Calgary·RECIPES

Recipes with Julie Van Rosendaal: Wow them with a baked Alaska

Now is the time to experiment with challenging recipes, says Julie Van Rosendaal, and a baked Alaska is fun way to get out of the January funk.

Layers of cake, ice cream and meringue make this dessert a showstopper

One of the great things about a baked Alaska is that it can be infinitely customized, says Julie Van Rosendaal. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

January tends not to be the most inspirational month when it comes to cooking. Not much is in season, and between the pandemic and post-holiday kitchen frenzy, this year many of us are feeling the effects of culinary fatigue.

So the Calgary Eyeopener radio crew had a thought — to inspire a series of baking challenges to keep us motivated through the coming weeks, sharing a few recipes and techniques that push us beyond the usual and perhaps teach us something new.

Baking continues to be a comfort, helping us through a particularly hard time. But when you get into playing around with yeasts, caramel, meringues and laminated doughs, kitchen projects can veer toward science-y as well.

Baking continues to be a great screen-free activity to do with kids — and we all have to eat.

We thought we'd start the series with baked Alaska, that famously dramatic dessert that contrasts frozen ice cream with a deeply caramelized or flambéed meringue exterior.

Baked Alaska doesn't have a clear origin story. Some claim it was popularized at Delmonico's restaurant in NYC, others say it originated at Antoine's in New Orleans to commemorate the U.S. acquisition of Alaska.

But wherever it came to be, it's essentially a layer of cake topped with ice cream, often pressed into a bowl to create a dome shape, frozen until firm, unmoulded and covered with meringue.

It's then blasted under the broiler in the oven for just long enough to brown the meringue without starting to melt the ice cream. If you have a blowtorch, you can brown it quickly and evenly that way, too.

One of the great things about a baked Alaska is that it can be infinitely customized. You could use a layer of cake in any flavour, even a brownie, or giant cookie, and any kind of frozen dessert — ice cream, sorbet, sherbet or gelato, in contrasting layers, even. And it could be dome-shaped, or frozen in a loaf pan, or packed into small individual dishes or jars to unmould, or not.

Traditionally, the ice cream is unmoulded and covered with meringue, but you could keep the layers in jars, like a trifle, and simply top them with meringue for easier transport.

At its most basic, a baked Alaska is essentially a layer of cake topped with ice cream and covered with meringue. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

You could even make a vegan baked Alaska by making the meringue out of aqua faba, the liquid drained from a can of chickpeas.

Typically, the meringue used to cover the surface of a baked Alaska is a cooked Swiss or Italian meringue that's safe to just torch without cooking it through once it's on the ice cream.

When making a Swiss meringue, the egg whites and sugar are heated in a double boiler before whipping to both warm them through to a safe temperature and dissolve the sugar.

An Italian meringue is made by pouring a hot sugar syrup into egg whites as you beat them into billowy peaks. Both techniques essentially pasteurize the egg whites, making them safe to just finish with a blowtorch or broil, without cooking them through.

Though they may seem complex, they're easier than they sound — particularly a Swiss meringue, the technique used in the recipe below. It doesn't require co-ordinating whipping and pouring hot syrup, and is easier, if you don't have a candy thermometer.

Baked Alaska

Though this recipe includes a formula for a simple single layer of vanilla cake, you could use any cake recipe, or even a pan of brownies.

If possible, bake your layer in a round pan about the same diameter as the bowl you'd like to use, or cut baked layers to fit the mould of your choice. For example, half a layer baked in a square pan could be the base of a loaf pan filled with ice cream. 

Serves 8-12.

Cake:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ¾ cup milk
  • ¼ cup canola oil or melted butter
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

Filling:

  • 2 L (approximately) ice cream of your choice (more than one flavour, if you want layers)

Meringue:

  • 4 large egg whites
  • 1 cup sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.

In a small bowl (or measuring cup) stir the milk, canola oil, egg and vanilla together with a fork.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until well combined.

The cake layer for a baked Alaska, which acts as the bottom layer. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Pour into a buttered or sprayed 8- or 9-inch cake pan and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until golden and springy to the touch.

Take your ice cream out of the freezer and let it sit on the counter to soften.

Get a bowl with an 8- or 9-inch opening at the top, ideally the same size as the cake you're working with, and line it with plastic wrap.

Spoon your ice cream into the bowl and press it down, making layers or even dropping in scoops in alternating flavours to make a sort of mottled cross section once sliced. You could add crushed cookies, chocolate bars, nuts or other additions here, too.

Press out any air pockets, smooth the top, and top with the cooled cake.

Cover and freeze for several hours until solid.

The ice cream layer, which lets you be creative. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

When you're ready to finish your baked Alaska, preheat your broiler (if you're using it) and make the meringue. Whisk together the eggs and sugar in the bowl of a double boiler, or a glass or stainless steel bowl that will fit over a saucepan.

Set over an inch or two of simmering water and whisk until the sugar is dissolved. You can rub a bit between your fingers to feel for any grittiness. Wait until the mixture is very warm, like a hot tub. If you have a thermometer, aim for 110-150 F.

Remove the bowl from the heat and beat with an electric mixer until the mixture holds stiff peaks, like shaving foam.

Remove the bowl from the freezer, invert it onto a serving plate, remove the plastic wrap and spread the ice cream dome all over with meringue.

The meringue should have the consistency of shaving foam. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Brown the surface with a culinary blowtorch or run it under the broiler for a minute or two, just until golden on the surface.

Serve immediately.

Browning the meringue deepens its flavour and gives it a nice finish. (Julie Van Rosendaal)
Our food guide Julie van Rosendaal takes on baked Alaska. 8:24

About the Author

Julie Van Rosendaal

Calgary Eyeopener's food guide

Julie Van Rosendaal talks about food trends, recipes and cooking tips on the Calgary Eyeopener every Tuesday at 8:20 a.m. MT. The best-selling cookbook author is a contributing food editor for the Globe and Mail, and writes for other publications across Canada.

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