I am always surprised by the indiscriminate use of flavorings, particularly vanilla extract, in modern dessert recipes. I love the taste of vanilla, but I find that it loses both itself and other flavors when used without discretion. It marries well with chocolate and complements most fruits, but it has no business in banana or Persimmon Bread. It is best when it’s the featured flavor. With her recipe for Bavarian Cream, Sarah Rutledge noted:

“When to be flavored with vanilla, break up two fresh beans in a pint of water, and simmer down to half the quantity in a covered vessel; strain it, and mix it with the isinglass [gelatin] and sugar, before they are added to the cream.”

The Carolina Housewife, 1847

It is said that the great French chef Carême commemorated his service to the court of Alexander I with Charlotte Russe. Henry Middleton (1770–1846), an early president of the Continental Congress, was minister to Russia shortly after Carême had left, perhaps explaining why the recipe is so prevalent in 19th-century Lowcountry recipe collections. This is speculation on my part; still, Sarah Rutledge gave two recipes for Charlotte Russe in 1847, just 14 years after the publication of Carême’s masterpiece—evidence that the finest Parisian pastries of the time were being attempted in home kitchens in Charleston.

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Ingredients

  • 1 recipe Boiled Custard
  • ¼ teaspoon fresh, vanilla seeds or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 tablespoon (1 envelope) unflavored gelatin
  • cups heavy cream

Method

Begin with the preceding recipe for boiled custard and flavor with ¼ teaspoon of fresh vanilla seeds or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.

As the custard cools, pour the water over the gelatin and wait for it to be absorbed. Stir it well into the custard, then cool the custard, stirring occasionally so that the gelatin does not set on the bowl. When the custard is cool to the touch, whip the cream to soft peaks, then fold it into the custard. Pour the Bavarian into sherbert glasses and allow to chill for several hours before serving. Thin, crisp cookies and rich coffee are perfect accompaniments.

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