Back in 1867, Secretary of State William Seward bought land from Russia that would eventually become the 49th state: Alaska. People widely ridiculed the acquisition of a faraway frozen tundra, calling it “Seward’s Folly.” Meanwhile, at the legendary Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City, Charles Ranhofer — an expat Parisian pastry chef with a proclivity for creating dishes that poked the cultural bear — decided to make a culinary quip about the purchase. His creation consisted of ice cream surrounded by toasted meringue. He called it “Alaska, Florida,” but you probably know it as Baked Alaska.
Baked Alaska marked the epitome of luxurious Gilded Age dining and the general opulence of the post-Civil War era — and at 154 years old, it’s one of America’s oldest desserts. So why are we making it for our 70th anniversary, a celebration of iconic 1950s foods?
According to food historians, Baked Alaska reached the height of its popularity after World War II when a newly affluent class emerged with money to spend and people to impress. For these wealthy suburbanites, a flamboyant showstopper like Baked Alaska was impossible to resist. And while the dessert once required a full kitchen staff to make, the arrival of countertop electric mixers, more reliable ovens, and mass-produced freezers in the 1950s gave home cooks the tools to pull it off.
Yes, Baked Alaska is a very doable dessert! You just need to give yourself plenty of time (there’s lots of softening and refreezing of ice cream). Plus, much of it can be prepped over the course of a few days; only the meringue must be made the same day you’re planning on serving it. We love it as a long, leisurely weekend baking project.
The vanilla sponge cake base is perhaps the trickiest bit of this recipe — in part because it’s leavened with a foamed egg and sugar mixture, not a chemical agent, like baking soda. However, as we say with all sponge cakes like this, you just need a delicate touch! Fold in all of the ingredients gently, and be careful not to overmix the batter or your cake will collapse in the oven. Also, be sure to slide it into the oven and close the oven door softly, so all those airy eggs don’t deflate before the baking even begins.
Rest assured, all that careful handiwork is well worth it: the cake bakes up with a moist yet light and fluffy texture. We smear it with a thin layer of strawberry preserves — the combination of the airy cake and sweet-tart jam are the perfect contrast to the luscious layers of ice cream. We used pistachio and strawberry ice creams for this particular Baked Alaska, in part because we like the lighter nutty and fruity flavors for such an inherently rich dessert … but also because we just really love those retro pastel hues. Bonus: the little pistachio bits add some crunch to each bite.
The finishing touch is, of course, the Italian meringue coating. It’s full of sweet vanilla flavor and has the silkiest texture — and putting a kitchen torch to its swooping peaks gives it a delicate, caramelized crust of sorts. Think: gooey, golden brown marshmallow fluff. (Wondering why doesn’t the ice cream inside melt when you put a flame to it? The air bubbles in the whipped egg whites act as an insulator, protecting the ice cream from heat. Science!)
Baked Alaska is a marvelous dessert for celebrations and swanky dinner parties. As we joyously discovered in the test kitchen, it pairs quite well with a dry bubbly wine, like prosecco. Plus, everyone will ooh and ahh when you cut off a slice and reveal the gorgeous layers inside. Guests demanding dinner AND a show? Toast that dazzling dome of a dessert at the table.
Our tips: This recipe calls for three pints of ice cream, so if you’re feeling adventurous, you could use three different flavors. And, if you’re in a pickle, you could totally use a boxed cake mix for the sponge layer (we won’t tell).
For the ice cream sponge cake:
2 large Gelson’s eggs plus 1 egg white
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ tsp kosher salt
2 Tbsp milk
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
½ tsp vanilla extract
½ cup plus 2 Tbsp cake flour
¼ cup simple syrup
1 pint strawberry ice cream
2 pints pistachio ice cream
⅓ cup strawberry preserves
For the Italian meringue:
4 egg whites
½ tsp cream of tartar
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup water
½ tsp vanilla extract
Special equipment: 8” cake pan, kitchen torch
To make the sponge cake: Preheat the oven to 350°. Coat an 8” cake pan with cooking spray, line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper, and spray the parchment.
Fill a medium saucepan with 1” of water. Warm the water over medium-low heat, but do not bring to a simmer.
In a medium-size heatproof bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg white, granulated sugar, and kosher salt. Place the bowl over the saucepan and whisk until the sugar dissolves and the egg mixture reaches 110° on an instant-read thermometer, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and set aside.
Transfer the egg mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat the mixture on medium-high speed to a thick ribbon, 8 to 10 minutes. The batter should be light in color, and when drizzled over itself in a figure-eight motion, the entire figure eight should remain above the surface for a few seconds before sinking into the batter.
Meanwhile, in a small heatproof bowl, combine the milk, unsalted butter, and vanilla extract, and set the bowl in the reserved warm water. Stir occasionally, just until the butter melts. Set aside and let cool.
Sift the cake flour into the egg mixture in two additions, gently folding with a whisk until the flour is just incorporated.
Transfer about ½ cup of the batter to the milk mixture and whisk to emulsify. Add the milk mixture to the cake mixture and fold to incorporate. Be careful to not overmix the batter, or the cake won’t rise.
Transfer the batter to the prepared cake pan and gently transfer the pan to the oven. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown and has pulled away from the sides of the pan. Let cool for 10 minutes, then invert the cake onto a wire rack and unmold. Let cool completely. The cake can be wrapped in plastic and stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
To prepare the ice cream cake: Cut a thin layer off the top of the sponge cake to level it, then brush the top with the simple syrup. Set aside.
Set the strawberry ice cream on the counter to soften, 5 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, line a medium mixing bowl (about 8” in diameter) with plastic wrap.
When the strawberry ice cream is malleable, transfer it to a large mixing bowl and fold until the ice cream resembles soft serve, about 1 minute. Transfer the ice cream to the bowl lined with plastic wrap and press it into an even layer, making sure to fill any holes or gaps in the ice cream. Freeze for 30 minutes.
Soften and fold the pistachio ice cream as described in steps 10 and 11, transfer it to the bowl filled with strawberry ice cream, and press it into an even layer on top.
If needed, cut the sponge cake to the size of the pistachio layer, then spread the strawberry preserves on top, making sure to reach the edges of the cake. Invert the cake and place it on top of the pistachio ice cream. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze for 4 hours, or overnight.
About 2 hours before serving the cake, make the Italian meringue: Place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat the egg whites on medium speed. Once foamy, sprinkle in the cream of tartar and beat the egg whites to a soft peak. Reduce the speed to low and beat while you make the sugar syrup.
In a saucepan over high heat, combine the granulated sugar and water. Do not stir the sugar mixture while it cooks. When the sugar reaches 240°, remove it from the heat.
Return the mixer to medium speed and pour the sugar syrup into the egg white mixture in a slow stream. Beat the meringue to stiff peaks, 8 to 10 minutes. Mix in the vanilla extract until combined.
To assemble the Baked Alaska: Unmold the ice cream cake, invert it, and place it on a serving platter. Using an offset spatula, swirl the Italian meringue over the cake and ice cream to coat it completely. Freeze for 1 to 2 hours.
Immediately before serving, hold the flame of a kitchen torch about 5” from the meringue and swirl it around to toast the surface. Enjoy!