A charlotte (or carlota) is the perfect kind of dessert for the summer. It’s close to a trifle in that it is composed of layers of luscious ingredients, and requires no baking. Emphasis on no baking.
Cookies, breadcrumbs, and biscuits are the “cake” components that work between layers of custard, cream, or jam (or all of them). Because of its simple preparation, when it comes to variations, playing with ingredients and flavors, the sky truly is the limit.
My first experience with an icebox cake is memorable for many reasons, but mainly because it was the first time I made something in the kitchen with my grandma. Picture this (in Sophia Petrillo voice): Bogota 1990, we had a bake-off in the third grade. My mom doesn’t cook, so I had to look for help elsewhere, and I had this idea in my head that I didn’t want to make any traditional baked goods because that was lame (still a problem sometimes).
I really wanted to make my grandma’s leche asada (which translates to roasted milk—similar to flan) but that went swiftly out the door as soon as she began reading the recipe. She had a brilliant idea for us instead. She had lived in Mexico City during the ’60s and remembered carlotas. She talked me through some she remembered trying and making, and we settled on making an eggless tiramisu. I was fascinated by the concept of dipping ladyfingers in espresso (my grandma also introduced me to coffee drinking from a very young age), and I was so excited about my tiramisu. I felt like a badass giving my eight year old classmates a coffee cake made in the fridge—nothing like their brownies and cookies from a box.
As with a lot of things when I was young, it didn’t go that well with the kids. They all thought I was a weirdo as per usual, and somebody won the prize with a Betty Crocker mix cake.
Happy to report I’m still the same weirdo. But the experience stuck with me while setting up to make an icebox cake for a video. I decided to make a carlota de limon (which was our runner-up after the tiramisu all those years ago). My grandma suggested it knowing that I was big into sour flavors, and would pick up limes from trees and eat them with salt. That got me thinking, and suddenly I realized that, aside from Key lime pie and lime-cilantro combinations that allude to Mexicali dishes, limes are a bit underrepresented in North American cuisine.
And lime just screams summer to me—think margaritas or mojitos. Key lime pie is my selling point here for any North American readers who have their doubts; if you like Key lime pie you will love this…maybe even more. (One note: This video was shot before the news about Goya CEO Robert Unanue’s comments—I do not endorse Goya products.)
You only need five ingredients to pull this off: fresh limes, condensed milk and evaporated milk, vanilla, and Maria cookies. But this is not just an easy recipe, it’s one of the best tasting desserts I’ve ever made. It’s a perfect combination of tart and sweet, and the floral brightness of the limes’ acidity is just a thing of beauty.
I was so happy that it came out so well because I was thinking of my grandma when I made it. She was definitely my first inspiration to get in the kitchen, and my food memories with her will live with me forever. Shout out to Lucia who just turned 95 this summer; even though she has Alzheimer’s and dementia she still recognizes me after a couple of minutes of talking when I call her on Facetime.
Here’s hoping you create your own fond memories around this dish.