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Looking for a fancy cake that will impress everyone, but you can actually make yourself? Meet the Charlotte: a pretty, pretty princess of a cake assembled with the help of a springform pan. You don’t bake the cake inside the pan, but use the pan as a guide to build a ring of ladyfingers around the cake, and then fill the pan with layers of mousse and sponge cake. When you’re done, you release the outer ring of the springform pan to reveal a seriously gorgeous cake—and a totally doable one. Seriously, have I mentioned how gorgeous this cake yet?
I find that people often shy away from some of these composed, old-school cakes. I get it—there are several components, one of which (mousse) is time and temperature sensitive, so you have to be prepared. But the results speak for themselves. (I mean have you seen this thing?) Here’s what you need to know to make it happen.
Charlottes have, at minimum, three components: ladyfingers, sponge cake layers, and mousse. Some recipes will also call for the layers to be soaked with a syrup, a step I skip in my recipe, because I find the cake stays plenty moist thanks to the mousse. The cake can be topped with anything from fresh fruit to whipped cream to drizzles of chocolate, depending on the flavors you’re working with. If you want, you can use store-bought ladyfingers and save yourself the trouble of making them yourself. Or, as I do in this recipe, you can use the same batter for the ladyfingers and the cake layers. These items can be made ahead of time (up to 1 day in advance), so when you’re ready to build your cake, you only have to worry about the mousse. You need to allow plenty of time for the charlotte to chill for the mousse to set into a sliceable consistency, so be sure to allow yourself enough time to pull this off. If you plan it out, it’s likely to go super-smooth.
To make a charlotte, you’ll need a springform pan, baking sheets, parchment paper, and a pastry bag.
Charlotte recipes usually use a sponge cake batter, which produces a light, airy cake that is easy to manipulate and layer with mousse. While recipes will vary, traditional charlotte recipes use a versatile sponge batter that can form the inner layers of the cake as well as the outer ladyfingers. Not all batters are flexible enough to achieve such variety, but sponge is a real work horse!
It also provides the perfect texture and consistency for alternating layers of cake and mousse. If the cake is too heavy, it can actually sink a little into the mousse, messing up your layers. Using a light, airy cake batter keeps building much easier.
This recipe varies in another way from a traditional cake recipe: it’s not baked in a pan. To achieve the classic look of a Charlotte, the layers of cake need to be smaller than the mold you’re using. This is because you want the mousse to be the filling between layers, as well as connect the ladyfingers to the cake. I used a 9-inch springform pan, so I needed 6 inch cake layers. How did I make cake layers without a pan? I drew two 6-inch circles on a piece of parchment paper, then turned the paper over on the baking sheet so the ink was on the other side but still visible. Then I piped the batter into a spiral, using this circle as a guide. This isn’t a requirement of all Charlotte recipes, but it’s the traditional method, since you’re already piping the batter into ladyfingers as well.
I also like to make visual guides for myself for assembling the ladyfingers before I pop them in the oven to bake. I draw straight, 4-inch lines across the parchment, leaving space between each line that’s the precise length I want the ladyfingers. The ladyfingers wrap around the cake, and it’s nice to have a little extra height so they tower over the cake, looking a little like a crown! I’ve found 4 inches is the perfect height.
You can read all about mousse here, and this specific orange mousse here, but the most important thing to remember is that regular mousse is usually poured or piped into a vessel, like a bowl or a glass, so you can eat it with a spoon. If it’s a little soft, it’s no biggie—it’s still spoonable and full of whipped cream and sugar and all kinds of other yummy things. But when it comes to mousse cake, you need to be able to slice it—so the mousse has to be relatively firm. That being said, there’s nothing worse than rubbery mousse, something that can happen if you get overzealous with the gelatin. It’s all about finding the balance—enough gelatin to make the cake stable, but still silky and soft when it comes time to eat it.
Optional Soaking Syrup
Sponge cakes may be light and airy, but they can also be on the dry side. For this reason, recipes that use sponge cake often also include a soaking syrup. This is just a simple syrup (made from water, sugar, and any desired flavoring, like vanilla or booze) that is brushed over the cake layers as you build the cake. In the recipe included in this article, I don’t use a syrup, because I’ve found that the cake absorbs a little moisture from the mousse—and I’m always happy to have one less step! But if you want to do it, use a basic ratio of 1:1 water to sugar, plus any flavorings you want to add; you don't even have to cook it.
Start by lining a baking sheet with parchment paper, and place the springform pan on top of the paper. An optional extra step is to cut a circle of parchment paper to line the sides of the pan. I find this helps to keep the ladyfingers in order, but it’s not totally necessary. The assembly happens with alternating layers of mousse and cake, starting with mousse. Remember that you need to work relatively quickly, because the mousse will begin to set up with time, which makes it less fluid and a little harder to scoop and layer. Prepare your mousse, and ladle a small amount into the base of the pan—just enough to evenly cover the whole base.
Arrange the ladyfingers around the sides of the pan, with the rounded side facing out, and the flat side (the side that touched the pan during baking) facing inward. Use the thin layer of mousse at the bottom of the pan to help “anchor” the ladyfingers to keep them in place. Place them snugly side by side—you want to avoid gaps between them.
Next, place the first cake layer into the pan, placing it on top of the mousse on the base of the pan and pressing down slightly. Ladle half of the remaining mousse on top of the cake layer. Place another cake layer on top, and press it down slightly so it settles into the mousse. Then, ladle the remaining mousse on top. I almost always put something on top of the cake (whipped cream, fruit, etc.) so don’t worry too much how the surface looks, as long as it’s an even layer.
Once the cake is built, it needs to be chilled so the mousse can thoroughly set. This can be done in the refrigerator or the freezer. I prefer the freezer because it’s faster and it makes unmolding easier, but remember that you’ll need to let the cake thaw again before you can actually serve it. If you’re making it the same day, you may want to go the fridge route.
When the cake is thoroughly chilled, it’s time to unmold. Release the outer ring from the springform pan and lift it away. If you used parchment paper to wrap around the exterior of the cake, peel it away and discard. Loosen the cake from the base of the pan with an offset spatula, and then lift it off onto a platter or cake stand. Remember, if the cake is thoroughly chilled, it should be very easy to work with at this point. If it feels soft, give it more time before you try to unmold, or you’ll be fighting an uphill battle!
You can finish the charlotte however you like. It can be as simple as whipped cream and little bit of fresh fruit, or you can get fancier—applying a glaze to the surface, or piping a topping (whipped cream, ganache) in a cool design. The recipe included in this article is for a citrus charlotte, so I topped the cake with an arrangement of citrus supremes!
The cake can be served the same day it’s made, just remember to bring it to room temperature first if it was completely frozen, otherwise the cake layers might be hard. If you’re not serving it the same day, refrigerate the whole cake for up to 1 day before slicing and serving.
- 1 1/3 cups (161 g) all purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon (1 g) fine sea salt
- 7 large (189 g) egg yolks
- zest of 1 orange
- 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3/4 cup (149 g) granulated sugar, divided
- 7 large (208 g) egg whites
- 1 recipe Orange Mousse (https://food52.com/recipes/68965-orange-mousse), prepared just before you’re ready to build the cake
- citrus segments, for decorating (I used a mixture of navel, cara cara, and blood oranges)
- 5 large (284 g) eggs
- 3/4 cup (181 g) orange juice (freshed squeezed is best!)
- 3/4 cup (149 g) granulated sugar
- 6 tablespoons (85 g) unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup (121 g) cool water
- 3 packets (21 g) granulated gelation
- 1 cup (242 g) heavy cream
- 1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
- 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon (113 g) granulated sugar, divided
- 3 large (89 g) egg whites
- 12.00 ounces (340 g) prepared orange curd (above)