The Baked Alaska Bandwagon: Classic meringue dessert has its moment, again (hurray!)
Remember Candy Land? The game that is every kid’s fantasy—an entire world made of chocolate and Technicolor sugar? We’re having near-blizzard conditions today here in Northwest Indiana—it’s been snowing for 24 hours, school’s been cancelled tomorrow, the roof is piled high with at least a foot of powder—and the big drifts of snow outside my windows look like fluffy swirls of shimmering meringue. It’s a monochrome Candy Land, the grown-up kind. I love it. (Say what you like about winter in the Midwest, but you can’t tell me that it’s not pretty.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about meringue lately, which is kind of funny because it’s a dessert I associate with warm weather—the most perfect of summer desserts being a glorious pavlova made of rounds of crunchy meringue layered with lightly sweetened whipped cream and heaps of fresh raspberries and blueberries.
And the antithesis of winter in the Midwest is the tropical landscape where I first fully appreciated meringue—Central America. In Nicaragua, meringue (merengue) is the word for both the fluffy white stuff and a style of popular music and dance. Tinted pink or baby blue and always kind of gooey, it is the topping sine qua non of birthday cakes.
If you are a baker, you know that this makes loads of sense because regular buttercream would slide right off your cake in the tropics. Meringue tolerates high heat and it keeps its shape. Plus you can make meringue with the simplest and most inexpensive of ingredients: egg whites and granulated cane sugar. An electric mixer is nice, but you can also do it the old-fashioned way, with a whisk and strong arms. (How much whisking does it take? Let’s just say you will never appreciate the miracle of meringue more than if you try to do it by hand.)
The tres leches cake is said to have originated in Nicaragua, and the Nicaraguan version is drenched with sticky milk (so wet it’s practically a pudding) and topped with a baño of white meringue, often dotted with rainbow nonpareils. It’s incomparable. Tres leches in the U.S. is often too dry and lacking the meringue. It doesn’t even come close.
I make meringue in one form or another several times a year, most often as the base for my favorite frosting, Swiss meringue buttercream. (I like this recipe from Martha Stewart.) But I only recently got on the Baked Alaska bandwagon.
Did you know that Baked Alaska, which was created in the 1870s to celebrate the United States acquisition of said territory, was having a comeback? Neither did I, until my friend Beth mentioned having eaten “one of the best desserts ever” at Ana Sortun’s Oleana—yes, Baked Alaska. This immediately caught my attention because I am a big fan of Ana’s (and have written about her for Edible Michiana).
Not long after, I started seeing Baked Alaska everywhere: Mindy Segal’s version at Hot Chocolate in Chicago. Martha Stewart’s version on her Facebook page. Baked Alaska in Saveur. And a Baked Alaska birthday cake (yes, please!) in Food & Wine.
Baked Alaska, it seems, is having a moment. Or, rather, we are remembering again just how good it can be, which is pretty darn good. At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s meringue with cake and ice cream—how can that possibly not be a good thing?
Coincidentally, the day I am writing this, February 1, is National Baked Alaska Day in the United States.
I recently made Baked Alaska for the first time. Beth invited me, along with our friend Jill, to join her in preparing the dessert for her husband’s birthday. She found what seemed to be Ana Sortun’s recipe online. The recipe looked doable, but it was immediately clear why most of us don’t make Baked Alaska at home, at least not from scratch: it’s a serious time commitment. First, we had to make a macaroon cake, then we made homemade coconut ice cream. Then came a passionfruit caramel sauce and the meringue itself. After that, assembling the ice cream in scoops on the cake, chilling the partially finished Alaskas, coating them in meringue, baking them, and, finally, caramelizing the meringue. Whew! (Three women, two evenings of baking. You can do the math.)
The best part was covering the ice cream and cake with the meringue. The recipe called for digging our hands into our giant bowl of meringue and using our fingers to give each Alaska its own spikes and swirls. (Imagine you’ve squirted too much hair mousse into your hands, and then you apply it to someone’s bald head with ridiculous artistic flourish. Ha!)
Using the butane torch to toast the meringue was also awesome, if a little frightening since we were laughing hysterically, posturing like action heroines while essentially toasting marshmallows with a flamethrower. (Actually, I think the menfolk, who were smartly standing on the sidelines, were the most frightened, though perhaps they were just anxious for dessert after what seemed like a 300-step recipe.)
When I bought Candy Land for my children, I was sad to discover that though the game is essentially the same, the board looks little like the one I remember from my childhood. Since its original release in the 1940s, the board has changed with each generation, its artwork reworked to reflect consumer culture and food fashions. The characters I remember from the late 1960s and 1970s are long gone. Even since the turn of the century, there have been big changes: In 2002, Queen Frostine (who originally looked like a cupcake, with a head) was replaced with Princess Frostine (who looks like a Barbie—WTF, right?). The Molasses Swamp became the Chocolate Swamp, which is hard to argue with, but kind of sad nonetheless. And the character Plumpy was eliminated. (Poor Plumpy! I’m not sure whether to applaud or lament his demise.)
Baked Alaska is not much different. Fashions change, diets change, but the classic concept remains as sweet as ever: ice cream, cake, meringue. You might remember Baked Alaska from your childhood in the 1970s as a half-gallon of Breyer’s Neopolitan with your dad’s meringue on top. Or maybe you ate it at a fancy restaurant in the 1950s. Or maybe it was last week and it was Mindy Segal’s chocolate kriek cake with vanilla bean sour cream ice cream, jubilee of cherries, meringue mushrooms and chocolate almond bark. (If it was, lucky you.)
Our Baked Alaska was the classic combination of hot and cold, crunchy and soft. Like a giant toasted marshmallow on the plate, it was over-the-top and tooth-achingly sweet (Hello, Candy Land!), but also comforting and familiar in its decadence. My favorite part was the slightly burnt meringue, though the coconut ice cream was heavenly too.
But the best part of all was making it with my girlfriends. If they’re onboard, I’ll jump on the Baked Alaska bandwagon anytime.