Baked Alaska

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • Serves

    8

Appears in

The Cook’s Canon: 101 Recipes Everyone Should Know

The Cook’s Canon

By Raymond Sokolov

Published 2003

  • About

Baked Alaska is a stunt that began as a joke. Actually, it could well have been one of the many jokes made at the expense of President Andrew Johnson’s secretary of state, William H. Seward, after he bought Alaska from Russia for just over $7 million in 1867. Wags called the distant northern territory Seward’s Folly and Seward’s Icebox, so it was probably inevitable that someone would create a snowy dessert—consisting of ice cream covered with lightly browned meringue—and dub it baked Alaska. Although the name first made its way into print in the original (1896) edition of Fannie Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, the idea of baking ice cream inside an insulating sandwich of sponge cake and meringue had been around for much of the nineteenth century.

Thomas Jefferson dabbled with a “hot” ice cream pudding in 1802; the chef of the Chinese mission in Paris may have cooked ice cream in pastry in 1866, according to Larousse Gastronomique (1930).

But the underlying science, showing that the air in egg whites (and cake batter) acts as insulation, we owe to that genius of practical thermodynamics Benjamin Thompson, known as Count Rumford, who paved the way for baked Alaska with his work on the resistance of egg whites to heat in the early 1800s.

The French serve a similar dish, omelette norvégienne, thought to have originated around the same time as baked Alaska. Instead of resting on sponge cake, their ice cream sits on Grand Marnier-soaked genoise. After the meringue is browned, the dessert is often flamed with Grand Marnier at the table. Whichever dessert came first, the tipsy faux-Scandinavian French or the teetotaling, antiexpansionist American, either is a good trick that can (indeed has to) be thrown together at the very last minute—and guarantees a warm reception from the chilliest of guests.

Ingredients

  • 2 pints ice cream, slightly softened
  • 2 teaspoons butter, softened
  • ½ cup cake flour
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 4 additional egg whites, collected in a separate bowl
  • 2 pinches cream of tartar

Method

  1. Line a 7-inch-diameter bowl with a 15-inch piece of plastic wrap, allowing the excess to hang over the rim of the bowl. Pack the ice cream into the bowl, smoothing out the top, and freeze until solid, at least 4 hours.
  2. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter an 8-inch-diameter round cake pan with half the butter. Line the pan with an 8-inch disk of parchment paper, butter the paper with the remaining butter, and set aside.
  3. Sift together the flour and salt into a small bowl and set aside.
  4. Put the egg yolks into a mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until pale yellow, about 1 minute. Gradually add ½ cup sugar while continuing to beat until fluffy, about 1 minute. Stir in the lemon zest and juice and set aside.
  5. Put three egg whites into another mixing bowl and beat with clean beaters on medium-high speed until stiff but not dry peaks form, about 2 minutes.
  6. Fold the whites into the yolk mixture with a rubber spatula. Fold the flour-salt mixture into the egg-sugar mixture in two batches, taking care not to deflate the batter.
  7. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Set aside to cool completely, then invert onto a rack, peel off and discard the parchment, and set the cake aside.
  8. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
  9. Just before serving, put the remaining four egg whites and cream of tartar into a mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until soft peaks form, about 1 minute. Increase the speed to high and gradually add the remaining ½ cup sugar, beating until thick, shiny, stiff but not dry peaks form, about 2 minutes.
  10. Put the cake onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Invert the ice cream onto the cake and peel off the plastic. Cover the ice cream and cake with the meringue. Bake until the meringue begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Carefully transfer to a cake plate and serve immediately.