Time Travel Kitchen
The Science of Baked Alaska
The 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing was this week and these anniversaries always make me think of Baked Alaska.
I was in grade school in the mid-sixties and in the summer when school was out, my father would sometimes take me and my oldest brother on sales calls.
Our three youngest brothers were still too little to join us, so they stayed at home with our mother, napping in the summer heat.
My father worked for a company that sub-contracted design engineers for Grumman, the Long Island company that was building the Lunar Excursion Module, or as it was called, the LEM, for the Apollo Program.
Later, the name was changed to LM because somebody at NASA thought the ‘E’ that stood for ‘Excursion’ might not sound serious enough. But we still called it the LEM and so did everybody else on Long Island, and the whole world would know it as the Eagle.
After driving through a checkpoint, my father would find a space and my brother and I would jump out of the Pontiac into the July heat and onto a huge treeless expanse of parking lot. We eventually made our way to a side door of one of the flat buildings that sprawled over the complex.
The Grumman logo was on top of a large orb on one of the buildings. A receptionist just inside the door we entered would make a call and in a few minutes a man would come through another locked door inside. My father, carrying tubes of blueprints, would hand off the drawings, have a brief chat with his contact and then we would leave.
I don’t know what contracts my father’s company was hired for, it could have been a utility company, but all he could talk about after these visits and for years after was the LEM. Young as we were, we felt the bigness of what was going on somewhere in those buildings.
These trips were especially exciting because they also included driving right across the street for lunch at a restaurant called Corte’s, a hangout for Grumman engineers. Pictures of fighter planes with names like Hellcat and Wildcat hung on the walls.
We were served Shirley Temple’s, my father had a Manhattan, it was always crowded and we were the only kids.
Think Mad Men, only the crew-cut, short-sleeved dress shirt and tie Aerospace Engineer Edition — and you’ve got the picture. There were some women, but I don’t remember seeing many.
Everyone was smoking.
I sentimentally scored two matchbook covers for me and my brother Bill from Corte’s on eBay recently. There’s even a little map showing how to get from Grumman to Corte’s— you can see the tiny plane drawn on it.
My brother was eight and I was eleven and we talked about our own ‘lunar excursions’ the other day. We both vividly remember the same scene at the end of every lunch. From across the dining room, a waiter began rolling a cart in our direction. The most eye-popping dessert was en route to us, blue fire rising from a mounded white cloud that hid ice cream and cake.
The flame finished its work just as this dazzler arrived at our table, all browned and beautiful peaks.
We were surrounded by grown-ups talking about going to the Moon and we were eating Baked Alaska.
It was thrilling.
The Mysterious History of Baked Alaska
There are many stories about the creation of Baked Alaska, and among them is the 1867 version at Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York City. Originally called Omelette a la Norvegienne by a chef in France, it was later named to honor the acquisition of Alaska and served as Baked Alaska at Delmonico’s.
The first recipe in print for Baked Alaska was in the 1896 Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook. This cookbook greatly influenced the way people cooked in the 20th Century (and 21st) and was groundbreaking in that it was the first cookbook to list ingredients at the top of the instructions, a format still used today.
But the magic of being able to put frozen ice-cream covered in meringue in a 450F degree oven, or pouring flaming kirsch over it, or taking a blow torch to it and not having the ice cream melt all over the place is thanks to American-born (1753) British physicist Benjamin Thompson. He discovered that whipped egg whites have little or no thermal conductivity. (He also invented the double-boiler).
During the Paris World’s Fair in 1867, the chef at the Grand Hotel decided to put Thompson’s method to the test, and Voila! The meringue formed a protective ‘heat shield’ over the ice-cream and Omelette a la Norveggiene was born. Dr. Thompson had lived in Bavaria for a time and the French chef thought Thompson had resided in Norway and wanted to honor him with the name but, Oops!
Chef Sara Moulton wrote a fun article about Baked Alaska a while back with a great recipe for mini-Baked Alaska. I had the privilege of working with Sara in the ‘90’s at Gourmet Magazine and her recipes always work! I think you’ll enjoy these. Here’s the link:
I went my own way with building my Baked Alaska this week, and I encourage you to do the same — have fun with it!
I made a Swiss Meringue rather than the Fannie Farmer meringue recipe for several reasons: I prefer to heat the eggs and sugar and I love the marshmallow taste and the shiny look of it. I used 4 egg whites and 1 cup sugar; pinch of Kosher salt. Heat the eggs, sugar and salt over a double-boiler (thank you, Dr. Thompson). Once sugar is dissolved, transfer to a stand mixer and whip till stiff peak. There are many Swiss meringue recipes online, or you may have a favorite (Zoë Francois makes a great one) The amount you make will depend on what size cake you make. The key is to work fast getting it on the frozen ice cream.
I took a page from Ina Garten’s book and used store-bought pound cake. You can also use Brownies as a base and Dorie Greenspan and Zoë use Ladyfingers. If it’s cool enough to bake, a Sponge Cake is great.
The only time I used the oven this week was to do a 3-minute, 450F degree blast till the meringue browned the way I wanted it to. You can also use a blow torch or pour the (carefully) lit kirsch over it. But there’s something exciting about putting ice-cream in the oven and having it survive. Be sure to seal the bottom of the ice cream and cake well with meringue to avoid leaks.
I used Tillamook Oregon Black Cherry Ice Cream, it is delicious and creamy. I froze in a mold for 3 hours.
Baked Alaska, seems to be making a comeback and just as with all classics, there’s a reason they are classic— they’re delicious.
See you in two weeks with the history of Peach Melba and a recipe - it’s a perfect summer dessert.
Have a great weekend!
Sources: The Original Fannie Farmer 1896 Cookbook, The Boston Cooking School, Fannie Merritt Farmer, Little Brown Co.; Baked Alaska, a Creation Story Shrouded in Mystery, NPR, 2016, Maya Silver; Wikipedia; WeAreChefs.com NYT Cooking:Birthday Baked Alaska, Zoë Francois, Dorie Greenspan; BarefootContessa.com, Raspberry Baked Alaska.