photos by Eliesa Johnson
The story of the classic dessert baked Alaska begins far from Alaska — and not with a baker. Instead, it was the American-born physicist and inventor Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford whose discovery would lead to the creation of the dessert.
While living in Europe around the turn of the 19th Century, Thompson (whose other inventions include the double boiler, the sous vide cooking method, thermal underwear, a kitchen range and a drip coffee pot) discovered that the whipped egg whites in meringue made it a very good insulator.
By the 1830s, French chefs were using his discovery to create a dish called the “omelette Norwegge,” consisting of layers of cake and ice cream covered in meringue, then broiled, writes Maya Silver in a 2016 NPR story entitled “Baked Alaska: A Creation Story Shrouded In Mystery.” However, she points out that there are various accounts — Michael Krondl, an associate editor of the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, says the omelette Norwegge didn’t appear until the 1890s.
Whoever made it first, the American classic baked Alaska we know today is often attributed to Charles Ranhofer, the chef at Delmonico’s in New York City. In 1867 Ranhofer served a dessert called “Alaska, Florida” in honor of the recent Alaska Purchase. His version was extravagant, consisting of of banana ice cream (an exotic and expensive import at the time), walnut spice cake and meringue torched to a golden brown.
“While making Baked Alaska today is much easier because of modern conveniences such as electric mixers and blowtorches, it was once an incredibly opulent dish, requiring a full kitchen staff and a significant amount of time,” Silver wrote.
“It’s a very classic dessert. I’ve made it off and on for the last 20 years of my career,” says Carrie Summer of Chef Shack in Bay City, Wisconsin. “It’s essentially cake and ice cream.”
Today, bakers have realized that this classic dessert offers plenty of opportunity for experimentation. A quick internet search will get your creative wheels turning: several flavors of baked Alaska cupcakes; a version with brownies substituted for the cake; a “double chocolate peanut butter Oreo” baked Alaska and dozens more.
“People love this dessert in many forms, so I find that interesting,” Summer says. “I’m always excited to take the classics and modernize them.”
Summer’s modern Baked Alaska is essentially the same recipe as the classic, though she substituted a powder meringue mix for the fresh meringue to further showcase the quick possibilities afforded by modern culinary tech — offering a stark contrast with Ranhofer’s original over-the-top production. “It’s a stabilizing, ready-to-use product that is simple and consistent for production pastry,” Summer says.
Additionally, she reduced the size of the dish (baked Alaska is most commonly made as a full-size cake which is sliced and served) into a single serving, individually browned with a kitchen torch. The final result is served in a Madagascan vetiver root basket.
“The unique look comes from earth elements in the presentation rather than overly complex technique,” Summer says. “I enjoy to present many desserts with branches or moss from nature and our gardens, or with a one of a kind plate.”
Classic Baked Alaska
Yields 8 servings
Two 1-pound frozen pound cakes
Half-gallon block of your favorite flavor of ice cream
Apricot jam, as needed
8 egg whites
3/4 cup “instant” superfine sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Cut each pound cake into 3 horizontal slices; each slice should be about 9-1/2 inches long, 2-1/2 inches wide, and slightly thicker than 1/2 inch.
Set a slice of cake on a baking dish.
- Cut a piece of the block of ice cream to fit on the cake base, keeping 3/4 inch clear all around. Return the cake and ice cream to the freezer for about an hour, or until the ice cream is hard again.
- Remove the cake and ice cream from the freezer and fully enclose the ice cream with more slices of pound cake “glued” to the ice cream with jam. Return the cake and ice cream to the freezer for at least 2 hours.
- Preheat the oven to its highest setting.
- Beat the egg whites until semi-stiff. Gradually add the sugar to the egg whites, a couple of tablespoonfuls at a time, and continue to beat until the meringue is stiff and glossy.
- Remove the ice cream and cake from the freezer. With a spatula, spread about half of the meringue over the pound cake, making sure to completely cover the sides and top.
- Transfer the remaining meringue to a pastry bag fitted with a star tip and pipe it over the cake, making it as decorative as you wish.
- Bake for 3 minutes to brown the meringue, and serve immediately.
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