Bombe Alaska, also known as Baked Alaska, omelette norvégienne, omelette surprise, or omelette sibérienne, is a dessert made from ice cream and sponge cake topped with a baked meringue. The very inner of a Bombe Alaska is the ice cream, which is then covered with slices of sponge cake or Christmas pudding, and then coated in meringue. The dessert is then briefly baked in an extremely hot oven, allowing the meringue to caramelise and firm up without melting the ice cream. Some people use a kitchen burner to torch the meringue outside the Bombe Alaska instead of putting it in the oven, which gives a similar caramelisation.
What’s the difference between Bombe Alaska and Baked Alaska?
While the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, Bombe Alaska is slightly different form Baked Alaska. A Bombe Alaska is splashed with hot, high-proof dark rum and flambéed before or while serving.
Why is it called Baked Alaska?
The unique nickname ‘Baked Alaska’ was given to the dessert in 1867 at a Creole restaurant in New Orleans called Antoine’s. The restaurant’s chef, Antoine, named the dish Baked Alaska to honour of the United States acquisition of Alaska from the Russian Empire earlier that year.
In France, Baked Alaska is called omelette norvégienne or ‘Norwegian omelette’. This name has a slightly funnier story. In 1867, during the Paris World’s fair, the chef of the Grand Hotel had an idea to create a ‘scientific dessert’ that used the recent discovery of low thermal conductivity of egg whites by Benjamin Thompson. Thompson, a physicist, lived in Bavaria at the time of his discovery. The Grand Hotel chef thought that Bavaria was in Norway and so he dubbed his dessert a ‘Norwegian omelette’.
The history of Bombe Alaska
The earliest version of Baked Alaska appeared in 1802 with Thomas Jefferson. He was one of the first presidents of the USA to serve ice cream at a state banquet in the White House. Legend has it that Jefferson asked for the ice cream to be encased in a hot pastry, creating one of the first versions of Baked Alaska. In 1804, American physicist Benjamin Thompson Rumford (who invented coffee percolators) was looking into the resistance of beaten egg whites to heat. Beaten egg whites are basically just meringue. He inadvertently ended up with his own version of a Bombe Alaska and nicknamed it ‘omelette surprise’. By the 1850s, ice cream ‘bombes’ were a popular dessert served at tea parties and formal dinners. These bombes were made from moulds filled with frozen custard, often served alongside meringue-coated desserts.
The first cookbook to mention baked meringue as well as Baked Alaska was Aunt Mary’s cookbook, The Philadelphia Housewife, published in 1855. In this book was a baked meringue recipe called Apples aux Pommes and a Baked Alaska Apple Pie. Over the next several years, different versions of Baked Alaska popped up around the world. Then the rumours began to mill over who created the dish. In 1866, a French food writer by the name of Baron Leon Brise claimed that it was the infamous chef Balzac who brought Bombe Alaska to France. In the United States, chef Charles Ranhofer from New York restaurant Delmonico’s stated he made the dish in honour of the purchase of Alaska from Russia. In 1893, chef Ranhofer published a cookbook where Baked Alaska featured as a dish named Alaska, Florida. In 1895, the term omelette la norvégienne was coined by French chef Jean Giroix who created his own version of the dessert.
How to make Bombe Alaska
This Bombe Alaska is simple and only requires dedication to a few steps:
- Firstly, make the sponge cake by beating eggs and sugar with a wire whisk over a pan of simmering water until thick. Remove from the heat, sift in cornflour and plain flour, and fold them into the eggs with a metal spoon. Pour in melted butter, more flour, and fold this combination through until well mixed. Bake the sponge cake for 25-30 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean, then place it on a cooling rack while you work on the other elements.
- To make the meringue, beat egg whites using an electric mixer. When they create a soft peak, start adding a tablespoon of sugar at a time, continuing to beat until the meringue is thick and glossy and sugar is dissolved.
- When the sponge has cooled, cut a circle from the cake with a diameter of about 9cm. Place this sponge cake disc on a plate, cover it with your ice cream, and then coat the ice cream with the meringue using a palette knife.
- Splash dark rum over your meringue and then toast it with a blow torch to finish off your Bombe Alaska.
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