Baked Alaska: or the Story of Seward’s Folly
Baked Alaska, with its sponge cake bottom, frozen center of ice cream, and toasted exterior of meringue, it is somewhat of an edible paradox. How the meringue can get hot and crisp and the dome of ice cream remain unmelted boggles the mind and contradicts everything we think we know about placing something cold in a hot oven.
Though many origin stories appear for the Baked Alaska, it would seem that the earliest documentation comes from an American by the name of Benjamin Thompson Rumford in 1804. Count Rumford revolutionized the kitchen with his inventions (which included the double-boiler, the kitchen range, and the coffee percolator, to name just a few). The Baked Alaska ended up being a by-product of Rumford’s experiments with heat conduction in egg whites. Realizing that the air bubbles trapped inside whipped egg whites made for a great insulator, he began putting his hypothesis to the test, and on the sixth day he placed ice cream in the oven, and saw that it was good, dubbing his subsequent creation the “Omelette Surprise”.
The similarities between Rumford’s experiment and today’s Baked Alaska are unmistakable. Some claim the true origin story of the Baked Alaska rests with the Chinese who invented something called a “roasted ice”. Their interpretation was wrapped in a thin layer of dough instead of meringue and sounds more to me like fried ice cream than a true Baked Alaska.
Let’s jump ahead a few decades to 1867, New York. Enter Charles Ranhofer, pastry chef at New York’s famed restaurant, Delmonico’s. Known for his piquant aphorisms and cultural commentary a lá his dishes, Ranhofer created a dish very similar to Rumford’s surprise called the “Alaska Florida”.
Created in response to North America’s recent purchase of Alaska, the name “Alaska Florida” not only described the contrasting temperatures intrinsic to both the states and the dish but also denoted the Florida born U.S. Secretary of State, William H. Seward. Seward was a firm believer in American expansion and for years had negotiated with Russia in an attempt to buy their Alaskan territory. After years of refusing Seward, Czar Alexander II finally relented. Desperate, because of an internal crisis involving the royal Russian treasury, Alexander pawned the last and largest of his remaining jewels, Alaska, to the eager Seward.
Surprised at Seward’s success, the US who had for a long time seemingly ignored the Secretary’s endeavors to buy the massive swath of land now raised their collective voice against him. For another year Seward argued and wheedled with Congress, certain that Alaska was the great new frontier, and an inevitable asset to the country. Finally relenting the U.S. bought its 49th state for the sweet sum of 7.2 million dollars. At roughly 2 cents an acre that sounds like an excellent deal but even after it went through, and the papers were signed, Seward met with a lot of criticism not only from those among government but the country at large. Papers called it “Seward’s folly” and “Seward’s icebox” among other derivatives.
In the end, Seward was vindicated when a major gold deposit was discovered in the Yukon and Alaska became the gateway to the Klondike gold fields. Unfortunately, Seward never got to gloat, the discovery not being made until 24 years after his death. Ranhofer’s scathing new addition to the menu, however, was an immediate success and is still served the same way at Delmonico’s today.
“Not to like ice cream is to show oneself uninterested in food.”
Seward’s Baked Alaska
It is recommended that you make the recipe for the Jaconde Sponge Cake a day in advance, this allows the cake plenty of time to cool thoroughly before being used.
For the Baked Alaska
When the cake is cooled and ready to be used begin making the Alaska by first transferring ice cream to the refrigerator. Allow a couple of hours after this step, so the ice cream can soften up and become easier to work with. When the ice cream has sufficiently softened, spoon it into your molds. This can be anything from a loaf pan to small hemisphere molds like I used. Spoon the ice cream in, being sure to push the cream into the mold in an attempt to fill them completely and achieve a smooth finish, then smooth off the top. Repeat with remaining molds and cover with plastic wrap. Freeze for an hour or more.
Using a small round cutter cut out pieces of the cake, and set aside.
Remove the ice cream from the freezer and using a melon baller or small portion scoop, carve out a small dip in the center of each mold and fill it with the other ice cream flavor. If you’d like to take it a step further hiding a morello cherry or some other small liquor soaked fruit would be a fun surprise in the center of your Baked Alaska. When the centers have been switched, cover the ice cream and return to the freezer.
While the ice cream is firming up again, make the meringue.
For the Meringue
4 egg whites, room temperature
½ teaspoon of lemon juice
½ cup sugar.
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 Tablespoons sugar
In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat egg whites and lemon juice on high speed until foamy, then begin adding sugar one tablespoon at a time. Continue to beat the egg whites until they form firm peaks and have achieved a high sheen.
Transfer the meringue into a separate bowl and set aside. Without bothering to clean out the bowl of the standing mixer, add the egg yolks, vanilla, and sugar and beat on high until fluffy and light in color, approximately five minutes.
Add the yolks to the egg whites and fold together until completely combined.
For the Assembly
Remove the ice cream from the freezer and pop them out of their molds, placing each dome of ice cream on top of a circle of sponge cake.
Slather the domes with meringue and using a small offset spatula make swirls and designs. You can also use a piping bag and a star tip to make meringue decorations. I recommend using a cake turntable when piping on your meringue, it really makes the whole process easier. Ateco makes a fantastic, heavy duty turntable that will last you the rest of your life.
When you have achieved the look desired, return to the freezer and allow to firm up for about an hour before baking.
Blowtorch the cake right before serving or bake at 450℉ until golden brown. If aiming to impress, heat up some cognac or Grande Marnier and ignite, pouring over the Baked Alaska in a waterfall of flame. Serve immediately!
I recommend using a cake turntable when piping on your meringue. Ateco makes a fantastic, heavy duty turntable that will last you the rest of your life.