On March 30, 1867, for a mere $7.2 million — about two cents per acre — the U.S. bought land from Russia that would eventually make Alaska its 49th state, gaining a delicious fringe benefit in the process: Baked Alaska.
No, this igloo-shaped dessert — cake and ice cream shrouded in toasted meringue — didn't come from the icy north, but its name was inspired by the land deal. In fact, the treat's true roots date back to the turn of the 18th century, when American-born scientist Sir Benjamin Thompson (aka Count Rumford, a title he gained for his loyalty to the crown during the American Revolution) — whose inventions included a kitchen range and a double boiler — made a discovery about egg whites.
Rumford realized that the air bubbles inside whipped egg whites made meringue a great insulator. "That's really why the Baked Alaska works," says Libby "O'Connell, the History Channel's chief historian and author of The American Plate. "The meringue insulates the ice cream from heat."
By the 1830s, this culinary revelation had inspired French chefs to create a dessert called the "Omelette Norwegge." This predecessor of Baked Alaska consisted of layers of cake and ice cream covered in meringue, then broiled. The French named this elaborate treat in reference to its own frigid territory to the north — Norway.
So how did the "Omelette Norwegge" become embroiled with the Alaska purchase?
Charles Ranhofer, an expat Parisian pastry chef at the legendary Delmonico's restaurant in New York City, was renowned for dishes doubling as cultural commentary — Peach Pudding à la [President Grover] Cleveland or Sarah Potatoes after actress Sarah Bernhardt, for example. In 1867, Ranhofer made a quip through his pastry that the world would never forget.
Secretary of State William's Seward's acquisition of a faraway tundra drew no shortage of criticism and ridicule. Ranhofer, who likely encountered the "Omelette Norwegge" in his French training, jumped on the bandwagon with a dessert he dubbed "Alaska, Florida" — a reference to the temperature contrast between ice cream and toasted meringue.
The original version consisted of banana ice cream, walnut spice cake and meringue torched to a golden brown. While making Baked Alaska today is much easier because of modern conveniences such as electric mixers and blowtorches, it was once an incredibly opulent dish, requiring a full kitchen staff and a significant amount of time. And it was also exotic, because it contained expensive bananas from Central America.
"To me," O'Connell says, "it's one of the best exemplars of the Gilded Age in American history." The price tag reflected its grandeur — the cost of the dessert then would equal about $40 today. And Delmonico's, established in 1837 and still in business today, was a who's who of the dining scene, drawing personalities like the Rockefellers and Charles Dickens.
According to Billy Oliva, Delmonico's current executive chef, the dessert's name was coined in the 1880s when English journalist George Sala visited the restaurant and remarked: "The 'Alaska' is a baked ice ... the nucleus or core of the entremets is an ice cream ... surrounded by an envelope of carefully whipped cream, which, just before the dainty dish is served, is popped into the oven or brought under the scorching influence of a red hot salamander."
Michael Krondl, an associate editor of the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, tells a slightly different tale. He says the French "Omelette Norwegge" didn't appear until the 1890s, and evidence for Ranhofer's debut of the "Alaska, Florida" is too slim to credit him with its creation.
According to Krondl, the journalist who visited Delmonico's was Charles Augustus Sala — though records account for just one English journalist in this era with the surname Sala: George Augustus Henry Sala, which is in line with Delmonico's story. "Charles Augustus Sala described eating an 'Alaska' at Delmonico's with more enthusiasm than accuracy," states the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, "He mistook the meringue for whipped cream."
Conflicting accounts aside, Ranhofer definitely featured the dessert under the name "Alaska, Florida" in his 1894 cookbook, The Epicurean. And today, Delmonico's continues to serve it at a much more reasonable price — $13 — and in more or less the same fashion as the originial: walnut sponge cake layered with apricot compote and banana gelato, covered with torched meringue.
"It's been that way since day one at our original downtown location," says Chef Oliva. "This is one of our signature items and something diners travel across the world to enjoy."
About 36,000 diners per year, actually. That averages out to about 100 a day — most of whom probably know little of the history behind this elaborate dessert. Yet it seems fitting that the Baked Alaska's surprise core should come with a creation story shrouded in mystery, too.