Off the Fork: Baked Alaska that defies the laws of physics

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Chocolate orange pound cake and ice cream await the fork under this insulating layer of toasted meringue.

When I was 10 years old, living in rural Florida in a cinderblock house, my parents decided our family of five should go on a cruise.  It was a pretty low-end cruise, but on the last night at the end of dinner, the lights were dimmed, a hush fell over the dining room, and waiters bearing flaming plates emerged from the kitchen.  Baked Alaska!

I will never forget my surprise and delight at this most unlikely dessert- ice cream perched on a slab of cake and encased in a coating of toasted meringue, served hot from the oven.  A dessert that defies the laws of physics.

Baked Alaska was invented in 1804 by an American scientist, Benjamin Thompson, who was involved in research into the insulating properties of whipped egg whites. He called his invention an “omelette surprise.”  It came to be known as Baked Alaska and was famously served at Delmonico’s in New York City in the 1880′s.  Since then, chefs have been whipping egg whites into fluffy peaks with an R-value like the fiberglass batting you would put in your attic.

I’ll take any excuse to make Baked Alaska, but it’s meant for festivity, and is especially great during the holidays.  Many recipes call for sponge cake, but I love to make it with an orange and chocolate pound cake.  This recipe yields an ample amount of meringue, so you could consider slathering any that is left over on those exposed pipes in the basement.

Baked Alaska

Makes one cake, 8-10 servings

For the Orange and Chocolate Pound Cake:

1 and 1/2 cups of flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup softened butter

2 eggs

1/3 cup orange juice

1 cup chopped semisweet chocolate, or mini-morsels

1/2 teaspoon grated orange peel

For the meringue:

4 egg whites

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

3/4 cup of sugar

For the assembled Baked Alaska:

1 pint of vanilla ice cream

Make the cake:

Combine flour, baking powder and salt.  Cream the butter and sugar.  Add eggs one at a time to butter/sugar mixture. Add flour mixture alternately with orange juice.  Gently fold in chocolate and orange peel.  Bake in a greased, floured 9 inch cake pan at 325 degrees for 50 minutes. Cool in the pan and then on a rack until completely cool.  Trim off the crust around the edge before assembling the Baked Alaska.

Make the Baked Alaska:

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.  Place a piece of parchment paper just larger than the cake on a wooden board that will fit in your oven. Place the cake squarely on the parchment, and cut the ice cream into 3 inch thick slabs on top of the cake.  The cake must extend beyond the ice cream by about an inch on all sides. Cover the cake and ice cream with plastic wrap and put it in the freezer for up to an hour, while you prepare the meringue.

Beat 4 egg whites in a very clean bowl until they are foamy.  As you continue to beat the egg whites, add 1 teaspoon of cream of tartar and then slowly add 3/4 cup of sugar until the egg whites form very stiff peaks.

Remove the cake and ice cream from the freezer. Using a spatula, apply the meringue to the cake, covering every inch of the cake and ice cream, sealing the areas between the cake and the parchment paper.  Bake at 500 degrees for 3-5 minutes, standing by the oven to remove the cake as soon as the meringue is nicely browned.  Serve immediately.