The Venerable Charlotte Russe

Charlotte Russe. What a name. Who was this sweet Charlotte that inspired the Lawrence brothers, three Brooklyn boys, to name a successful chain of trendy teen clothing stores after her? Before it was a household name in every mall in America , the Charlotte Russe was an iconic and now almost forgotten classic New York dessert made almost entirely of whipped cream.

The Brooklyn-style Charlotte Russe was far cry from the aristocratic original, a sophisticated dessert of luxurious Bavarian cream and cold molded lady fingers conceived in 1815's Paris by famed French pastry chef Marie-Antoine Careme to dazzle European Nobility ( it recently made a cameo appearance in Downton Abbey) and to honor Czar Alexander - hence the “Russe”.

Our Charlotte Russe was a small round yellow cake slice placed in a wax paper sleeve, or fancier even, a specialty paper cup with push-up bottom, topped with a big column of whipped cream and crowned with a crimson red maraschino cherry. It was eaten like a pop-up popsicle by pushing the cake part up. 

Nobody really knows how a dessert with royal pedigree came to be so fervently loved in New York City.

Likely brought to the city by European immigrants, it was immensely popular from the 1920s to the late 50s especially with the Italian and Jewish youngsters in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Initially due to a lack of refrigeration, it was a seasonal treat. Once the summer heat abated and cooler fall days set in bakeries, soda fountains and corner stores started selling the “Charly Roose”, which was always considered a street snack, not a dessert.

A nickel would buy you a big cup of irresistibly sweetened whipped cream with a sliver of sponge cake to hold it all together. And it must have been paradise.

Image courtesy Warner Bros

Image courtesy Warner Bros

Who can forget the cheeky scene in Sergio Leone’s historical Lower East Side crime epic "Once upon a Time in America" when the juvenile hero tries to bribe the object of his affection, the neighborhood teenage floozy for sexual favors with a Charlotte Russe.

With many more culinary choices and fast food becoming increasingly popular, folks eventually grew tired of the little gem. Demand sank so low that manufacturers stopped producing the scalloped edge cups with the push-up bottom.

Just like the egg cream, another nostalgic specter from New York’s past, the Charlotte Russe was declared officially dead and forgotten several times but like a true New Yorker, she prevails.

For a sweet trip down memory lane visit Holterman’s, a 125-year-old German bakery in Staten Island which still sells them for $2.25.

Holterman’s Bakery, 405 Arthur Kill Rd, Staten Island