I recently wrote about cream puffs and how relatively easy they are to make yet look very fancy. Another dessert I think falls into the same category is Baked Alaska. It is really just a dressed-up ice cream cake. It is cake topped with ice cream, covered with meringue, then baked in a hot oven for a few minutes to brown the meringue while leaving the ice cream frozen and firm.
President Thomas Jefferson is reported to have served ice cream wrapped in hot pastry at a White House dinner during his presidency. The early versions are recorded as using a piping hot pastry shell to encase the ice cream while later versions used meringue and browned the dish in the oven or with a chef’s blowtorch.
In 1867, Charles Ranhofer, a French chef at the time at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York, created a cake to celebrate the United States purchase of Alaska from the Russians. He called it an Alaska, Florida to show the contrast between the cold and hot – ice cream and toasted meringue. The original dessert used walnut cake, banana ice cream and meringue. Baked Alaska is still on the menu today at Delmonico’s in New York but has been updated to using walnut cake, apricot jam, banana gelato, and meringue. It still says right on their dessert menu that it was created by Charles Ranhofer in 1867.
You can use basically any cake as a base for Baked Alaska: boxed or homemade, chiffon, pound or even a brownie. Although the traditional shape is a bombe, Betty Crocker has a recipe done in a 9×13 pan that seems like an easy place to start.
If you are making the traditional bombe shape, bake a cake of your choice then top it with softened ice cream you have shaped in a plastic wrap-lined container to match the shape of your cake (typically round). Press the cake and ice cream together and freeze. You can freeze the dessert at this point for a couple days. When you remove this from the freezer, cover the cake and ice cream with a thick layer of meringue making sure it is totally sealed. It is important there are no holes allowing exposure to the cake or ice cream or you will have a melted mess when you get it out of the oven. The meringue is the insulation that protects the ice cream from melting in the oven. Once you have the meringue on, freeze the Baked Alaska for a few hours or overnight before baking. Right before you are ready to serve put the Baked Alaska in a 500 degree oven for 4 or 5 minutes to brown the meringue or use your kitchen blowtorch.
A Baked Alaska is impressive when whole. Very often once you cut the slices to serve, the ice cream and meringue will separate from each other but that does not affect the taste of course.
I am looking forward to making some “fancy” desserts in the near future!