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Fire and ice on a platter

The Baked Alaska was one of the great show-off desserts of the 1970s (and perhaps the 1980s). Unfortunately, chefs don’t bother with it much these days, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Oct 24, 2009 18:20 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Baked AlaskaThe Baked Alaska was one of the great show-off desserts of the 1970s (and perhaps the 1980s). Unfortunately, chefs don’t bother with it much these days.

At university, we were divided first, into colleges, and then, within the college, into staircases marking the blocks where we actually lived. Each staircase had about a dozen undergraduates and possibly, a don or two.

The don on my staircase was a quiet man called Prof Nicholas Kurti. I knew that he was a professor of physics but beyond that, little was known. I would bump into him periodically on the stairs and we would exchange awkward hellos but that was about it. Then, a few years after I had finished at University, I read that Prof Kurti was using physics in the kitchen. He was at forefront of a new movement called Molecular Gastronomy. In 1969, nearly a decade before I went up to University, Prof Kurti gave a talk at the Royal Institution entitled ‘The Physicist In The Kitchen.’

He wowed the assembled scientists by demonstrating the then unfamiliar technology of microwaves. As every child knows – 40 years later – microwaves can heat food remarkably quickly. What we don’t necessarily know is that microwaves are less effective when it comes to melting ice. For his experiment at the Royal Institution, Prof Kurti took a hollowed out block of ice and filled it with water. Then he put the ice-block into the oven and turned it on. In thirty seconds, the water boiled. This was impressive enough – in those pre-microwave oven days, people waited several minutes for water to boil – but there was another strange thing. Even as the water boiled, the ice remained frozen.

There’s a complicated scientific reason for this that I do not fully understand. Apparently a microwave oven produces an electric field that reverses direction billions of times a second, forcing the water molecules to keep re-aligning their orientation. As the molecules re-align, they collide and that collision produces heat. (I’m quoting Heston Blumenthal’s explanation so I hope I got that right. Whew!)

But frozen water molecules (the ones in ice) are trapped in a rigid lattice work so they can’t flip back and forth and create heat. That’s why the ice did not melt even when the water boiled. (Eventually of course, the heat from the water would have melted the ice).

Prof Kurti used that principle to create a dessert called Frozen Florida with a cold exterior and a hot interior. It was, of course, an acknowledgement of the fact that, even without realising it, cooks have been using science in the kitchen for many decades now. Otherwise, how do you explain the Baked Alaska?

Ah, the Baked Alaska! It was one of the great show-off desserts of the 1970s (and perhaps the 1980s). The outside was warm meringue, the base was sponge cake but the inside was cold ice-cream. The idea was that you could cut through layers of heat (the meringue) and come upon perfectly cool ice-cream.

It sounds complicated and it was never an especially easy dessert to make at home but equally, it wasn’t that hard to cook. You needed three distinct components: ready-made sponge cake for the base (easy enough to purchase), fresh meringue and ice-cream that you bought from Kwality’s or wherever and froze further in a very cold freezer.

When the desserts came to the table, your guests would ask: “But it is a hot dessert! Why hasn’t the ice-cream melted?” And you would beam proudly. So why didn’t the ice-cream melt? I could give you complicated molecular explanations that I do not fully understand myself. But the basic principle is relatively simple. Of course the ice-cream will eventually melt in a hot oven. But because there is a layer of air between the meringue and the ice-cream, it acts as insulation and keeps the heat from melting the ice-cream for the seven minutes or so that the dish is the oven.

This principle was understood by chefs over a century ago. The famous Delmonico’s restaurant in New York (where Eggs Benedict were also invented) usually gets the credit for inventing the Baked Alaska but culinary historians have found earlier dishes that used the same scientific principle, including the French Omelette Norvegienne, which may well be the dish that inspired the Delmonico chefs to create the Baked Alaska. And, of course, there’s the Chinese dessert of fried ice-cream but I suspect that it was invented after the Baked Alaska.

These days, alas, chefs don’t bother too much with the Baked Alaska. They don’t even bother to explore the possibility of making it in a microwave to see if the ice-cream molecules get agitated in a different way.

There are several reasons for this. First of all, it is a dish that requires a degree of attention. Now, chefs get their desserts from the pastry department or bakery and don’t bother to cook them. At good Western restaurants, there will be a pastry chef to make the dessert.

In India, stand-alone restaurants can’t afford pastry chefs and hotels do not attach them to individual restaurants preferring to give them autonomous departments of their own. That’s why at most places, you’ll have those terrible clichés, the tiramisu or the chocolate fondant (sometimes called ‘souffle’ or ‘melting chocolate cake’) passed off as the height of culinary achievement. Besides, you can’t easily make a Baked Alaska for one. It is a dish that is easier to make for the whole table and nowadays everybody wants individual desserts. Those chefs who bother with individual Baked Alaskas (and a few still do) are landing themselves with even more pressure in the kitchen.

Ironically, there’s never been a better time to revive the Baked Alaska. These days, ice-cream has moved beyond vanilla, synthetic strawberry and chocolate and so chefs could probably do interesting fillings. Even the sauce offers possibilities. In early 1991, we had a Sunday magazine party at the Delhi Taj for about a hundred guests including the then Prime Minister (Chandra Shekhar) and much of his cabinet plus the Congress President and his wife (Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi).

I sat with Ronnie Lobo who was then the general manager and Arun Chopra who was the chef to plan the menu. I told them that I wanted a spectacular dessert and explained what I had in mind: an Indian Baked Alaska. We would use the same construction as the original dish but instead of the ice-cream I wanted kulfi. And for the sauce, I wanted one with paan liqueur to give it an Indian touch. Ronnie and chef Chopra experimented with the dish and came up with a winner. When it was time for pudding, they dimmed the lights and the waiters emerged in a line from the kitchen. Each carried a tray of individual Baked Alaskas which had been freshly flambéed so an ethereal blue fire surrounded each pudding. The effect was so stunning that the entire hall burst into spontaneous applause.

The dessert itself was a delight. Every single guest asked what it was and when I explained the provenance to one guest, a leading politician of the time, he pointed out that it was wrong to call it a Baked Alaska. “Given what Jagmohan is doing these days,” he said a little sadly, “you'll have to call it Burnt Kashmir.” (My guest was not a fan of the then Governor of Kashmir!)

I don’t think the Taj has ever tried that dessert again which is a shame because these days, they could probably turn out an even better version. And it is a stunning conversation stopper.

In the West, the Baked Alaska has made a comeback as an example of retro-chic and much of my scientific information comes from Heston Blumenthal whose re-invention of this old standby is a triumph – but a tiring and complicated triumph, nevertheless.

As for myself, I often think back to Prof Kurti. Without him there would probably have been no El Bulli and no modern molecular gastronomy. He showed us how science and cooking were closely linked. And he reminded us that we had always known this. Otherwise, how could we have invented the Baked Alaska? But I kick myself. I should have found out a little more about him while I was still at University and made use of the advantage I had in being his neighbour.