Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Baking Alaska in Beijing

Baked Alaska has occupied a special place in my heart since my brother made it as a precocious baking obsessed teen. I must have been 10 or so at the time and watching him construct a tower of cake, ice cream and meringue was a dream come true.

Unfortunately for us, our family left for vacation the day after my brother finished the cake and there wasn't any room in the kitchen freezer so it was relegated to the garage. You know, the 1950s era pea-soup green monolith of a refrigerator that smelled perpetually of third-degree freezer burn. The one with tens of thousands of dead, frozen ants crisping along the edges of the door. It was a frigid black hole.

As you can imagine, we got back from our trip (to the Great Salt Lake, the Motherland as my friends used to call it) to discover a monumentally ruined Baked Alaska in our freezer. Some part of me died inside, and my love for Baked Alaska continued unrequited until last year.

We have a friend who grew up eating ice cream cake for her birthday, so last year I had the crazy idea to make her Baked Alaska to celebrate. When I'm absolutely honest with myself, making her birthday cake was mostly just an excuse for me to take on some crazy project in the kitchen.

We couldn't find any one recipe that struck our fancy, but we decided upon the components one at a time. Alton Brown's pound cake for the base, Dreyer's ice cream for the middle (at the time it was half-price at the local supermarket) and Gordon Ramsay's italian meringue for the outside. And now I've forgotten who gave us the idea for the saran wrapped bowl, but I'm thinking it was one of those matronly women like Martha Stewart or Paula Deen. I tend to get them confused.

I'd like to say that we rocked this, but we didn't. We discovered later that our oven had somehow switched to keep warm (the original owners broke the nob, so we have to use pliers to crank it) and the removable tray at the bottom had covered up the heating element. So basically, we assembled the pound cake and it just sat in the oven warming for several hours. Thankfully, the top cooked and was usable. And the rest we just kind of left in the lukewarm oven and ate it for breakfast the rest of the week. (We've since redeemed ourselves by remaking the pound cake for an autumn trifle: pumpkin caramel, vanilla bean pudding, apple compote and graham cracker crumbs)

The meringue took us a couple tries too, but finally we were able to get the right consistency.

To build the ice cream layers, we saran wrapped a glass IKEA bowl, packed in several layers of ice cream and then stuffed it in the freezer. Once the cake was ready, we layered it on the bottom and then put it back in the freezer to harden up.

Once we were ready to put the meringue on, we flipped the bowl over and gave it a good smack while tugging at the saran wrap. The whole thing came down mostly intact.

Then we quickly slathered on a generous helping of meringue and fired up the torch that the good folks over at Pie House had lent us).

There's something viscerally gratifying about torching up an ice cream cake. Those of you who've never done it, you're seriously missing out.

So there you have it, though not without a few mishaps. But it's a rare day where any baking in Beijing goes smoothly for me.


Tawny said...

I wants to eat it!

cheryl said...

Is that picture actually of my birthday cake? THE baked alaska you made for my birthday which I didn't actually end up getting to eat because I ended up on a plane back to NY? Because I just realized I never actually saw the whole thing, I only heard you guys (well mostly cindy) singing happy birthday to me via someone recording it, and saw/ate a slice of it that you all saved for me. Funny how now two years later I'm seeing it for the first time =P