Food history: baked Alaska

Okay, I am not a dessert person. And, I’m not a fire person – as in, sparklers make me nervous.

But this is impressive:

The definition of a baked Alaska: a dessert consisting of ice cream on a cake base, placed briefly in a hot oven to brown its topping of meringue.

A flambé baked Alaska (or bombé baked Alaska) pictured above, is when a dark rum or other liquor is poured over the dessert, the lights are turned down, and it is “flambéed” as it’s being served.

To be clear, a baked Alaska is ice cream on top of a sponge cake covered with uncooked meringue. The dessert is kept frozen until it is ready to be served. Just before the big moment, it is placed in the oven just long enough to brown the meringue. The trick is to prevent the ice cream from melting in this process.

FoodReference.com gives us a more specific technical explanation for why the ice cream doesn’t (or shouldn’t) melt: “the insulating properties of the trapped air in the cellular structure of foams (the meringue and the sponge cake). . .[keep] the heat from reaching the ice cream.”

The original version of baked Alaska involved a pastry crust in place of the meringue; the air space in this case can provide an insulation to protect the ice cream, but it doesn’t do the job as well as meringue does.

By the way, the ice cream is often a fun, vibrant color, like strawberry, to better contrast from the white meringue. 

Now that we’ve established what this fancy dessert consists of, let us examine where it came from.

Thomas Jefferson during his 1801 to 1809 presidency, was the first person to serve what would become known as baked Alaska – this is when the dish was prepared with a pastry crust.

Around the same time, omelette surprise was invented. Omelette surprise is basically just another name for baked Alaska, only with the meringue instead of the pastry. An American physicist living in Europe named Benjamin Thompson Rumford realized that the meringue would work better to protect the frozen interior of the dessert.

Several decades later, in the 1860s, a man who arguably was the first celebrity chef popularized baked Alaska, ensuring everyone knew of this amazing dessert.

Charles Ranhofer was a chef at the well known Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City, and he prepared a baked Alaska and named it such in celebration of the United State’s purchase of Alaska from the Russians; this addition to our country increased the nation’s size by 20 percent.

Baked Alaska first appeared in an American cookbook in 1896, with Fannie Farmer’s The Original Fannie Farmer. There were only four ingredients: six egg whites, six tablespoons powdered sugar, two quarts hard ice cream, and a thin sheet of sponge cake.

A century after the dish was first served at the White House, baked Alaska became hugely popular in America during the 1960s.

The surge of interest in the complex dessert stemmed from the popularity of home entertaining – what better a dish to prepare to impress your dinner guests? Popularity fell during the 1970s and 1980s, as the country became more health-conscious.

It’s not surprising that baked Alaska is not a widely celebrated food item today, for similar reasons. Home cooks today generally wish for dishes to be prepared healthfully and simply. 

If we can put a decent, at least somewhat nutritious meal on the table that doesn’t take us away from our guests to prepare, why would we go to the trouble of creating this involved dish that maintains a cold interior and a hot (or even flaming) exterior?

Indeed, I probably will not be attempting a baked Alaska at home anytime soon. But if I ever see it on a restaurant menu, especially if I’m out for a special occasion, I probably won’t be able to resist giving it a try.

If you do want to  undertake this crazy dessert in your own kitchen, perhaps going with a cupcake version would be best: cupcake baked Alaska has a shorter baking time, which means less of a chance of melting the ice cream.

If you dare to try the flaming baked Alaska, it is recommended to use an 80 proof or higher liquor to ensure successful flamage. 

One thought on “Food history: baked Alaska

  1. Love this. I agree. I probably won’t be able to resist giving it a try. And you’re right about trying a cupcake baked alaska. It probably just tastes normal but the novelty is what’s cool

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