Ladyfingers occupy an odd but valued and versatile niche in the pastry chef's arsenal. Said to originate in the duchy of Savoy -- they're known as Savoiardi in Europe -- they're a sort of small oblong sponge cake that's baked to a crisp and cookie-like texture. They're uninteresting as a cookie, though good for dunking, and so are most commonly used as in ingredient in larger desserts.
Fit For a Queen
A Charlotte is an elaborate and showy pudding, made in a characteristically deep, fluted mold. In early versions, the mold was lined with bread, and then filled with apples and baked, to make a hybrid dessert that was part bread pudding, part apple pie. A more modern version is attributed to the great French chef Careme, during his brief time at the English court. He lined the mold with ladyfingers rather than bread and filled it with Bavarian cream. The filling, a custard stabilized with gelatin, is moist enough to soften the ladyfingers but firm enough to retain its shape when unmolded. Careme is said to have named it "Charlotte" in honor of George III's queen.
Trifle With Your Affections
The English greatly love puddings in all their manifestations, and one singularly English version is the trifle. Every home has its own version, but most include broken-up sponge cake, custard and fresh or stewed fruit in some form. Since conventional sponge cake doesn't lend itself to long-term storage, ladyfingers are often used to provide the cake component. They're often softened first with a sprinkling of sherry or rum, but they'll absorb all the moisture they need from the custard if necessary. Ladyfingers are also often used to line the serving dish, giving it an elegant and finished appearance.
A Quick Pick-Me-Up
Tiramisu might be the most widely loved dessert featuring ladyfingers. It's broadly similar to Charlottes and trifle, but it's an altogether richer version. The ladyfingers are soaked in espresso coffee -- hence the name, which means "pick me up" -- then layered with a rich custard made from mascarpone cheese, often flavored with rum or coffee liqueur. The finished dessert is then dusted with cocoa powder and chilled until set. It's often served with chocolate curls as a garnish.
Sweets made from ladyfingers don't have to be elaborate or showy. If you need a family-sized dessert in a hurry, layer ladyfingers into a baking pan with canned, fresh or stewed fruit and a dollop of whipped topping. By the time you've finished dinner, moisture from the fruit and cream will soften the ladyfingers nicely. Stand one or two ladyfingers in a bowl of ordinary pudding to make it festive and appealing. If you're planning a cheesecake, line your springform pan with a ring of vertical ladyfingers. They'll remain in place when you remove the pan's collar and give your cheesecake a finished, professional appearance.
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