Episode 4, GBBO 2014, Showstopper

Baked Alaska

Well, I’ve made it to the most infamous episode of The Great British Baking Show. Who can forget #Bingate, when Iain decided to dump his melted ice cream in the trash bin rather than present a half-baked Baked Alaska to the judges? Unfortunately, Diana became the target of a Twitterstorm of blame for taking Iain’s ice cream out of the freezer, although the BBC, Sue Perkins and Paul Hollywood all came to her defense, declaring that the ice cream was out of the freezer for only 40 seconds, and it was the unusual heat in the tent, not her actions, that caused the meltdown. It was 77°F outside, and there’s no air conditioning in the tent, but the temperature in the tent was no match for the heat under Iain’s collar when he discovered his melted ice cream.

But that’s all water (or should I say “melted ice cream”?) under the bridge now. Iain has declared that he has no hard feelings for Diana, who unfortunately left the show after that episode because of an accident that left her without a sense of taste or smell.

Delving into the history of Baked Alaska takes us back to the American Revolution. A young inventor, Benjamin Thompson, though born and raised in Massachusetts, sided with Britain and ended up evacuating with the British in 1776. He was knighted in 1784 and given the title of Count Rumford in 1791. During a long career involving many experiments with heat and insulation, Count Rumford determined that beaten egg whites are a poor conductor of heat, and he eventually came up with the omelette surprise, otherwise known as Omelette Norwegge, named after France’s territory to the north, Norway. He is quoted in the American Heritage Cookbook as saying, “Omelette surprise was the by-product of investigations in 1804 into the resistance of stiffly beaten egg whites to the induction of heat.” The count is also credited with inventing the double boiler, several styles of drip coffee makers, and what would later become the common kitchen range.

From there the story crosses the Atlantic again when, in 1867, Charles Ranhofer, the French chef working at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City, served a dessert he called Alaska, Florida to mark Secretary of State William Seward’s acquisition of the Alaskan territory, also dubbed Seward’s Folly. The name Baked Alaska first appears in print in 1896 in The Original Fannie Farmer 1896 Cookbook by Fannie Farmer.

Also, February 1 is National Baked Alaska Day here in the states, so I guess we don’t hold a grudge against Count Rumford for his defection.

To bring in yet another country in this baking journey, my Baked Alaska was inspired by the flavors of the frozen Italian treat, spumoni. Traditionally, spumoni is made by layering cherry, pistachio, and either vanilla or chocolate ice creams. To interpret that as a Baked Alaska, I started with a pistachio joconde sponge, the recipe for which I found here. After it had baked and cooled, I split it into two layers and filled it with dark chocolate ganache.

Position the ice cream on top of the sponge.

I then made a dark cherry almond ice cream, which I adapted from this recipe. Filling a plastic-wrap-lined bowl with the ice cream, I left it in the freezer to harden overnight. 

Whisk the meringue until stiff peaks form.

The next day, I made a Swiss meringue (making sure I heated the egg whites and sugar to 160°F to ensure they would be safe to eat, since I didn’t plan on baking the Alaska, just browning the meringue with my kitchen torch). After removing the ice cream from the bowl and placing it on top of the sponge, I piped meringue stars all around the ice cream, being careful to fill any holes between the stars. After all, the whole point of the meringue is to insulate the ice cream from the heat of the oven (or, in this case, torch), so any holes in the meringue could lead to disaster!

Obviously, Baked Alaska is best served immediately after it’s finished. If you have to make it ahead of time, my best advice is to cover it with meringue and pop it into the freezer right away. The meringue is quite stable and holds up well in the freezer. Then, when you are ready to serve it, take it out and use the torch to toast the edges or, alternatively, pop it in a very hot oven (450-500°F) or broiler for 4-5 minutes, just until the peaks are golden brown. Leftovers can also be frozen.

I served my Spumoni Baked Alaska with additional ganache, warmed up and drizzled over each slice. It was a hit with the friends I was able to share it with. This impressive dessert is sure to wow guests at a birthday party or any celebration. It takes cake and ice cream to a whole new level!

Spumoni Baked Alaska

Ice cream recipe adapted from AshleeMarie.com
Credit for sponge: Cookstyle.co.uk
Ganache recipe adapted from PrettySimpleSweet.com
Credit for meringue: BettyCrocker.com

For the ice cream:

  • ½ lb. fresh or frozen dark sweet cherries, pitted
  • 1 c. sugar, divided
  • 1½ c. whole milk
  • 6 egg yolks
  • ¼ t. salt
  • 1½ c. heavy cream
  • 1½ t. almond extract
  • Red food coloring (optional)
    • For the sponge:

      • 4 eggs, separated
      • 1/3 c. sugar, divided
      • ½ c. + 1 T. all-purpose flour
      • 1/3 c. pistachios, finely ground
      • 2 T. butter, melted and cooled

        For the ganache:

        • 8 oz. semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
        • 1 cup heavy cream
        • 1½ t. kirschwasser, optional

          For the meringue:

          • 6 egg whites, room temperature
          • ¾ c. sugar
          • ½ t. cream of tartar
          • 1 t. vanilla

            Directions

            1. To make the ice cream, first quarter the cherries. Combine cherries and 1/3 c. sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Simmer for 10-12 minutes or until cherries are tender.
            2. Strain the cherries, reserving the juice. Put about one-third of the cherries in an airtight container and refrigerate until later. Put the rest of the cherries and liquid in a blender and puree until smooth. Set aside to cool.
            3. In the same saucepan used to cook the cherries, heat the milk just until the edges start to bubble. Meanwhile, prepare a bain-marie: Pour about an inch of water into a medium saucepan and place a heatproof bowl on the pan, making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the surface of the water. Bring the water in the pan to a simmer.
            4. In a mixer bowl fitted with a whisk attachment, whisk the egg yolks, salt and the remaining 2/3 cup of sugar until pale in color. While continuing to whisk the yolks, slowly add the hot milk to the mixture.
            5. Pour the mixture into the bowl of the bain-marie and place it over low heat. Stir constantly until the mixture thickens to the consistency of a thin custard. (It should coat the back of a spoon but will still be pourable.)
            6. Strain the custard into a larger bowl and add the cream, blended cherries and almond extract. Add a few drops of food coloring, if desired. Refrigerate for 4-6 hours (or overnight). Clean the bowl of the bain-marie to use for the meringue.
            7. Run the mixture through an ice cream machine according to the appliance directions, about 20-30 minutes. About 5 minutes before it’s done, stir in the reserved cherries. Transfer to a bowl lined with plastic wrap and freeze overnight.
            8. Meanwhile, make the sponge. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease the sides and bottom of an 8-inch round cake pan and line it with an 8-inch circle of parchment paper.
            9. Mix the 4 egg yolks with half the sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the flour, ground pistachios and butter, and mix until all ingredients are incorporated. (It will be quite stiff.) In a clean mixer bowl, whisk the 4 egg whites, using a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, until soft peaks begin to form. Gradually add the rest of the sugar while continuing to whisk at high speed until stiff peaks form.
            10. Spoon about one-fourth of the egg whites into the bowl with the egg yolk mixture and fold in until well incorporated. Repeat with another fourth of the egg whites three more times until they are all incorporated.
            11. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. Bake it in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes before turning it out and leaving it on a rack to cool completely.
            12. While the cake is cooling, make the ganache. Place chocolate in a medium-sized heat-proof bowl and set aside. In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring cream just to a boil. Immediately pour cream over chocolate and let it sit without stirring for 1-2 minutes. Then whisk the mixture gently until chocolate is completely melted and mixture is smooth. Add kirschwasser, if using, and whisk to combine. Let stand for 15 minutes to half an hour until it is still thin enough to pour but thick enough that it will spread without dripping off the sides of the cake.
            13. When the cake is completely cooled, use a long serrated knife to cut it into two even layers. (To make sure your layers are even, measure the height of the cake with a ruler and poke toothpicks into the sides at the halfway mark every few inches around the cake. Use these as a guide for splitting the cake.)
            14. Place the bottom cake layer on a heat-proof serving platter. Pour a small amount of ganache in the center of that layer. Spread to cover the entire layer. As the ganache hardens, you can add more ganache and keep spreading until you have a thick, even layer of ganache. Top with the other cake layer.
            15. When ready to assemble, make the meringue. Prepare the bain-marie again, and in the clean bowl of the bain-marie, stir the 6 egg whites, ¾ cup sugar, cream of tartar and vanilla with a whisk until blended. Set over the pan of simmering water, stirring occasionally with the whisk until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture reaches 160°F, about 16-20 minutes. Pour mixture into large bowl of mixer fitted with a clean whisk attachment; whisk on high speed for 8-10 minutes until stiff, glossy peaks form. Transfer to a large piping bag fitted with a star tip.
            16. Unmold the ice cream from the bowl and place it on top of the cake. Remove the plastic wrap. Starting at the base of the ice cream, pipe stars of meringue all the way around, working your way up until all the ice cream is covered, filling in any holes that you see. Cover the cake with remaining meringue. Use a kitchen torch to toast the tips of the meringue until golden brown. (Alternatively, turn oven broiler on high and place in oven for a few minutes until edges are toasted. Watch carefully!) To serve, slice into wedges with a long serrated knife and transfer to large dessert plates. Leftovers can be frozen.

            Next week: A Custard Tart

            1 thought on “Baked Alaska”

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