While I was growing up in Russia, several things were a given: If you saw a long line, you got in it — no questions asked (because if there was a line, it must be for something good); if in the middle of a snowy February you saw an ice cream truck, you got some ice cream; and if your mom suddenly dashed to the kitchen to bake a quick cake for company, that cake would be an apple sharlotka.
The apple sharlotka I grew up with is Soviet in origin and not to be confused with its progenitor, the better-known Charlotte russe, which was created in the 19th century by Czar Alexander I’s chef. The everyday snacking cake version of my childhood was a result of scarcity — scarcity of ingredients, time and equipment.
“Labor-saving, timesaving and space-saving,” is how “Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore” author Darra Goldstein described sharlotka, as we discussed how a recipe that originally used stale bread and fruit morphed into this cake. To eat apple sharlotka in its contemporary iteration is to consume a history lesson: The cake was a byproduct of Soviet women’s ingenuity and resourcefulness fueled by a strong desire to show hospitality.
Goldstein reminded me that in the 1920s and early 1930s U.S.S.R., women were encouraged to participate in the workforce and had little time for baking. Their tiny kitchens, equipped with small, portable kerosene ovens (kerosinki), were often shared with other families.
Sharlotka, with its one-bowl, few-ingredient scrappiness, cemented itself in the canon of Soviet food: Chop up some fruit, pour a batter over it and within an hour, the cake is ready.
When I asked my mom for her version, there was a long pause. “It’s just something I make,” she said, adding that she eyeballs everything until the proportions seem about right.
Bonnie Morales, the chef-owner of Kachka in Portland, Ore., which serves Russian food with clever, contemporary twists, refers to sharlotka as something that her mom “has in her mental Rolodex of quick desserts.” Her mother uses a special pan — an angel food cake-style mold with a lid — brought from Belarus, which steams the apples as the cake bakes. Growing up, if Morales saw the cake pan out, it meant her mother was making sharlotka.
Most sharlotka recipes are simply eggs combined with equal quantities of sugar and flour, a little vanilla and cinnamon, and sliced firm, tart apples, such as Granny Smith. Mention sharlotka to a Soviet expat old enough to remember the Brezhnev years, and you won’t escape a dreamy mention of the famed Antonovka apples and their superiority to any and all American apples — period, full stop.
The main difference among sharlotka recipes is whether baking soda is used. My mom’s version, which I share here, like most iterations I encountered, leaves the baking soda out and relies on whipped eggs as a leavener.
Morales’s version, which is adapted from her mom’s, uses a little baking soda, but because there’s nothing acidic to interact with it, I don’t see much need for it.
Spice-wise, cinnamon is what most Soviet kitchens had readily available, but I can see the dessert working well with a host of other spices: cardamom, a whisper of allspice or nutmeg, or even ginger. Most often, sharlotka features apples, though Goldstein’s latest cookbook offers a delicious pear version.
This undemanding cake, to Goldstein, is a symbol of a Russian urge to be hospitable, particularly in times of relative hardship.
And with that in mind, it might be the ideal cake for these strange times.
Storage: Leftover sharlotka may be stored, loosely covered with a tea towel, for up to 2 days. It is best the day it’s made.
- Unsalted butter, for greasing the pan
- 3 large tart, firm apples, such as Granny Smith or Suncrisp (about 680 grams/1 pound 8 ounces)
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
- Confectioners’ sugar, for serving
Position a baking rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 9-inch springform pan, line it with a parchment paper circle, and lightly butter or spray the circle.
Peel, quarter and core the apples. Slice each quarter across into 1/4-inch thick pieces.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, or in a large bowl if using a handheld mixer, beat the eggs, sugar and salt on medium-high speed (high speed for handheld mixer) until thick and ribbony, about 5 minutes. Beat in the vanilla extract and cinnamon.
Using a fine-mesh sieve, gradually sift a third of the flour into the egg mixture, then gently fold with a spatula until just combined and no flour streaks remain. Repeat twice with the remaining flour. The batter will be very thick.
Place half the apples in an even, compact layer on the bottom of the pan. Cover with half the batter and use an offset spatula to spread the batter evenly over the apples. Repeat with the remaining apples and batter. Gently rap the pan a few times against the counter to get rid of air bubbles, and transfer to the oven. Bake for 50 to 55 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out free of batter and the top of sharlotka is golden brown.
Let the cake cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then gently run a butter knife around the perimeter of the cake to loosen and carefully remove the sides of the pan. Using a fish spatula, gently transfer the cake to a serving platter and let cool completely.
When ready to serve, dust the sharlotka with the powdered sugar and cut into slices.
Calories: 227; Total Fat: 2 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 70 mg; Sodium: 98 mg; Carbohydrates: 48 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugar: 33 g; Protein: 4 g.
Recipe from Olga Massov.
Tested by Olga Massov; email questions to email@example.com.
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