A few years back, Souzz and I made flaming Baked Alaska on a packrafting trip in West Virginia with our good friend Sara. The trip was Sara’s Bon Voyage before she moved to Alaska, and we wanted to send her off in style.
Naturally we chose a backcountry meal that required dry ice, a dutch oven, and a hand-crank mixer. It may have been our most outrageous camping meal ever, and to this day it serves as proof that even the stupidest and most futile gesture can yield a good meal. It also gave us a taste for more.
Baked Alaska supposedly was created as a novelty dessert to celebrate the Alaska Purchase way back in 1867. A combination of ice cream, cake, and meringue, it appeared in fancy restaurants off and on for the next 100 years or so before peaking in popularity during the 1960s as a dinner party treat.
That was of course a time when flaming dishes like bananas foster, crepes suzette, and cherries jubilee burst on the scene…and probably a time when a lot of drapes were accidentally lit on fire by careless hosts while people sipped Manhattans and smoked cigarettes at the dinner table.
Since then, the dish has slowly faded into obscurity, with cruise ship mass-marketed dessert menus perhaps the lone holdover (along with packboat campouts). But when it is done well, it is still a worthy dish, and one with a lot of interesting variations. For instance, there is a “reversed” version called Frozen Florida (warm liqueur inside, cold meringue outside), and there is a sponge cake version popular in Hong Kong called Flame on the Iceberg.
A more contemporary adaptation comes by way of the restaurant at Aleyska, a ski resort in Alaska (of course), just south of Anchorage. The pastry chef at Alyeska, Chef Scott Fausz, uses mousse (two different kinds) instead of ice cream, which makes for a lighter dessert that is much more more popular with today’s crowd. Baked Alyeska also includes a layer of ganache under the meringue. As you might imagine, putting it together requires a bit of a time commitment (suggestion: wear comfortable shoes and bring a bag lunch).
Alyeska’s recipe actually spans two days, as we soon learned, although much of that time is spent watching the freezer. The mousses (one chocolate, one raspberry) and layers of chocolate cake are assembled and frozen before the ganache and meringue are added (the mousse/cake step alone took us a solid two hours).
The entire recipe is a bit unusual, calling for gelatin sheets (I didn’t even know what those were) and meringue powder (we couldn’t find that locally, so we just made a regular meringue). Oh, and the gelatin sheets must be “bloomed” before using, which turns out to be just a fancy culinary term for “soaking them in water.”
Once the dome of mousse and cake was frozen, we drizzled on the ganache and then coated the whole assembly thoroughly with meringue. We then browned the almost-finished product with a torch and let it sit for a few hours.
Afterwards, we both agreed that making this dish in the backcountry would be completely absurd, as even doing it in our home kitchen was a challenge. Sara is on her own on this one.
Most of what makes this dish fun is the mix of textures and the interesting flavor combinations. Add in 150 years of history, including a bizarre cruise ship tradition called a Baked Alaska Parade, and you have a dessert, a story, and a trip through time–all rolled into one.
It was almost enough to have me searching for a Manhattan and a pack of smokes.