You probably think of Baked Alaska as an impossibly tricky fancy dessert - unless, of course, you've already tried to make it, in which case you've discovered that it's one of the easiest desserts in the cookbook. Saveur published a recipe a while back that I had clipped but not dared to take on. It couldn't be as easy as they made it sound! Lately feeling more courageous in the kitchen, however, I decided to risk it last Friday, when our guests would all be forgiving types - an important trait in guinea pigs.
There are three steps to Baked Alaska, one for each of its components. First, you bake a sponge cake. If you're not comfortable baking, and you can find a decent substitute in the shops, by all means buy the damned thing, because while the cake ought to be tasty, it's the background ingredient. Having baked the cake, you then fill the roundest-bottomed dish that you own with softened ice cream, lining the bowl first with plastic. The flavor is entirely up to you, but bear in mind the taste and consistency of the third element, meringue. You will make the meringue at the last minute, while heating up the oven from whatever temperature the main course required to 450º. The other steps will have been taken care of the day before.
Baking a cake is never a snap, but baking a cake a day in advance is always a lot easier than baking it on the day of a party. The other two steps are too easy to be called 'easy.'
I hit one snag: the ice cream was so frozen that I had to bring a chef's knife to the table. So much for the effect of 450º on a quart of ice cream, if it's protected by cake and meringue! I recommend experimenting long before dessert time: if the ice cream is too solid to scoop, stash the bowl in the refrigerator during dinner.
Saveur, No. 55, p. 38
I: Bake the cake
1 teaspoon softened butter
½ cup cake flour
3 eggs, separated
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 325º. Butter an 8" round cake pan with half the butter. Line the pan with a disk of parchment to cover the bottom, and spread the parchment with the rest of the butter.
Sift the flour and the salt together in a small bowl.
Beat the egg yolks in a mixing bowl for about a minute. Then begin adding the sugar, gradually, while continuing to beat. In another minute or so, the mixture should be a rich, thick yellow. Add the lemon zest and lemon juice and mix well.
Beat the egg whites in another mixing bowl, with a spotlessly clean beater, until stiff but not dry peaks form.
Fold the whites into the yolk mixture with a rubber spatula. Then fold the flour into the batter, taking care not to deflate the whites. Pour the batter into the baking pan and bake until a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean, 20 to 30 minutes. Set the cake aside to cool completely, then invert it onto a rack. Peel off the parchment. If you're working ahead, wrap the cake in plastic wrap and store it safely.
II: Prepare the ice cream
Two pints ice cream, softened
Line a 7" bowl, with as round a bottom as possible, with plastic wrap. Spoon the softened ice cream into the bowl and spread the surface flat. Cover and freeze for at least four hours.
III: Whip the Meringue, Assemble the Cake, and Bake
4 egg whites
2 pinches cream of tartar
½ cup sugar
Shortly before serving time, preheat the oven to 450º. Place the sponge cake on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Invert the ice cream onto the cake and peel off the plastic wrap.
Combine the egg whites and the cream of tartar in a mixing bowl. Beat until soft peaks form. Continuing to beat, add the sugar gradually. When the resulting meringue is thick, shiny, and stiff but not dry, turn off the mixer and slather the cake and ice cream with meringue, trying for a stucco effect with plenty of swirls. Bake in the oven for five minutes, or until the meringue begins to brown at the edges.
Transfer the dessert to a serving platter and serve immediately.
Read Part III carefully, with calm, regular breaths. You will see that there is not a lot to this showpiece. You can tell your guests how easy it was to make, but they won't believe you.
Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press