Charles Ranhofer was one of America’s first celebrity chefs. He did not have his own TV show, and he did not license a line of kitchenware. But from the 1860s until 1896, he presided over the kitchen of one of the Gilded Age’s grandest restaurants—Delmonico’s in New York City. Ranhofer invented several new dishes and made others famous, such as Baked Alaska.
Born in France in 1836 and formally trained in Paris, Ranhofer served as the private chef for the Duc D’Alsace before travelling to the United States for a series of jobs. In 1862, Lorenzo Delmonico, an already well-established restaurateur, hired the talented, 26-year-old Ranhofer and aside from a three-year hiatus in the 1870s, Ranhofer would spend his entire career at the legendary Delmonico’s, until retiring in 1896.
The chef was a clever marketer as well as an extraordinary cook, naming new dishes (or renaming existing ones) after famous people or events. For example, he christened a potato dish “Sarah Potatoes” after the hugely popular actor, Sarah Bernhardt. “Peach Pudding a la Cleveland” recognized Grover Cleveland, the U.S. president from 1885 to 1889 and 1893 to1897, and a man of prodigious appetites. And an elaborate frozen meringue dessert, known in France as “Omelette Norvegienne,” was retitled “Baked Alaska.”
Baked Alaska exquisitely illustrates Ranhofer’s gift for marketing culinary excitement. The very name Alaska possessed the cachet of a hotly debated topic. In 1867, facing a crisis in his royal treasury, Czar Alexander II of Russia opened negotiations to sell this “frozen frontier” to the United States. Secretary of State William Seward eventually agreed to the purchase price of $7 million, or just a few cents per acre. However, despite the rather small price tag, some political observers–including Horace Greeley, renowned editor of the New York Tribune–sneered at the proposed acquisition. Greeley wrote, “ Except for the Aleutian Islands and a narrow strip of land extending along the southern coast, the country would not be worth taking as a gift.” Others referred to the huge northern landmass as “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Refrigerator.” But after almost a year of rancorous debate in Congress, the U.S. formalized its purchase of Alaska in 1868, increasing the nation’s size by 20 percent with one flourish of a pen.
Taking advantage of the political controversy, Ranhofer’s newly named “Baked Alaska” promised mystery–something cold and possibly frozen, counterpoised with heat. In fact, Baked Alaska is exactly that: an ice cream-filled cake covered in meringue, which is quickly browned in a hot oven immediately before serving. It represents the aspirational, the luxurious and the flamboyant–all themes of dining at Delmonico’s, the epicurean centerpiece of the Gilded Age.
In the 1860s, creating Baked Alaska was no mean feat, since each of the building blocks of this “bombe” required significant time, elbow grease and hard-to-achieve temperature control. Rhode Islander Turner Williams patented the hand-cranked doubled eggbeater in 1870, a big improvement on the wire whisk but still not truly a labor-saving device. And of course ice cream machines were not electrified until the following century. Today, Baked Alaska is still a very impressive dessert, but more of an assembly project. In the Gilded Age, it required a highly skilled chef, a group of strong-armed kitchen workers and the latest in kitchen technology.
BAKED ALASKA FOR TODAY
This is more about building a dessert and timing it right than showcasing your culinary finesse. My daughter Lucy, now a professional chef, made this dessert when she was 9, although I recall some adult assistance with the meringue. You can alter the flavors of the cake and ice cream and use any liqueur according to your taste. I used strawberry ice cream because it is strawberry season as I write this, and I bought lovely fresh strawberries for a garnish. I froze the cake in a 2-quart bowl, which makes about 8 servings. You can make this bigger or smaller by the size of the bowl you choose. Just make sure it isn’t a shallow bowl, and that it fits into your oven.
Start to Finish: Real work time is only about 35 minutes total, but the cake needs to be frozen for at least 2 hours. It can stay in the freezer, well-wrapped, for up to a week before meringue is applied and browned.
2 moist, loaf-shaped pound cakes. I used traditional butter cake, but you could also use any flavor that goes well with the ice cream you have chosen. I think chocolate cake would be delicious with coffee or mint ice cream.
2 tablespoons rum, brandy, or flavored liqueur (optional)
2 ½ pints of highest quality ice cream
3 egg whites, ideally at room temperature
¾ cup confectioner’s sugar, plus 3 tablespoons for finishing
Generously line a 3-quart bowl with aluminum foil, making sure there is enough foil to hang over the edges for several inches. This way the foil can fold over the top of the bowl and cover it once the bowl is filled. Spray inside of foil-lined bowl with cooking spray.
Slice one loaf cake into half-inch slices. Line the bowl with these, starting with the bottom. Cut more slices from the second loaf as needed to fill in gaps. The bowl should be completely lined with cake slices and you should not see any foil. Press the slices with your hands into the sides of the bowl. It is good if they overlap a bit. It should look like a bowl made of cake.
If you would like to add a little rum or liqueur flavor, now is the time to sprinkle it or brush it on to the sides of the bowl-shaped cake. Remember to use it sparingly, as this cake will not be cooked and the alcohol will be very strong.
Scoop ice cream into the cake-lined bowl and pack in place firmly. Fill bowl with ice cream, making sure there are no air holes, and smooth the top so that it is flat. Carefully place one layer of cake slices on the top of the bowl. Cut wedged pieces to fill in corners, making sure there are no gaps. Press down with fingers or spatula to completely cover ice cream.
Draw up loose ends of the foil and fold over the bowl. If needed, wrap more foil over the top of the bowl. It should be well sealed. Freeze for a minimum of 2 hours (or up to one week). Put broiling pan or the cookie sheet in freezer (if it will fit) the day you plan to serve the dessert.
Preheat oven to 450. Place the rack on the third rung of the oven so there is enough room for your creation.
Beat egg whites with a mixer at medium speed until white and frothy. Increasing speed to high, add a pinch of cream of tartar and confectioner’s sugar, one tablespoon at a time. Beat until the egg whites hold stiff peaks. Remove ice cream cake from freezer and unwrap the foil. Lift the cake out of the bowl by lifting up on the sides of the foil and invert over the ovenproof pan. This should come out easily. (If it is stuck, wrap the outer sides of the bowl with a hot damp dishtowel) If it has imperfections, remember the meringue can hide cracks etc.
Working quickly, frost the cake with the meringue. First, coat the cake with a layer of meringue to make sure it is completely covered. Then add swirls or simply another layer. The meringue layer should be very thick. Bake for 3 ½ minutes or until the meringue is a golden brown. Carefully slide cake onto a serving platter – I use two spatulas to do this.
You may garnish with fresh berries, or if you know your way around a kitchen and enjoy drama with your spirits, present Baked Alaska flambéed with burning rum.*
Serve immediately to great applause and enjoy Gilded Age luxury.
*To flambé any brandy, rum, bourbon, etc.: In a small saucepan, add ½ cup spirits. Have a pack of long matches or a long grill lighter at hand. A helper should dim the lights around the table while you are working on the sauce. Just when the liquor starts to steam, light a match and touch it to the vapors at arm’s length. STAND BACK. Bring the flaming pan to the table and theatrically pour it over the Baked Alaska or other pudding. Expect marriage proposals from either gender.
Dr. Libby O’Connell is HISTORY’s chief historian.