Last week I had the pleasure of staying in Geneva with my friend Clare. She is a great cook, and on Friday night she whipped up a fabulous dinner of grits and shrimp (with tons of corinader) and a special surprise dessert for her friend Nadim who was celebrating his 50th birthday: Baked Alaska!
I have learned a lot in Clare’s kitchen in the past. Many years ago, I saw her bake an entire head of garlic in its jacket to go with a roast. I do that a lot now. Then, I had my first taste of honest-to-goodness Mexican home-cooked food in her house, and was amazed to see her make her own tortillas in her tortilla press.
Last time, she roasted 3 little cockerels in her oven (My Mum would have called them Mistrkratzerli – “dung scratchers” in Swiss-German.). At first I thought Clare was trying to fatten us up, since there were just two adults and two small children for dinner, but she admitted to me after dinner that she had other plans: chicken stock. “I have a risotto obsession at the moment, and it doesn’t taste right without home-made stock.”, and she promptly tossed the remaining meat and bones into a pot with all the aromatics needed for first-rate stock and let it simmer until bedtime.
This time, I discovered that American “grits” are, in fact, polenta and that “proper” grits are made with white corn. I mean, I knew that corn came in many colours and varieties, but it just never entered my mind. Also, I learned that they make white polenta in the Tessin, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. Who knew? (Not I…)
So, what is Baked Alaska?
Basically, it’s an ice-cream cake you cover in meringue and set fire to as you serve it. I believe the French call it an Omelette Norvégienne (Norwegian omelette) and a similar Asian recipe is called “Fire on the Iceberg”. It was a favourite in the 1970s and adds a little drama to your dinner party. I have never made one, because I am a bit of a chicken when it comes to burning alcohol… If it is a bad experience with a flaming Sambuca shot when I was a student, I can’t remember, but that might explain the singed eyebrows after Drew’s luau party in 1995. Anyway, these days I generally delegate lighting the Crêpes Suzette to the Hubby.
Clare planned her Baked Alaska well. It was a first for her and she researched some recipes, even writing an e-mail to her uncle who is the Baked Alaska specialist in her extended family. Nadim loves rhum and raisin ice-cream, so she wanted to use that. Out of luck, she couldn’t get her hands on any, but Clare is like me: she won’t let one little ingredient throw her! So she steeped some dried raisins in rhum over night, let some vanilla ice-cream soften and mixed it together. Voilà! Rhum and raisin ice-cream! Then she lined a metal bowl with cling film and transferred the ice-cream in it before putting it back into the freezer.
The original recipe calls for pound cake, but we weren’t about to make any, so Clare found something that looked similar at the shops. On top of it, it was pretty much the perfect shape and size to go with the frozen dome of ice-cream. So she assembled it: a base of “plain” cake (disc-shaped in our case, but I have seen Baked Alaskas shaped like a log), smashed-up meringue layered between the cake and the ice-cream for a little crunch, the turned-out dome of rhum and raisin ice-cream on top.
Then we whipped up some meringue (we made too much… but then we ate most of it with our fingers) and covered the dome with it, making pretty peaks. In the preheated (as hot as possible) oven for 5-6 minutes – the meringue will get brown in places – and then you take it out. And now for the fun part!
Gently heat the alcohol of your choice in a little saucepan. We used rhum, but Grand Marnier and whiskey work well, too. Don’t overheat – above 50 degrees C, your alcohol will evaporate and your Alaska will be a damp squib. You can either use the saucepan directly, or pour the alcohol into a ladle. Put a match to it and then pour over the fabulous-looking ice-cream-covered meringue. If necessary, use a spoon to scoop up some of the rhum that has run off and pour it back over the Baked Alaska.
It is essential to use a dish that can take temperature changes. (I told you, I’m chicken, but when you have a super-solid Pyrex explode in your hands because of two spoonfuls of cold milk, you get that way.) Clare used a metal one. It should not be completely flat, either, to allow for the burning alcohol that runs off to pool instead of setting fire to your tablecloth. (I’ve done that, too.)
I am really not a dessert person (I must have given all my sweet teeth to the Tooth Fairy as a kid.), but this rhum and raisin Baked Alaska was a proper grown-up dessert worthy of a cruise ship gala dinner. Well done, Clare! Nadim and the rest of us were duly impressed.
As an hommage, I have re-written one of my favourite poems by American poet Robert Frost, Fire and Ice. I call it Fire and Ice-cream. Here goes:
Some say the meal must end in fire.
Some say ice.
From what I have tasted of Crème Brulée
I hold with those who favor flambé.
But if they served the dessert twice
I think I know enough of taste
To know that for digestion
Ice is also great
And would suffice.
For a good, easy-to follow Baked Alaska recipe, go to the Food Network (but you don’t really need any recipe except for the proportions for the meringue).
Sorry the photos are not explicit, but I was too busy spending quality time with my friend and was not planning a blog post.