Happy New Year! My friends and I rang in the new year in style, with a potluck-style dinner for which I was happily assigned dessert duty. I don't normally have the opportunity to cook one big thing for a group so I racked my brain for the most extravagant thing I have wanted to make that I could think of; it wasn't hard to decide I wanted to get ambitious and make Baked Alaska.
I'm not going to pretend I was the first to have the idea to make Baked Alaska; it's an old-fashioned dessert I first heard about from a college roommate, and then it reappeared on my radar this year as one of the "festive finales" in the Martha Stewart Holiday Sweets magazine I've been studying this season for inspiration (the online version of her instructions is here). If you don't know what Baked Alaska is (and I had to explain it to my fellow dinner party guests enough times to tell you you're definitely not alone!), it's an ice cream cake molded in the shape of an igloo, covered in meringue.
Martha prescribes her own recipe for the cake-base of her Alaska, but I decided to substitute mine and Christine's favorite brownie recipe from the Baked cookbook (that recipe is available here).
I got busy with preparing my Alaska in my party-throwing friends' home the day before. I made the brownies in a 9" round cake pan (lined with aluminum foil for easy release). Since the recipe is written to be made in a 9x13" pan, I had some leftover batter that I made into a few extra cupcake-size brownies to tide over my friends from nibbling on the real deal before the big night!
At this time, I also molded the ice cream top of the cake. I chose a 9" diameter bowl to fit perfectly on top of the brownie, and lined it with plastic wrap. I let pistachio and butter pecan ice creams sit out for a few minutes until they were soft enough to scoop, and then I spooned in an outer layer of pistachio ice cream into the bowl, followed by an inner layer of butter pecan. After that I covered the entire bowl with plastic wrap, turned down the freezer and let it harden in there for a day.
On the night of the party when I arrived, I turned the ice cream out on top of the brownie and let it continue to set in the freezer. About 30 minutes before we were ready to eat dessert, I ran into the kitchen to make the meringue (for this, I doubled Martha's recipe for Swiss Meringue). I heated the egg whites and sugar over a double-boiler before whipping them with a hand mixer.
Beautiful meringue peaks
I was already anxious about having the ice cream sitting out for too long while I decorated it with the meringue, and I also guessed that at this point in the party I wouldn't have the patience to be piping Martha's obsessive rosettes all over my cake, so I just spread the meringue on it with a spatula. Then I poked the meringue repeatedly with my finger to make peaks all over the cake (I envisioned it coming out to look like this cake in a recent article in Fine Cooking).
And then (the moment of truth) I put the whole thing into the oven to broil on high for a minute, to just-brown the meringue for the glorious hot/cold effect. I kept my eye on it the whole time to monitor any ice cream seepage or uneven browning, but I wasn't expecting my masterpiece to catch on fire!! My shrieking ended a rowdy game of Catchphrase, and my boyfriend swatted the fire out with a dish towel, leaving us with charred, crispy, sorry-I-almost-burned-your-house-down Alaska.
With all the effort I put into planning, I had hoped for an aesthetically prettier end to 2009, but in retrospect what more appropriate way could we have ended a year of rolling with unexpected challenges and having to work with what we've got? Even though it didn't turn out as beautifully as I'd imagined for its opening night, it's the inside that counts (which was still as tasty as expected), and the commotion over the fire was admittedly more exciting than another quiet moment of domestic perfection. It gave me an adrenaline rush to ride into the new year!
I didn't expect this cake to keep after the one night, but we've kept it stored in the freezer and it has actually improved with age; re-frozen, at present it looks like it does in the beautiful cross-section photo at the beginning of this post, which was taken the next day.