Baked Alaska is a flat sponge cake topped with ice cream, covered in raw meringue and baked for a very short period of time in a very hot oven, so that the meringue browns but the ice cream stays solid and cold. It is very impressive and festive, even though it is very simple.
The air in the meringue acts as insulation to protect the ice cream for the short period of time it is in the oven. Meringue is a poor conductor of heat.
Some people use the broiler instead of just a hot oven; some use a kitchen torch instead.
Making a Baked Alaska used to be easier when ice cream was sold in brick shapes. Now that ice cream comes in tubs, you’ll need to remould it.
The ice cream must be as cold as possible before it goes in the oven, and the oven must be as hot as possible.
Baked Alaska can be made ahead a bit and kept in the freezer, with the browning reserved to the last minute.
The invention of Baked Alaska is credited to many people. In truth, though, in the second half of the 1800s, many such similar desserts had started to appear.
An American physicist Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814) claimed to have invented something in 1804 that he called “omelette surprise” or “omelette à la norvégienne.” A Loyalist who left America at the time of the revolution, he worked first in England. In 1790, he was made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire for his military services to Austria and Bavaria. After some time in England, he moved to Paris and devoted himself to further scientific studies on the transmission of heat. Reputedly, he was experimenting with the effect of heat on beaten egg white at the time, testing to see whether meringue could melt (no, because it is a poor conductor of heat.) He covered ice cream with meringue as part of his experiments and demonstrations, and called it “Omelette Surprise.”
In 1855, a recipe called “Baked Alaska Apple Pie” appeared in Mary Hodgson’s “The Philadelphia Housewife.” She instructed readers to fill the centre of apples with vanilla ice cream, top with meringue and bake.
One less documented story concerns a Chinese delegation staying at the Grand Hotel in Paris in 1886. Though today there are at least 3 Grand Hotels in Paris, presumably the one meant is the one built in 1862 near the Paris Opera. Chinese cooks accompanying the delegation reputedly swapped recipes with the chefs at the hotel and taught the French about baking “ices” in a pastry crust. This story comes from a daily food column written by Baron Leon Brisse that appeared on 6 June 1866 in the newspaper La Liberté (edited at the time by Emile de Girardin.)
These early versions that had the ice cream enclosed in pastry crust instead of meringue used a very thin, light pastry that could cook and crisp up before the ice cream could get warm.
Some credit the invention to Charles Ranhofer of Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York, reputedly in 1867, to celebrate the acquisition of Alaska. In 1880 a British food writer George Augustus Henry Sala (1828-1895) reported having a baked ice cream dish called “Alaska” at Delmonico’s. He cautioned, though, that “the transition from the hot outside envelope to the frozen inside is painfully sudden, and not likely to be attended with beneficial effect.” Ranhofer, in his 1893 book “The Epicurean”, refers to a similar dish as “Alaska, Florida”. He made it as a dessert in individual portions.
In a menu from 30 July 1896, Boldt’s Restaurant in Philadelphia lists “Baked Alaska.”
The actual name “Baked Alaska” seems to first appear in a cookbook in 1896, when Fannie Farmer used it in her cookbook of that year. She made it as we do today.
In 1903, Escoffier listed not only his recipe for Omelette Norvegienne (in which he instructed that the length of the sponge cake should be the size of an omelette), but nine variations as well, each with different names.
Baked Alaska was very popular in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly on cruise ships.
The Norvegienne (Norway) reference in some of its other names may come from the fact that Norway exported a lot of blocks of ice to Europe.