Baked alaska is a simple ice-cream cake, but with the tension of a good novel (will the delicate protagonist — the ice cream — survive the flames?) and the beauty of a poem. “It was a work of art,” one guest said at the end of her meal. But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s all craft. And a lot of it! If you find as much meaning as I do in the painstaking details, you will find the project rewarding, especially because you can set it on fire and clap and giggle and then eat the damned thing. So maybe it’s not at all like a poem, in the art sense, where you do all that exacting work but then at the end realize it ought to be torched, and you go to bed without applause and still hungry to boot.
There are many variations of the components — cake, ice cream and meringue; in ours, we use pistachio cake, lemon semifreddo and Italian meringue. With each there are some hazards to navigate. The cake can be complicated to make springy, because it has ground nuts and some rich pistachio paste weighing it down — you need to make sure to whip the egg whites until they look like shaving cream and to use the low speed on the mixer when adding the sugar, nuts and browned butter. The batter will deflate, becoming ribbony and sticky, like soft nougat. But move quickly and get the batter into the oven; once baked, it yields a tender-sturdy — and mighty delicious — base cake.
For the middle, I use a semifreddo, bright and tart with lemon, that Ashley makes for the restaurant, because it is softer to push your fork through and makes for a better mouthful with the tender, chewy cake base and the airy meringue that will cap the top. When the ice cream in the center is too hard, it’s like a clunky word in a sentence that trips up the flow. True to its name, (literally “half cold” in Italian, half-frozen in the practical sense), however, semifreddo melts faster than churned ice cream, so make sure it gets its full overnight in the freezer or that beautiful word in the middle of your sentence will end up being the ruin of it.
All sugar work can be tricky, and the hard-ball stage of candy, which gives this semifreddo its structure, is no exception. Don’t rush the melting of the sugar — take it slow to dissolve completely before boiling it into a syrup, and don’t ever stir. Let the syrup tighten up as the water evaporates until big glassy bubbles start to form, and then pay close attention. If you don’t have a candy thermometer, keep a pint of ice cubes in water at your work area and drizzle a teaspoonful of the boiling syrup into it at stages to see how hard the candy is getting. Feel the glycerinlike viscosity of the thread stage, and the glass-eel stage of the soft ball, and then the icicle look of the hard ball, which is as firm as candle wax when pressed. It’s subtle but transformative to know what sugar feels like in your fingers at different stages of candying.
Even in craft, there’s room for flourish; the opportunity to let loose here lies in the meringue and how you get it onto the cake. Piping the meringue with a closed-star tip makes myriad gorgeous ridges that toast dark and dramatic, leaving negative white space in the divots. And I will always be charmed by the swooping, rococo look of the back-of-the-soup-spoon method, where the cowlicks and crests of meringue left behind by twisting the spoon away turn black just at the tips when run swiftly under the broiler. Another favorite is to spread the meringue smoothly with an offset spatula and then run the tip of a sharp knife from the base to the summit repeatedly, which toasts up to resemble golden wide-wale corduroy. This is the chef’s version of what Elmore Leonard calls “perpetrating hooptedoodle” in writing, when the writer indulges in “thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.” But frankly I can forgive anyone who gets a little self-aggrandizing with her meringue.
Unlike an actual work of art — a painting, say — you can erase what doesn’t work. Just re-pipe the meringue. Try spooning flaming kirsch down its slopes in mesmerizing blue rivulets. You can even fail completely and still win, because no one will ever send you a letter of rejection over your sorry meringue, as they would your sagging prose. Because ice cream cake is always — no matter what — a delight.
Recipe: Baked Alaska