Aligning against odds with Baked Alaska

alask01On a table cluttered with empty cups stands a small typewriter with a sheet of pink paper stuck in the roller. Although at the moment the page is utterly blank, I am convinced that someday, there will be a message for me there. I am waiting.”
— Jean-Dominique Bauby, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” (1997)

I’ve spent a lifetime wanting to believe in what is unbelievable and seeing what seems unseen. I’ve found this has carried me to unexpected places as well as set me up for huge disappointments. Some may say it has made me a hopeful sort; others would conclude I am self-delusional.

I am as skeptical as anyone, yet find myself wanting to put a whole lot of stock in the unlikely because if the unlikely is even remotely possible, just how certain must the likely be.

qkeI’m talking in circles because again, it is birthday time, for me and my blog. So my mind spins off in the whirls and whorls of time and self and of, course, cake. When considering a treat to honor this day, I thought of Baked Alaska and just how unlikely it is that a mound of ice cream could be put into a 450-degree oven and come out unscathed. So I thought my theme this year was..improbability.

Then, at 3:20 in the morning on my birthday, my neck of the woods was shaken awake by an earthquake, the force of which had not felt in this area for a long time. Improbability…or not? When the day of your birth has you considering yourself even more luckier to be alive than you usually are, is it a curse or a blessing?

Shaken awake. The unlikelihood of an earthquake on your birthday is not so unlikely considering your own mother, born in California, came into the world on the same night as a quake.
baked01Shaken awake, I contemplate who I am and who I’ve been. At age three, I told my mother i wanted to be “a bakery”. How unlikely a three-year-old would know herself better at a point when she was not really anyone yet, but knew in her heart where her heart lies.

Shaken awake. At times I’ve found my only accomplishment seems to be just keeping myself alive. And yet, I look back at the times I’ve aimed — always before and still — beyond my reach. I believe in defying odds. I believe in the impossible. And when I think what I would like to do is impossible, I think of the French magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby who, felled by a stroke in his 40s, was left completely paralyzed. He wanted to write a book. He did so…by using the only part of him that moved. One blinking eye.surp01Shaken awake. I still look forward to my birthdays, as improbable as that seems at this advanced age. I know the date draws near when, out of long-shriveled green foliage emerges a strangely alien brown stalk from which clusters of brilliant pink flowers burst into bloom. How unlikely! The Surprise Lily I now call my birthday flower.

Shaken awake. The worst thing about my birthday is wishing I had done more. So much left to do. I want to believe it is still possible to do all that, as improbable as that seems. I want to believe there is still time. I’m probably most adventurous in my kitchen, playing it safe in other areas of my life, save a few physical escapades I taunt myself into and an idling batch of seemingly improbable goals.

In addition to a bucket list, I have a “bake-it” list, which, if you have looked at this blog before know that there is entry after entry of culinary goals I’ve scratched off here. Baked Alaska has been on that list.

Versions of Baked Alaska, as yet so unnamed, existed in the early 1800s. “Baked Alaska” was on the menu in 1876 at Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York to honor the U.S.purchase of Alaska. It is truly a strange conjuring…how was it determined that meringue would be insulation enough to protect ice cream in a hot oven while it browned. I think the improbability of the whole thing has always been its allure.
cream01Not to mention ice cream with cake. These birthday staples of my youth were not exactly my favorite combination. They seemed to compete with one another. But here, in the Alaska, the simple subtle cake was a mere stage for the star, the ice cream. And the meringue the glitzy costume for both.

cake01Baked Alaska is easy if you just buy your ice cream and cake. That wouldn’t do for me. I made my own ice cream with very fresh, ripe strawberries from the farmer’s market. Strawberry is the classic ice cream for this dessert. I froze the ice cream in a bowl the right size and shape to go atop the cake.

spread01And I made my own cake…the understated but versatile genoise cake, whose lift and texture comes not from leavening agents but whipped eggs. Both cake and ice cream were made a week in advance and kept frozen.

I decided to put my own stamp (and a bit more color) on this dessert by spreading a layer of jam (my mother had sent me a jar of her cherry best) to sandwich the cake and ice cream.

cream02I’ll admit I was as fragile (seemingly) and shaky as my house had seemed hours earlier as I put the Alaska together. I could have excused myself altogether given the morning events, but these bake-it list items don’t let me off that easy. The house was still standing, the oven still worked. And I, thankfully, turned another year older and was still upright.

I will tell you that my first batch of meringue I whipped and whipped but it never thickened (I have theories as to why I will share at another time). Undaunted and spurned on by waning light (for photography purposes), I got a second batch of egg whites to room temperature and whipped them with force and fury. They thickened. As the oven heated to its near maximum temp, I spread the meringue over the staunchly frozen cake and ice cream, attempting to make a few whorls and whirls as I went.
bakeda02 As the long 5 minutes ticked by I considered the possible disaster of failed meringue and running ice cream and burned sugar juices all over the oven. I held my breath and opened the door. An old recipe, standing up against the elements. Against all odds, an Alaska can hold its own in the heat.

Shaken awake, I was so happy to plunge my knife through the frothy meringue, the frozen ice cream, the golden cake. After a day of uncertainty, contemplating improbability, trying to maintain balance on shaky ground, it was nice that it all came down to having my cake. And eating it, too.baked03

Baked Alaska
Adapted from Saveur magazine
Makes 8 servings

FOR THE FILLING AND CAKE:
2 pints strawberry ice cream, slightly softened
Unsalted butter, for pan
½ cup cake flour, plus more for pan
¼ tsp. kosher salt
½ cup sugar
3 eggs
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
½ tsp. grated lemon zest

FOR THE MERINGUE:
¼ tsp. cream of tartar
4 egg whites
½ cup sugar

For the filling: Line a 7″-diameter bowl with a 15″ piece of plastic wrap, allowing excess to hang over rim of bowl. Pack ice cream into bowl, smoothing top, and freeze until solid, at least 4 hours.

For the cake: Heat oven to 325°. Grease and flour an 8″ round cake pan; set aside. Whisk together flour and salt in a bowl; set aside. Beat sugar and eggs in a bowl on medium-high speed of a hand mixer until tripled in volume, about 5 minutes. Stir in juice and zest; fold in flour mixture. Pour into prepared pan; bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Cool completely, invert onto a rack, and set aside.

For the meringue: Heat oven to 450°. Place cream of tartar and egg whites in a large bowl; beat on medium speed of a hand mixer until soft peaks form, about 1 minute. Add sugar, and beat until stiff but not dry peaks form, about 2 minutes.

To serve, place cake on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Invert ice cream onto cake and peel off plastic. Cover ice cream and cake with meringue. Bake until meringue begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Using 2 metal spatulas, transfer to a cake plate and serve immediately.

Blogger’s Note: I made the following ice cream recipe for my Baked Alaska. I also spread approximately 1/2 cup jam between the cake and ice cream layer.

Fresh Strawberry Ice Cream
From Cuisinart (www.cuisinart.com)
Makes about 7 cups

3 cups fresh ripe strawberries, stemmed and sliced
4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1-1/2 cup sugar, divided
1-1/4 cups whole milk
2-3/4 cups heavy cream
1-1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

In a small bowl, combine the strawberries with the lemon juice and 1/2 cup of the sugar. Stir gently and allow the strawberries to macerate in the juices for 2 hours. Strain the berries, reserving juices. Mash or purée half the berries.
In a medium mixing bowl, use a hand mixer on low speed to combine the milk and remaining granulated sugar until the sugar is dissolved, about 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the heavy cream, reserved strawberry juice, mashed strawberries, and vanilla. Turn the machine on; pour the mixture into freezer bowl, and let mix until thickened, about 20 to 25 minutes. Five minutes before mixing is completed, add the reserved sliced strawberries and let mix in completely. The ice cream will have a soft, creamy texture. If a firmer consistency is desired, transfer the ice cream to an airtight container and place in freezer for about 2 hours. Remove from freezer about 15 minutes before serving.ask4

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