Today is, as I have been informed, Halloween.
Well, okay then. Boo.
Life can be rather ghoulish-- especially now what with Presidential elections, hunger, global warming, terrorism, people who think that inserting discriminatory amendments into the California constitution is a good idea, home foreclosures, and Dancing with the Stars filling our mental goody bags with more tricks than treats. You get the picture. I suppose we might as well have a holiday to celebrate.
In contrast to all this unpleasant scariness, I have decided to dedicate my post to one of the nicest desserts to ever cross my path-- The Baked Alaska. It's cake and ice cream wrapped up in fluffy white meringue. Like a child's birthday party all rolled up into one dessert. With a Party Clown. Nothing could be so wholesome as that.
A little background check:
According to foodreference.com, the Baked Alaska was originally a dessert consisting of ice cream on sponge cake encased in a piping hot pastry crust. Thomas Jefferson served it at the White House before it was even white, causing a guest to comment, "Ice-cream very good, crust wholly dried, crumbled into thin flakes."
Many people have claimed creation of the later, meringue-encased version. Most notable among them was American-born Benjamin Thompson, later styled as Count Rumford (namesake, but not inventor of the baking powder). This Traitor to the Republican Spirit claimed to have invented the dish in 1804 after investigating the heat resistance of beaten egg whites. He called it "omelette surprise" or omelette à la norvégienne. God struck Rumford dead at the tender age of 61 for his sins, but not before he invented the wax candle, Rumford Soup, and established potato cultivation in Bavaria-- saving many poor Germans from starvation.
It wasn't until 1876, when Delmonico's Restaurant in New York (think Hello, Dolly!) placed it on their menu to celebrate the newly-(13 years prior-- newish for the mid-19th Century) acquired territory of Alaska that the dessert got it's modern American name.
The dessert didn't gain true popularity until the 1950's, a time when America abandoned its big, unclean cities in order to breathe the fresh air of the newly-paved-over and sub-urbanized farmlands, fought Communism by digging enormous holes in their neatly manicured back yards, and connected with neighbors and families through the uniting, thought-provoking medium of television. The territory of Alaska itself was welcomed as a full member-state of our American union in 1959. Its eponymous dessert was, in my opinion, a true symbol of a great American era-- cool on the inside, white on the outside, and sweet all over. It is impossible to imagine anything as pure and wholesome coming out of that other state admitted to the Union that year, Hawai'i.
It is high time for this dessert to make a comeback.
I hadn't given the Baked Alaska much thought until a Canadian friend sent me a charming article on the subject by a little American housewife named Eve Ensler. Perhaps, as a British Columbian, he has Alaska on his mind, owing to the fact that Alaska is his next door neighbor and he can, therefore, actually see it from his own front door. Whatever prompted his sending me the link, I'm glad he did, and I think it's delightful that Mrs. Ensler bothered to take the time to write down her little recipe and share it with her friends and neighbors.
This dessert is all about appearances. Try it out at your next dinner party. It will dazzle your guests with its fancy meringue get up. They'll think you've put a lot of effort and know-how into its creation, but we know better. A pretty confection of fluff that wraps itself around a heart frozen at its core. Delicious.
4 3/4 inch slices of old cake, be it a genoise, sponge, or pound cake. I prefer old pound cake because I can buy it in the store cheaply and not have to sully my hands with the unpleasantness that is baking anything.
4 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt of the earth
1/2 cup superfine sugar
1 quart of ice cream. Your choice. Jesus told me to opt for something less vanilla this go-around, so I am, like many people I know, voting for chocolate.
Soaking the cake with a little brandy is purely optional, but I think we could all use a little more alcohol in our diets right now.
1. Mold the ice cream, which has been softened just enough that you can shape it, into any form you please on top of your sliced cakes. I chose to make individual cakes, but please, by all means, do your own thing. Place ice cream-topped cakes onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Put into freezer.
2. In a stand mixer, whisk egg whites until almost stiff, then add cream of tartar and salt. Beat in sugar one tablespoon at a time. Beat until stiff peaks that resemble the snow-capped (for the moment) top of Denali form.
3. Remove cakes from freezer. Enrobe them with at least a 3/4 inch thickness of meringue for insulation and put back into freezer. They'll need to be as icy as possible to stand up to the withering heat of your oven, the Liberal Media, or what-have-you.
4. A few minutes before serving, remove cakes from the freezer and pop under a very, very hot broiler for about three minutes, watching carefully all the while. If you are among those who do not believe that Man is responsible for rapidly increasing temperatures, that Global warming is God's Will, the wait time may be considerably longer.
5. When sufficiently browned, remove from broiler, plate, and serve immediately, because this particular dish doesn't have much of a shelf-life.