Flip through any cookbook of mid-20th century America and you’re bound to come across a recipe for baked Alaska. It was all the rage for a time. But as quickly as it flamed up, it soon disappeared.
Now it’s back. The TV drama “Mad Men” has prompted retro-themed parties that often include baked Alaska on the menus. In a recent episode, in fact, the frozen dessert is served at an awards dinner. A Discover card commercial features the flamed ice cream/meringue confection, and it’s showing up on cooking shows, made by celebrity chefs.
The resurgence of 1960s chic is echoed in Boston-area restaurants, too. A few have served baked Alaska for years, including Locke-Ober, Anthony’s Pier 4, and Oleana, whose version diners particularly rave about. But newer venues, including Jody Adams’s Trade in the Waterfront District, are giving baked Alaska a prominent spot on the menu, too.
The dessert is made with six ingredients: ice cream, sponge cake, egg whites, sugar, vanilla, and salt. A scoop of ice cream on a bed of cake is smothered in a generous layer of meringue and baked in an ultra-hot oven. A few minutes later, out comes an irresistible confection, one with a piping hot exterior, like that of a toasted marshmallow, encapsulating the ice cream, which remains frozen. It’s an ice cream dessert that is actually baked.
For the answer to why the ice cream doesn’t melt, we turned to author Harold McGee, author of “On Food and Cooking,” a modern classic that explains kitchen science. “This thermal contrast is made possible by the excellent insulating properties of cellular structures like foams,” McGee writes. This is the same reason, he says, that “a cup of cappuccino cools more slowly than a cup of regular coffee.”
Baked Alaska was a sort of early experiment in molecular gastronomy, more than a century before that phrase existed.
“The ice cream doesn’t melt because it’s protected by the frozen meringue,” says Adams, who opened her Waterfront restaurant last fall. Trade’s baked Alaska is a top dessert, developed by pastry chef Sarah Cravedi, who makes about 90 orders a week. This version uses a crisp almond meringue round instead of cake for the base and passion fruit and coconut sorbets tucked inside. It’s both dairy and gluten-free. The dessert is cooked very quickly directly in front of gas-fired flames in a hot oven. Some restaurants forgo the oven and brown the meringue using a kitchen torch. Either way, as long as the ice cream is completely enveloped by the meringue, it will stay cold.
Baked Alaska’s origins date back 100 years earlier than mid-century. According to research librarian Lynne Oliver, writing on her website the Food Timeline (www.foodtimeline.org), “most food historians generally agree this confection originated in the 19th century.” The dish first became popular at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York in the late 1800s, under the name “Alaska, Florida,” and according to Oliver, the first printed evidence of the name “baked Alaska” can be found in the 1905 version of the Fannie Farmer cookbook.
Petit Robert Central, in Boston’s Financial District, serves its own version. “It’s something that people really love,” says executive chef Eric Bogardus. “Baked Alaska has such a ‘wow’ factor when people get it. It’s probably the simplest dessert you’ll ever see as far as making it. But people think ‘I could never do something like that.’ It’s got such a presence on the plate.” His version has a core of vanilla and black raspberry ice cream set on genoise (an airy sponge cake), then covered with meringue.
Petit Robert Central has conducted a class on making baked Alaska and may offer another one in the future, Bogardus says. The chef never ate baked Alaska until he worked at Locke-Ober, where the dessert was a top menu item. There,
he says, the dessert is toasted tableside and flambeed with brandy.
Adams says that the dessert has a high nostalgia factor. “When we told people we were putting it on the menu, they got so excited,” she says. “I think that soft meringue on the outside is kind of a childhood texture.”
At Petit Robert Central, the dessert has become a favorite with more than just the customers. “To be honest, some of our staff have gone crazy for it,” Bogardus says. “We have a lot of requests from some of our people who just want to eat baked Alaska for the staff meal.”Matt Barber can be
reached at matthewjbarber