Baked Alaska is a curious thing: ice cream layered onto sponge cake, covered in a dome of meringue, which is then baked, torched or flambéed until the meringue is toasted golden. It’s chilled on the inside, warm on the outside, and all in all, just a tremendously impressive thing to serve.
But it begs the question: who on earth came up with this thing? And how?
You might be surprised. The story of baked Alaska is much more than one of cake and ice cream. It’s a story of war and exile, scientific endeavour, and, depending on how you look at it, either political buffoonery or political astuteness.
History of Baked Alaska
Like most culinary innovations, baked Alaska didn’t exactly appear out of the blue. The concept of serving ice cream into a warm casing had already been explored. For instance, Thomas Jefferson is thought to have served ice cream encased in a hot pastry at a White House state banquet in 1802, the second year of his presidency (Incidentally, that banquet is also thought to have provided the moment Jefferson introduced the newly formed United States to what would go on to become another of its signature dishes: Mac ‘n’ Cheese. Like the baked Alaska ancestor, that too was served as more of a pie).
How the baked Alaska specifically – cake topped with ice cream covered in meringue – was born is still debated, but it’s thought to have begun with the work of an American-born scientist called Sir Benjamin Thompson.
Thompson served as a spy and informant for the British Army during the American Revolution. When the war ended in 1776, he was forced to flee to England and, later, Bavaria, where he was made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire. He took the name Count Rumford, after Rumford (now Concord), New Hampshire, where he was married.
Count Rumford was also a physicist and inventor with a keen interest in heat management. He invented thermal underwear, among many other things, and revolutionised the design of the chimney to extract smoke more efficiently.
But just as importantly, Rumford’s fascination with heat spilled over into cooking. He’s credited with inventing the sous vide technique and, just a couple of years after Jefferson served ice cream pie at the White House (and perhaps inspired by the idea), he also discovered something incredible about meringue.
Meringue, as a consequence of all the air bubbles trapped inside, is a poor conductor of heat and makes for a great insulator. In fact, it’s an effective enough insulator to momentarily slow the melting of ice cream under an intense heat.
He demonstrated this finding by creating an early predecessor of baked Alaska, eyebrow-raisingly known as ‘Omelette Surprise’. The idea was soon appropriated by chefs in France, who topped layers of cake with ice cream, covered it in meringue, and then briefly charred it under a grill. They called it ‘Omelette Norwegge’, after cold and snowy Norway.
That’s where things get hazy. What we do know is that the Omelette Norwegge somehow migrated back to Count Rumford’s homeland and, once stateside, became the baked Alaska.
The best guess is that Charles Ranhofer, a Parisian pastry chef working at New York’s famous Delmonico’s restaurant, introduced it circa 1867, either to celebrate or to poke fun at New York senator William H. Seward’s purchase of Alaska from the Russians, which was widely ridiculed at the time.
Ranhofer called his dessert ‘Alaska, Florida’, to reference the combination of cold and hot components. It consisted of banana ice cream on a walnut spice cake, with the exterior meringue torched golden brown – just as it’s still served at Delmonico’s today.
However, evidence to suggest that Ranhofer got in there first with the Alaska reference is flaky. Sure, it’s the strongest link to an origin story we have, but we can’t rule out the possibility that chefs in North America simply adapted the Omelette Norwegge moniker to instead reference their own snowy region to the north.
Of course, we couldn’t wrap up an article on baked Alaska without sharing with you how to actually make one. Click here for the recipe.