Know Your Sweets: Baked Alaska
Baked Alaska (aliases: Norwegian omelet, glace au four) is a classic dessert of the Gilded Age best known for magically combining ice (an interior cake made up of sponge cake layered with ice cream) and fire (a torched meringue shell).
Similar Desserts:Bananas foster, fried ice cream
Key Ingredient Spotlight: Meringue
While the first use of meringue probably, and perhaps surprisingly, goes to a couple of British homemakers in the early 1600s, it wasn't until the French began to embrace the technique that it really took off. King Louis XIV's first chef, François Massialot, is responsible for coining the term "meringue" when he published a recipe for a baked beaten egg white-and-sugar confection in his 1692 cookbook. The book was translated into English in 1702, and the citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the first use of the term meringue came shortly thereafter in 1706.
Key State: Alaska
Baked Alaska has something of a curious name at first blush, and one which was intended to intrigue. During the 1860s, one of the hottest political topics was the annexation of Alaska by the United States for a cool $7 million dollars. The dessert's creator, Charles Ranhofer of Delmonico's restaurant in New York City, being a suave marketer, knew that any dessert mentioning "Alaska" could reel in customers on both sides of the issue—even if it really had nothing to do with the state.
There are two key ways to vary Baked Alaska: by type of cake and type of booze. While there is no prescribed go-to cake, sponge cake is most common. Pound cake, while making the dessert a little less light and ethereal, also provides a strong center for the dessert. On the booze front, rum was the original liquor of choice, but feel free to experiment with any sort of complimentary flavored liqueurs as a fine substitutes.
Letters, journals, and recipe books indicate that Thomas Jefferson enjoyed a dish similar to Baked Alaska during his time in the White House and served it frequently at Monticello. The sweet dish's big break, though, didn't come until the late 1800s. Baked Alaska was the signature dessert dish of Chef Charles Ranhofer, who ruled over the kitchen at Delmonico's in New York City during the era of robber barons and glitz.
The construction of Baked Alaska was quite time consuming, and became more of an assembly job that a feat of culinary expertise. However, in 1974, a specialized pan was created for making Baked Alaska which allowed for a hollowed out shell of meringue to be filled with ice cream and cake.
The "Frozen Florida" is a dessert invented in the 1960s—the peak of Baked Alaska's heyday—that attempts to be the inverse of the Baked Alaska by filling a frozen meringue shell with a hot toddy. There is also a variation called Bombe Alaska in which the dessert is doused in dark rum then flambéed.