A Birthday Cake for the Retro Types

Posted on March 5, 2013

Baked Alaska, one of the most popular desserts to grace banquet tables in the 1960s and early 1970s, is a show stopper, and for good reason. Just imagine the looks on diners’ faces when a fluffy cloud of baked meringue was ushered to the table and cut into, revealing still frozen ice cream inside, sitting – but not melting – on a layer of sponge cake. Imagine the gasps, the oohs, the aahs. That hot and cold might be captured together in one dish would have amazed and delighted dessert audiences all over, such a novelty.

The components of Baked Alaska, however, had been around in one form or another for several centuries. French and Swiss pastry chefs lay claim to meringue and meringue desserts as far back as the early 1700s. In the mid-1800s, a delegation of Chinese bakers visiting Paris introduced the concept of baking ice cream inside pastry to awestruck French chefs. Not long after, in 1867, Charles Ranhofer of Delmonico’s in New York put the two techniques together – baked meringue, cold ice cream – to create a dessert commemorating America’s acquisition of the Alaskan territories.

Just 102 years later, in 1969, I tasted Baked Alaska for the first time. I was 8, and the only child at my sister’s wedding reception when the dessert was paraded through the dining room at Montvale Plaza, held aloft by a contingent of jacketed waiters as they made their way to all the guest tables. Or maybe it just felt that important because the dessert itself was so impressive (and I was so much lower to the ground than everyone else present). Over the decade that followed, the dessert’s popularity would scale heights and then fall off the cliff altogether, replaced by carrot cake and molten chocolate cake and whatever dessert was considered du jour, or of the moment. I never had Baked Alaska again, and I have not seen it on a restaurant or private dinner menu since. Maybe it was paraded one too many times during its reign as top banquet dessert, and jaded diners sought new tastes and textures.

Maybe, though, enough time has passed for us to try Baked Alaska again with clear and appreciative palates. I made individual ones this past weekend, capping my birthday dinner with the ultimate 1960s-era dessert, a perfectly retro choice for this thoroughly 1960s child. And I pronounce Baked Alaska delicious, worth another try. You will love the toasted marshmallow taste of the meringue, the browned outer shell giving way first to fluffy egg whites, then to cold ice cream, and finally to the littlest bit of cake. The dessert feels both complex – with its sophisticated composition –  and as simple as a childhood cake-and-ice cream party. It is a dessert that is completely appropriate for standing in the middle of life, this perch from where we can see back to an uncomplicated past while also looking ahead to a more intricate, perhaps knotty, future.

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Individual Baked Alaskas

The miracle of the Baked Alaska is that the ice cream doesn’t melt out to a soupy mess after a quick turn in the oven. Well, it’s really no miracle but a combination of technique and science: first, the oven is preheated to 425 degrees; next, the ice cream and cake must be kept good and frozen right up to baking time; and finally, whether piping or spreading the meringue around the ice cream, make sure to cover the ice cream completely. The egg whites act as insulation and barrier.

Thanks to What’s Cooking America for the history of this dessert. If you’d like a more complete history, follow the link to the very thorough timeline here.

While I chose chocolate cake and coffee ice cream, you feel free to pick whatever combination makes you happy.

  • pound cake or a favorite sponge cake
  • 1 quart favorite flavor ice cream, softened slightly
  • 4 egg whites, at room temperature
  • pinch of salt
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar

Using the wide opening of a custard cup as a guide, cut 4 circles from pound cake (1/2-inch thick slices) or sponge sheet cake. I made a chocolate pound cake that was not very tall, so I had to set 2 slices side by side and cut a circle from those. The resulting cake circle was 2 half moons rather than one whole piece, but that worked fine. Set the cake slices aside.

Lightly spray 4 glass custard cups (standard 6 ounce size) with non-stick spray, then line each with a generous piece of plastic wrap, leaving an overhang of plastic. Scoop ice cream into the lined cups and fill to within 1/2-inch of the rim of the glass cup. Place a cake circle on top of the ice cream, pressing down gently to fit it into the custard cup.

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Take the plastic wrap overhang and wrap this over the cake, sealing the cake and ice cream well inside. Repeat with the remaining custard cups, then place the dishes into the freezer to freeze thoroughly, at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees at least 30 minutes before baking time. The dessert must be served just as it comes out of the oven, so time the baking accordingly.

Place the room temperature egg whites and pinch of salt into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with balloon whisk attachment. Alternately you may use a mixing bowl and handheld mixer. At high speed, beat egg whites until softly fluffy. With the motor running, add the sugar to the egg whites slowly, about a tablespoon at a time, and beat until all the sugar is incorporated and the egg whites form stiff glossy peaks.

Spoon the meringue into a piping bag fitted with a large star tip, if desired. Meringue may be piped onto the ice cream or spread with a thin metal spatula.

Remove the custard cups from the freezer and invert each over a baking sheet lined with parchment. Gently pull the plastic to release the molded ice cream and cake from each cup so that the cake lies on the parchment. Remove and discard the plastic wrap.

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Pipe or spread the meringue over the ice cream and cake, covering completely.

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(I had a few gaps in between my piped stars. Where there were gaps, a little melted ice cream seeped through during baking, but just a little. Still, best to do a better job than I did.)

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Place the baking sheet in the preheated oven and bake 5-6 minutes, or until the meringue is nicely browned.

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Serve immediately.

Recipe will double very easily.

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©2013  Jane A. Ward

1880 – George Augustus Henry Sala (1828-1895), British cookbook author and journalist, wrote the following on Baked Alaska after tasting it at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York:

Imagine carrying the employment of ice to such an extent that it culminates in that gastronomical curiosity, a BAKED ICE! The “Alaska” is a BAKED ICE, of which the interior is an ice cream. This latter is surrounded by an exterior of whipped cream, made warm by means of a Salamander. The transition from the hot outside envelope to the frozen inside is painfully sudden, and not likely to be attended with beneficial effect. But the abuse of a good thing is no argument whatever against its use in a moderate and rational manner.

-from What’s Cooking America