A few years ago, at a fundraising dinner, we were served Baked Alaska. What a throwback to the ’50’s I thought (or was it the 70’s?) – who serves this anymore? It is indeed difficult to find it on contemporary menus. Baked Alaska, by the way, is ice-cream on a layer of sponge cake and encased in meringue that is lightly baked (or torched).
Somehow I was intrigued as to the origin of this now fallen out of favor dessert and, by scrolling Wikipedia, one would learn that the name was invented by Delmonico’s who apparently served the dessert in 1876 to honor the annexation of a new territory, Alaska. But digging deeper than Wikipedia yields more interesting finds.
It was the French, who else, who invented it and called it “omelette a la Norvegienne” (Norwegian omelette). Thomas Jefferson, who made his acquaintance with ice-cream while in France and became a friend of it for life, was known to serve it at the White House. In 1802, at a state dinner, a dessert made of ice-cream and encased in baked pastry was recorded as being served.
But going back even farther, a gentleman by the name of Benjamin Thompson Rumford stumbled upon it by accident. An inventor by hobby, if not by trade, to him we owe the fire grate, the double boiler, the coffee percolator and the kitchen range amongst other things culinary. While testing the resistance of beaten eggs to heat (beaten eggs were known to be a poor heat conductor) he concocted something similar to the Baked Alaska – meringue, after all, is just beaten egg whites and sugar. Covering ice-cream with browned meringue became very popular in the 1850’s and somehow the practice was resumed by housewives all over America in the middle of the next century.
Whilst it is true that beaten eggs are poor heat conductors, according to my trusted McGee it’s the foam that makes the difference – foam’s cellular structure makes it hard for heat to penetrate or, conversely, makes it easy for food or liquids to be insulated. Which is why a cappuccino will cool more slowly than a regular cup of coffee.
And lastly, in case you want to start preparing, February 1 is Baked Alaska Day…