Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Baked Alaska Amidst Mountains

My family’s Great Alaska Adventure continues, and we are all drinking in the outrageous natural beauty with real joy. My camera’s lens is completely inadequate to capture the enormity of these sights, for the mountain ranges are too majestic to be confined in a small frame. Neither can the true glory of a late-night ocean sunset by captured with my little digital camera, but that hasn't stopped me from photographing my way through this trip with abandon.

I am still floating on the memory of our train ride up the White Mountain Pass yesterday. After docking in Skagway, we ascended the old Yukon mining trail in a wooden railway car and were treated to one jaw-dropping view after another. Our enormous ship became a white speck on the horizon as the train carried us higher and higher still. We saw an enormous black bear lurking amidst magnificent trees as we made our way to the summit, and there we encountered the most pure white snow I've ever had the pleasure of seeing . Once again, my photos don’t do justice but I know that I will certainly daydream about these visuals when I am back home in the concrete jungle of Manhattan.

The fourteen of us occupy three tables at dinner each night, and I am very proud of my 7-year-old nephew, Mac, who has been a delightful addition to the dinner table. He has also been very adventurous in the culinary department this week, which is an excellent quality to have when your nickname is Little Chef. Mac is cultivating his seafood appreciation on this trip and I’ve watched him devour a different salmon preparation nightly. On the day that we docked in Sitka, my parents took him to a place that served reindeer hot dogs, a local delicacy that Mac decided was the most delicious hot dog he’d ever tasted. Because of this positive experience, he didn’t hesitate to order the Vegetable Soup With Reindeer Sausage at dinner that night, and he drained the bowl to the last drop. I was very impressed.

Mac and I both have been exploring our Baked Alaska horizons, ordering it for dessert practically every night. In the same way that there is a different Alaskan salmon dish on the menu each night, it makes sense that there would also be a new variation on Baked Alaska for dessert every night, in addition to the other regular dessert offerings. However, there was one night where the waiters brought a chocolate birthday cake for Grandma. She is the reason we are on this trip, for it’s not every day that you get to celebrate someone’s 95th birthday!

The origins of Baked Alaska are unclear, though the dessert is consistently made of ice cream on a sponge cake base and encased in meringue, then baked in a very hot oven just till the meringue peaks are browned but the ice cream remains frozen. Some attribute this dessert to the great French chef Balzac who presided over the kitchen and dining room of the Grand Hotel in Paris of the1860s. When he encased ice cream in meringue to insulate it, he called it “omelette surprise” or “omelette à la norvégienne”. (I suppose that the Norwegian description was in reference to its Arctic appearance and cold center.)

But the moniker “Baked Alaska” can be attributed to the chef Charles Ranhofer who created this dessert at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York in 1867, ostensibly to celebrate the U.S. acquisition of its 49th state, Alaska. The name makes sense to me, with its frozen center covered in a mountain of peaky meringue. It adds a whole new level of enjoyment when you’re actually on a boat sailing by spectacular snow-capped mountain ranges as you indulge in your Baked Alaska!

The flavor possibilities are endless with this, depending on what kind of cake and ice cream you choose. The meringue peaks remain constant, but what’s beneath the meringue can change to suit your taste. In my Baked Alaska exploration during this week alone, I have had vanilla cake with chocolate ice cream, chocolate cake with almond ice cream, pound cake with strawberry ice cream, even a chocolate chip cookie base with coffee ice cream. The accompanying sauces have also changed from night to night, so I have tried mine topped with brandied cranberries, whiskey butterscotch sauce, and chantilly cream, whereas Mac has had his Baked Alaska adorned so far with chocolate raspberry sauce, strawberries, and hot fudge on alternating evenings.

Baked Alaska is fun and slightly kitschy, a throwback to the the kind of dessert a 1960s mom would make for special occasions. It’s easy to make, for you can use a store-bought pound cake to layer underneath your favorite ice cream, and the presentation is dramatic. But if you’re feeling a bit more ambitious, here is a recipe that I really like for a Baked Alaska with a chocolate brownie base and topped with coffee ice cream. I know it won't have quite the same effect when I'm eating this concoction at home while looking out the window at New York City skyscrapers, but it will be delicious nonetheless.

Adapted from a recipe in Bon Appetit, August 2006

In my version of Baked Alaska, a scrumptious brownie base is paired with coffee ice cream, then covered with a mountain of meringue and frozen till extra-firm. Just before serving the individual Baked Alaskas, either brown the meringue under the broiler for a few minutes or use a small culinary blow-torch to brown the meringue peaks. If you really want to gild the lily, serve the Chocolate & Coffee Baked Alaska with a drizzle of store-bought caramel sauce and a scattering of toasted almonds.

For the brownie cake base:
6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
¾ ounce unsweetened chocolate, chopped
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
¾ cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
½ teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt

To assemble:
1 pint premium coffee ice cream, slightly softened
3 egg whites
¾ cup sugar

Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter a 9x9x2-inch square metal baking pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Place the chopped bittersweet and unsweetened chocolates along with the butter in a small saucepan, and stir over low heat until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Cool about 10 minutes. Whisk ¾ cup sugar and the eggs in a large bowl until well combined, about 1 minute. Whisk in the melted chocolate mixture till blended. Sift the flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt over the chocolate mixture, and stir to blend. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan, and bake about 17 minutes, just until the top looks dry and a tester inserted in the center comes out with some sticky batter attached. Cool the cake in the pan to room temperature.

Cut around the edges of the cake in the pan. Place a cutting board over the pan and invert, tapping out the cake. Use a 3-inch round cutter to cut out 6 cake rounds. (Save the remaining cake for another use, or enjoy the scraps yourself right then and there!)

Line a small baking sheet with parchment paper, and arrange the cake rounds on top. Using a 2-½-inch diameter ice cream scoop, place a scoop of the softened coffee ice cream in the center of each cake round, leaving a small ¼-inch plain border. Freeze until the ice cream is solid, about 2 hours.

Combine ¾ cup sugar with the egg whites in a large metal bowl. Set the bowl over a saucepan of gently simmering water and whisk until the mixture is very warm, about 2 minutes. Remove the bowl from over water. Use an electric mixer to beat the meringue at high speed until very thick and billowy, about 2 minutes. Place the baking sheet with the cake rounds on a work surface. Mound 2 heaping tablespoons of meringue over the ice cream, spreading the meringue evenly to cover completely all the way to the plain cake border, thereby sealing in the ice cream. Repeat with the remaining desserts. Freeze uncovered on the baking sheet until the meringue is solid, at least 2 hours and up to 2 days.

When you are ready to serve, preheat the oven to 500°. Transfer the desserts still on the baking sheet directly from the freezer to the oven. Bake until meringue is browned, turning the baking sheet around as necessary for even browning, about 3 minutes. Transfer Baked Alaskas to plates and serve immediately. Serves 6.

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