In 1867, inspired by America’s purchase of Alaska (for a cool $7m), Charles Ranhofer of Delmonico’s restaurant in New York is said to have come up with the thermodynamically challenging dessert. It’s a nice story, but probably a spurious one, for people had been bundling ice cream up in meringue long before Ranhofer first wielded a whisk; what he came up with, by dubbing his version the Alaska-Florida in honour of its contrasting temperatures, was a clever piece of marketing.
Chefs have been dishing up ice cream encased in pastry for centuries – Thomas Jefferson is said to have served it in his White House. But not until Benjamin Thompson, an American physicist, discovered at the beginning of the 19th century that the bubbles whipped up in egg whites make meringue an excellent insulator was the modern Baked Alaska born.
By the mid-20th century, passion for the fiddly dessert had been stirred into a frenzy. In 1969 Nicholas Kurti, another culinarily inclined physicist, took thermal acrobatics one step further, dazzling the Royal Society with his reverse Baked Alaska (a “Frozen Florida”) – a cold meringue ball with a hot centre, cooked in a microwave. But its popularity then melted away. More recently, however, a fondness for everything retro and the realisation that cake, ice cream and meringue is a reliably winning combination has prompted a revival.
Baked Alaska can be as complex or as simple as you choose. Buy your cake and ice cream, stick to a basic meringue recipe and it is an undemanding dessert. But to unleash its true glory, prepare to use every dish in the kitchen. First bake your base. A light sponge is most common, a chiffon, perhaps, or a genoise.
Next make your ice cream. Let it soften, mould it into a bombe before refreezing it and plopping it on top of your sponge. You can use more than one sort of ice cream. In a mercilessly complicated recipe Heston Blumenthal relies on a banana parfait encircling a chocolate tube filled with raspberry sorbet. To finish, make Italian meringue, heating sugar syrup before beating it into egg whites. This creates a coating stable enough to allow you to pipe it into hedgehog spines and to withstand the heat of the oven (3-5 minutes at 220˚C, though some more daring cooks might reach instead for a blowtorch). Serve with a flourish alongside a bowl of lethal punch and prepare to wallow in delicious nostalgia.