by Gennie Truelock
Every object has a tale to tell. Sometimes an item’s story is about the people who owned it, or perhaps the people who used it. It can be about the inventor or the event that was taking place that prompted its creation. Sometimes these stories are very straight forward, and other times they may seem a little too good to be true. One thing that always remains true for me, however, is that I’m continually amazed at how many different stories can be uncovered through a single item.
In preparing for this post, I was once again going through the Museum’s collection of cookbooks and recipe pamphlets, which you can explore for yourself here, when a small, plain-looking publication caught my attention: 150 Recipes for your Electric Refrigerator. Created sometime in the 1920s by the O’Keefe & Merritt Company of Los Angeles, this pamphlet was distributed through the City of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Power and Light. The slim booklet contains recipes for cold salads and desserts. I thought I was going to be sharing the story of the history of refrigeration, or perhaps the story of the O’Keefe & Merritt Company, but those stories may need to wait for another blog post because as I was looking through its pages trying to decide which recipe to tackle, I settled on a once hugely popular, but now rarely eaten American classic: Baked Alaska. “Neat!” I thought, “This should be a fun dessert to highlight the history of refrigeration.” The story that I uncovered however, took me in an entirely different direction.
The story of Baked Alaska is one of scientific innovation, political dealings, and Gilded Age opulence. Although the tale behind how this layered treat of cake, ice cream, and meringue came to be is a convoluted one, what seems to be agreed upon is the science behind what makes baking a frozen dessert possible. The reason the icy core of a Baked Alaska doesn’t melt is due to the discovery of the insulating power of whipped egg whites. For that piece of gastronomical knowledge, you can thank the American-born inventor turned British Loyalist, Sir Benjamin Thompson.
Inventor and Heat Miser
Born in Massachusetts in 1753, Thompson would fight on the side of King George III against the American revolutionaries as a member of the King’s American Dragoons. When the Revolutionary War came to an end, he abandoned his wife, Sarah Rolfe, and headed to London where he would eventually conduct many experiments around the nature of heat and its transference. This would lead him to invent cookware and other household appliances such as the double boiler, the kitchen range, and the drip coffeepot. However, his discoveries in the kitchen didn’t stop there. Thompson was not the first person to make or cook meringue, he was, however, the first to notice the insulating possibilities of the cloud-like confection. He realized that as egg whites are beaten, the protein structure of the whites unfolds and recombines around the air bubbles creating a new structure. When exposed to high heat for brief intervals, these bubbles act as an insulator slowing down the transfer of heat to anything they surround. While it seems that Thompson didn’t think too much about this discovery, the culinary world took notice.
Before Baked Alaska, there was the “Omelette Norwegge”
This is where the culinary history gets a little murky. Some food historians say that by the 1830s, French chefs began to make what they believe is a predecessor to Baked Alaska, the “Omelette Norwegge,” an egg-shaped dessert composed of sponge cake, topped with ice cream, covered in meringue, and then broiled in an oven, but named after another frozen tundra to the north, Norway. Others disagree and say that the “Omelette Norwegge” and its American cousin didn’t appear until the late 1890s, when recipes are first seen in cookbooks. Regardless of which came first, the Omelette or the Alaska, the tale told about the naming of this seemingly impossible creation lies in the story of a ridiculed land deal.
Enter Seward’s Folly
On March 30, 1867, the word Alaska was on everyone’s lips. Through days of secret negotiations between then Secretary of State William Seward and Russian minister to the United States, Edouard Stoeckl, the US purchased what later became the state of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million. While many in politics seemed to support this move, a few in Congress thought that the land was basically useless and jokingly referred to the purchase as “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox.” Noted journalist of the day, Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, said that Alaska was a “burden…not worth taking as a gift.” But Greeley wasn’t the only person making public commentary on the purchase, or so the story goes.
Gilded Age Fine Dining
Charles Ranhofer was no ordinary chef, and Delmonico’s in New York City was no ordinary eatery. Originally from France, Ranhofer began work at the famed restaurant in 1862 and remained there until his retirement in 1896. It seems one of Ranhofer’s trademarks was naming his dishes after the famous people who often dined at the restaurant; Peach Pudding à la Cleveland was named for President Grover Cleveland, and Sarah Potatoes for the legendary stage actress Sarah Bernhardt are two examples. It is said that he created a version of a Baked Alaska, or what he called at the time the Alaska, Florida (because of its frozen interior and warm exterior) in honor of the acquisition of the Alaska Territory. According to Delmonico’s current Executive Chef, Billy Oliva, the name of the dessert shifted in the 1880s after a journalist wrote about his experience of eating the unusual dessert. The Baked Alaska can still be found on Delmonico’s menu today.
A 1920s version of a Baked Alaska
One of the reasons that I was so interested in making the Baked Alaska is because I’ve never eaten one. I’ve heard it referenced in old TV shows and movies, read about it in books, but it just isn’t something that you see on menus anymore, unless of course you are eating at Delmonico’s, which I am not. So, when I came across this recipe, I thought that it was finally my chance to try it, and I have to say it didn’t disappoint! I can also see why homemakers with access to refrigerators in the 1920s and beyond would have been excited to bring this dish to their table. While the individual components are not difficult to create, especially if you have a good mixer, there is a magic that happens when you put it altogether. It is a presentational dessert that is meant to be noticed, and it will be. Here are the recipes for the three main parts of the dish:
This recipe for Baked Alaska states to use a sponge cake for the base. Since a recipe wasn’t given, I thought that a Victoria Sponge would be appropriate since it is named after Queen Victoria and Ranhofer loved using famous names for his dishes. I used the recipe found here, but you can use any sponge cake recipe that you like.
Here are a few pictures of how I put it together.
Here is the complete dish!
If you decide to give the recipe a try let us know what you think by tagging us on social media @homesteadmuseum, or by dropping us a message in the comments.