. Repeat with the remaining slices of bread until you have worked your way round the basin, tucking the last piece in under the first.
- Stir the egg yolk, calvados and vanilla paste into the cooled apple purée, and then spoon the whole thing in the bread-lined pudding mould.
- Dip the final disc of bread into the butter, and place on top of the apple purée, then fold down the overlapping slices of bread on top of the disc. Place a saucer that fits within the basin on top of the bread, then place something heavy on top of that – I use my box of pastry weights. Leave to sit for 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C. Remove the weights and saucer from the basin, and cover the top with foil. Cook for 35 minutes, then remove the foil, and cook for a final ten minutes.
- Leave the pudding to rest for 5-10 minutes, then place a serving plate over the opening of the basin, and confidently invert. The pudding should drop out onto the plate. Serve hot, with lots of pouring cream.