Baked Alaska, Indian Summer and Beat Happening
Photo: Chef Jud's version of Baked Alaska. An Indian summer treat.
While scrambling for a dessert recipe for this month’s column, I came to the conclusion I did not want to do something thematic, even though November marks the start of the holiday food festivals.
“Why don’t you do something festive, like something with pumpkin?” my fiancee asked.
“Everyone’s going to do that, I’m steering clear of the holiday mess,” I replied.
“There’s pumpkin pie, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin custard, pumpkin bars. Mmm, pumpkin bread is always good, too,” she said, in a way remeniscent of how Bubba enumerated the many ways to prepare shrimp to Forrest Gump.
No. No pumpkin in November here.
But the dessert that occurred to me was "Baked Alaska"—a classic I had wanted to try since I was a kid when I ran across the recipe in one of Mom’s old cookbooks. I was reminded of this dessert while suffering in the seemingly endless heat of our extended summer thanks to the the lyrics by one of my favorite bands, Luna, who does a fabulous cover of Beat Happening’s “Indian Summer”:
"Motorbike to cemetery,
picnic on wild berries,
French toast with molasses,
croquet and Baked Alaskas."
As it turns out, this summer didn’t emerge into a true Indian summer but the lyrics stuck in my head anyway.
The history of Baked Alaska
The Baked Alaska was created in 1876 by Charles Ranhofer, chef at the legendary Delmonico's restaurant in New York, to celebrate the U.S. purchase of Alaska. His creation was originally called Alaska-Florida Cake, but was later changed to Baked Alaska.
A very simple creation, it consists of a sponge-cake bottom layer, topped with ice cream and covered in meringue. The cake is then placed into a hot broiler or salamander to quickly brown the meringue. Some may argue the dessert was created some 70 years earlier by American physicist Benjamin Thomson, who was attempting to demonstrate the heat-resistance of whipped egg whites. His creation was called omelette á la norvégienne—"omelette surprise."
As I mentioned, this is an easy one to do. It incorporates ice cream, cake, and sweetened meringue—and who doesn’t like those ingredients? Quick heating of the meringue and solid freezing of the ice cream are essential to successfully presenting this and you’ll undoubtedly impress your family or guests. Besides, they’ll be pleasantly surprised to not have pumpkin.
Baked Alaska Recipe
½ c granulated sugar
2 large egg whites
pinch of cream of tartar
1 sponge cake loaf, such as pound cake, ½” thick
4 scoops of ice cream (any flavor, vanilla is traditional)
To make the meringue Put the sugar and 2 tbsp water into a medium heavy-based saucepan and dissolve over a medium heat. Heat the syrup to 248°F, and carefully pour into a glass measuring cup to stop the cooking. In the meantime, whip the egg whites with cream of tartar in a clean, grease-free bowl in an electric mixer until they form soft peaks. With the beaters still whirling, slowly pour the hot syrup down the side of the bowl and continue beating on full speed for 10 minutes to a firm, glossy meringue. Set to one side.
Using a 6-7cm biscuit cutter cut out 4 discs from the sponge cake and place on a tray, lined with plastic wrap or parchment. Place the ice cream, cleanly molded, upon each cake disk. Using a spatula or knife, quickly cover the top and sides with the meringue, swirling it attractively. Repeat to finish the rest of the Alaskas, then place, uncovered in the freezer until ready to serve. Place each Alaska on a serving plate and wave a cook’s blow-torch lightly and quickly over each meringue to colour. This only takes seconds—take care to avoid over-scorching. Serve at once.
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