Baked Alaska and Other Flambé Desserts
Sometimes, like for Baked Alaska, the best dessert creators are not even chefs at all. In the case of this curious dessert, we will discover that we owe its creation to an American physicist, who was tasked with creating a flambé dessert that would keep the ice cream frozen. Let’s embark on a journey and learn what this dessert is all about. What other desserts do we casually set on fire? And what’s the link between Baked Alaska and political violence? Put your fire suit on and keep on reading!
What is Baked Alaska?
Before we get into the story of this dessert and explain its name, we must look at exactly what it is.. Let’s start from the inside and work our way out. First, we have a ball of frozen ice cream, then we line it with slices of cake or layers of pudding. Finally, we cover the whole thing in meringue (whipped egg whites with sugar), and put the dish in a very hot oven for a very short time, which caramelizes the meringue. Some serve it by pouring alcohol and lighting it up (flambé) for a few seconds. What makes this dessert even more interesting, apart from its diversified ingredients, is that the air bubbles inside the meringue act as a heat insulator, and stops the ice cream from melting. This means that even after you serve the dish and eat your way through its layers, the ice cream ball will still be firm and cold once you get there. Pretty ingenious, isn’t it?
How was Bombe Alaska Invented?
It turns out that Baked Alaska traces its origins to America’s highest offices. According to historians, President Thomas Jefferson was one of the first presidents to serve ice cream to guests at State banquets. One day, he expressed a seemingly impossible dream: to find a way to serve ice cream encased in hot pastry. While that seemed a tad contradictory, that didn’t discourage Benjamin Thompson Rutford, an American physicist, from applying his scientific knowledge to create such a dessert. As a matter of fact, Rutford had already been known for his cooking devices inventions, such as the double boiler and the coffee percolator. Therefore, he was no stranger to the combination between physics, chemistry and food. During a stay in Europe at the beginning of the 1800s, he tested the resistance of beaten egg whites to heat, and discovered a way to make Jefferson’s dream come true. This is how this dessert, which he first named omelette surprise, came to be.
President Thomas Jefferson’s love for ice cream might have led to
the creation of Baked Alaska (Wikipedia / Food & Wine)
As the century went on, this dish gained in popularity, and by the 1850s, these “ice cream bombs” – ice cream encased in either meringue or custard – became staples at teatime and dinners. As for the name, it first appeared in a cookbook, The Philadelphia Housewife, by Aunt Mary, in 1855. It was the first cookbook to feature baked meringue recipes, including, you guessed it, “Baked Alaska Apple Pie”. The name, as you can imagine, links the cold ice cream to the cold weather of Alaska.
Baked Alaska Variations
Around the same time, a French chef of the Grand Hôtel in Paris, named Balzac, created his own version of the dish and named it omelette norvégienne, evoking a cold and nordic territory closer to home for Europeans. In 1867, another French chef, Charles Ranhofer, who probably heard of Balzac’s creation during his training and who later settled in the US, created a dessert to celebrate the Alaska Purchase from Russia. He dubbed it “Alaska, Florida”, in reference to the contrast in temperatures between the hot baked meringue and the cold frozen ice cream, just like the heat contrast between the two States. Ranhofer’s version was rather flamboyant, as it consisted of banana ice cream (an exotic and expensive import at the time), walnut spice cake, and meringue torched until it was golden brown.
The Art of the Flambé
In restaurants, it isn’t uncommon for heads to turn as waiters whisk by, carrying plates come alive by the dance of blue flames. As if lost in a kaleidoscopic mirage of fire, the spirit errs and wonders: Why do we set desserts ablaze? How does it work? Does it affect taste? Will the flames last long enough for a genie to appear among them, offering me wishes, wealth and good fortune?
While we cannot offer a definitive answer to the last question, we certainly can tell you about flambés. While Baked Alaska is put in a very hot oven to caramelize the meringue, it can also be completely set on fire using alcoholic beverages as fuel, resulting in blue-tinged flames.
The flambé desserts undeniably create a “Wow!” effect. A touch of extravagance, audacity and danger always spices up an evening. But there are also practical advantages. Take into account that the alcohol commonly used for flambé desserts can vary between cognac, rhum, or other high-quality alcohol liquors. While these liquors are tasty by themselves, the 40% alcohol content may make the dessert bitter. Flaming them actually reduces the alcohol content and cuts the bitterness while preserving the taste of the beverage, resulting in a win-win culinary situation. Furthermore, fire does not alter the taste of the other ingredients.
To properly flambé something, the drink must be heated, which releases alcoholic vapours, making it possible to ignite. At room temperature, it will not ignite. Safety-wise, it is not recommended to add the drink into a hot pan or burner, but rather to use a long matchstick to light up the dish.
Additional Flambé Desserts
If you’re searching for other types of flambé desserts, look no further. There are tons of delicious and mystical desserts you can taste, after the last spectacular flames have died down:
A traditional Christmas pudding-like cake often made with dried fruits, nuts, honey and cream. Rum or other alcohols can be added to enrich flavour, and ignited for effect.
A delicious bowl of sliced bananas and vanilla ice cream, topped with butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, and liquor, such as rum.
A French classic, crêpes topped with beurre Suzette, a sauce made with caramelized sugar and butter, orange juice, zest and an orange-flavoured liqueur, such as Grand Marnier or Triple Sec. Strike the match, and voilà!
A flambée dish made with cherries and liqueur, usually kirsch, and served with vanilla ice cream. This dish was created in honor of Queen Victoria’s 1897 Diamond Jubilee.
Created in honour of the Australian soprano Nellie Melba, by the same French chef who invented Cherries Jubilee, Auguste Escoffier, this dessert consists of sliced peaches, raspberry sauce, vanilla ice cream and liqueur (cognac, rum, or brandy).
Similar to Baked Alaska, this dessert is popular in Hong Kong. It’s a ball of ice cream inside a layer of sponge cake, topped with cream and drizzled with whisky and syrup, and set alight before serving.
As you may have guessed, Frozen Florida is the opposite of Baked Alaska. It’s a frozen outer meringue shell, in the middle of which there is hot liqueur. This dessert came about in the 1960s, thanks to the invention of the microwave. To make it, a container made of meringue is filled with the hot beverage, and put in the freezer. A couple of hours later, this mixture is removed from the freezer and briefly heated in the microwave, melting the liqueur in the middle but leaving the outer shell frozen.
The “BinGate” or “AlaskaGate” Controversy
While Baked Alaska might seem like an obscure dessert, you might be surprised to know that not only it was featured in The Great British Bake Off Show, but that it was the center of a controversy that attracted the entire UK’s attention.
In one particular episode of this show, contestants had to prepare a Baked Alaska outside, on a 25-degree summer day. After preparing the ice cream, Iain, one of the contestants, needed to store it in a freezer as fast as possible to prevent it from melting. Yet due to the small size of the freezer, another contestant, Diana, momentarily took Iain’s ice cream out to put her’s in, and inadvertently left Iain’s unattended, outside in summer weather, until he noticed it, 40 seconds later.
Iain felt his ice cream was ruined. Out of frustration, he threw it all in the garbage and presented the jury with the entire garbage can, claiming his dessert was sabotaged. This event became a nation-wide scandal in the UK, with many demanding “Justice for Iain”. Others argued that 40 seconds aren’t enough to melt ice cream at all, and that Iain simply threw a tantrum for no reason. In any case, Iain later tweeted that there were no hard feelings between Diana and him. In light of this scandal, the cooking show would perhaps be wise in considering the purchase of a bigger freezer for future competitions.
Iain Watters’ tweet about the British Bakeoff Scandal
Avoiding Political Violence
While desserts offer us moments of togetherness and enjoyment, other events around the world remind us that political division remains a sad reality, a reality that sometimes degenerates into violence.
One of these cases has a strange connection to Baked Alaska. As it turns out, it is the nickname used by an American media personality named Tim Gionet, who recently pleaded guilty in a misdemeanour charge related to his actions during the Jan. 6th 2021 riot, during which protestors stormed the US Capitol due to anger and suspicions about the 2020 presidential election results. Rioters breached the Capitol building in an attempt to overthrow the results of the US 2020 election. The rioters assaulted the Capitol police force and ransacked the complex, destroying property and sending members of Congress and their staff into hiding in offices and bunkers. One protester was shot by police and died in the chaos, and more than 100 members of law enforcement were injured.
Earlier in 2020, following the death of George Floyd, the US was rocked by months of rioting and looting, causing at least 19 deaths, mosly black, and costing billions in property damage. During the month of June of that same year, another protest ignited, this time in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood of Seattle, where a group of protesters tried to establish a self-governing area and demanded to defund police and allocate the funds toward community organizations. This incident escalated to a major Capitol Hill Occupied Protest. The nearby police precinct was abandoned, as police could no longer control the area. During its short-lived existence, it was plagued with shootings linked to clashes between gangs and political fractions, resulting in two deaths and several injuries. In the end, police cleared the area and made arrests. Weeks after the protests ended, several blocks remained boarded up and many business owners were still afraid to speak out about their experiences.
The surge in popularity of Right-wing leaders stems from discontent factors, such as rising crime, the economy, governments’ COVID restrictive response, and, in Europe’s case, rapid social changes, increased terrorism, and a sudden stream of millions of migrants. While these factors vary from place to place, every country that saw a rise in the populist Right, whether Brazil, the US, Italy or others, shared a common trait of distrust in the establishment. While changes in political parties are a healthy sign of democracy, we hope the future will offer peaceful protests that are free from political violence, no matter from which side it stems.
Luckily, food, and desserts in particular, have always helped to federate people and offer moments of sharing, laughter and unity. We hope you’ve enjoyed discovering Baked Alaska, and try to find a restaurant near you that serves these delicious flambé desserts.