Hello, again, and welcome to part 2 of my dessert special to celebrate a month of this blog! Presenting to you, the infamous and scrumptious Baked Alaska!
I once read in an article that the baked Alaska is to the food world what a unicorn is to the… err… rest of the world; most people have heard of it, but few have seen one! I first heard of this dessert many years ago, when I used to play a simulation game called The Sims (yes, yes, instead of actually living my own life!). In the game, you could learn various skills, including cooking. Once you had reached the very highest culinary skill level, you would learn to make baked Alaska. As is often done for effect in the real world, the dessert was flambéed in the game right before serving; meaning you would pour some alcohol on top and light the entire dessert on fire, and in would walk your culinary genius, carrying a flaming dessert that was as beautiful as it was delicious (I assumed, back then, from the delighted expressions on the faces of other sims).
It has been many years since I have given up playing the game, but that image has stuck in my mind. Strangely, it never occurred to me until recently to try making one! Last December, my cousin was visiting us on his birthday and I wanted to make something very special for him. My own birthday had gone by just a couple of weeks ago, and I had received an ice cream maker as a present; so obviously this special dessert had to be ice cream based. It could not be just ice cream though, because that might be underwhelming. Enter, the unicorn dessert!
A baked Alaska is composed of three layers – one made of cake, one of ice cream and one of meringue. The ice cream layer is placed on a bed of cake, and the entire thing is then covered in a layer of egg whites beaten to a stiff meringue. The meringue exterior is then browned using one of three techniques: it can be placed in a 500F hot oven for 10 minutes, or until the peaks are brown; a culinary torch can be used to gently brown the meringue; or, it can be flambéed the traditional way at the moment it is being served. While the last option is the most dramatic, it is definitely not for the faint of heart! I have only ever baked it, and that is what I include in my recipe below.
Once the exterior has been browned, it is ready to serve. The final dessert consists of some cake, some still-frozen ice cream (if you have done it right), and a beautiful meringue exterior that is gooey and fluffy on the inside, and crisp on the outside where it has been browned. The science behind this is simple – the cake and the meringue act as insulation around the ice cream, preventing the heat from reaching that layer. The most critical aspect of making this dessert is to ensure that there are no gaps between the meringue/cake and the ice cream layers; even a tiny gap can allow all the heat inside and the ice cream will melt within seconds inside the hot oven or under the torch.
There are two major variations on the assembly of a baked Alaska. One way to do it is the one I mentioned earlier – using a cake base, then piling ice cream on top and finally adding meringue all around. The end result looks like this:
Another popular method is to freeze the ice cream in brick or log form using a loaf pan, then to roll a thin sheet cake all around the log or brick, and finally cover it all up with a layer of meringue. The final product in this case looks like this. In either case, the science remains the same.
Once I found out how to put it together, I could not for the life of me fathom why I had never tried my hand at making a baked Alaska before! However, I would not call this one an easy dessert. It is time-consuming, is assembled in many steps, and is definitely not for the faint of heart; if you’re like me, you may be on edge until the moment it has been served and you’re cutting out the first piece! But the gasp of joy and surprise that you will quite possibly hear from those around you as you serve it will most definitely make this worth every bit of trouble. Very few desserts that I know of can pack as much of a punch. So here is a special recipe for the special people in your lives.
I think of this post as more of assembly instructions than a recipe. It requires putting together the cake, ice cream and meringue layers. I just give you guidelines below on how to put it all together. You can use any cake you like, any flavour(s) of ice cream and any type of meringue that you choose.
You will notice that I don’t specify quantities of cake or ice cream. This is because you can trim the cake to fit the amount of ice cream you are using, and you can pile on the ice cream as high as you like. Just bear in mind that you will need to make enough meringue to cover it on all sides generously. My dessert was dome-shaped, with the base about 7 inches in diameter, and I used meringue made from 6 egg whites. That formed approximately an inch-wide insulating layer around the entire dome.
You will need:
- Sheet cake of your choosing
- Ice cream, sorbet or frozen yogurt of your choosing, softened slightly
- Meringue – I used my swiss meringue, which is a cooked meringue (you can also use plain french meringue, but bear in mind that it will not be cooked through in the short blast inside the oven; that is just to brown and crisp up the top)
How to make it:
1. Decide what shape you want your baked Alaska to be. If you want a brick or log shape, use a loaf pan for the following steps. I used a round glass bowl. Spray or coat the container of your choosing with a thin layer of oil, then line it with cling film. The oil helps the cling film to slide out easily once frozen. Use enough cling film that you have a generous overhang on either side; you will use this later to wrap the ice cream and cake layers before placing back into the freezer.
2. Trim the sheet cake to your desired shape or size. If using a brick or log of ice cream, you can trim it to a rectangular shape that fits the size of the brick or log. For my dome-shaped dessert, I trimmed it to fit the top of the bowl. There are those who use several chunks of cake to form the shape of the base. However, given that the success of this dessert hinges upon proper insulation, I prefer to cut a single continuous layer of sheet cake to the correct size. I do not make this often enough to experiment, but if you happen to try putting together smaller cake pieces, please do let me know the outcome in a comment!
3. Place the softened ice cream into the bowl. I used Neapolitan ice cream in the one pictured in the collage above – a mix of strawberry, chocolate and vanilla. In the more colourful one pictured at the beginning and the end of the post, I used a layer of homemade pistachio ice cream and a strawberry sorbet. If you want to layer different flavours of ice cream, just place the bowl in the freezer between each layer for 30 minutes or so, before adding another flavour.
There are two ways to carry out the next step.
Alternative (a): Place the cake layer on top of the ice cream. Cover the contents of the bowl with the excess cling film and place back into the freezer. Remember to complete this step quickly so that the ice cream does not melt, otherwise the cake layer will get soggy. When you are ready to bake, unwrap the cling film and tip the contents of the bowl upside down onto a baking sheet. You should now have a dome-shaped confection resembling the one pictured above on the bottom right. Place back into the freezer while the oven heats up.
Alternative (b): Use the excess cling film to wrap up the ice cream layer(s). Place into the freezer. When you are ready to bake, take the cake layer and place it on a baking sheet. Unwrap the cling film from the ice cream layer, and tip the bowl upside down to place the dome of ice cream atop the cake base. You should now have a dome-shaped confection resembling the one pictured above on the bottom right. Place back into the freezer while the oven heats up.
5. Preheat your oven to 500F. Spoon or pipe the meringue onto the dome. Make sure to cover the entire surface evenly and leave no gaps. Pay extra attention to the base, where the cake layer meets the baking sheet. Press the meringue layer against the sides of the cake and the bottom to obtain a complete seal. Chant the word “insulate” repeatedly for dramatic effect.
Ideally, you want to make the meringue layer just before baking. If you absolutely have to prepare this ahead of time, try not to do so more than 4-6 hours ahead. Make the meringue layer and place the dessert back into the freezer. Once you are ready to serve, pop the baking sheet straight from the freezer into a preheated oven.
The meringue exterior of baked Alaska typically has a lot of swirls or peaks. The peaks that lift up brown more and give it more texture. I burnt the one pictured on the left a little bit, but it turned out to have a very crispy, melt-in-your-mouth exterior. The one pictured on the right was slightly under-baked (for a total of about 6 minutes), but it turned out to be warm and gooey on the exterior as well as on the inside. In either case, it was delicious! Experiment and find out which one you prefer. You can create small peaks like these by pressing the back of a large spoon or spatula lightly against the meringue and lifting up and away in a direction perpendicular to the dessert.
Once the oven has heated up to 500F, bake the unbaked Alaska for a maximum of 10 minutes or until the top is nicely browned. Serve immediately, and bask in the glow of having baked ice cream and lived to tell the tale!