Less a Baked Alaska than a Flaming Sochi
This week marked the conclusion of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games in Russia and the build up to the Winter Paralympics. Over the last few weeks the games have been one of the major media talking points, so I decided to pay my own tribute to the icy games in the form of an ice cream based dessert.
We have never been a great nation for winter games. Even here in the North of England there hasn’t been any snowfall this winter, so actual skiing is pretty much out. Given that, Britain’s medal haul of a mighty four was an incredible achievement following on from our impressive success in our home summer Olympics two years ago. At 19th in the Medal Table, just behind the significantly more wintery Finland and three places above Italy, a country packed with alpine ski resorts, Britain has every reason to be proud of our performance in Sochi.
In fact, this was our best ever Winter Olympics performance, matching the four medals that Britain won in the inaugural winter games in 1924. On top of that, while most of our medals were in the traditionally British areas of curling and skeleton (although why we’re so good at that remains a bit of a mystery), there was even a first ever medal on snow (a pretty significant surface when it comes to winter sports) for snowboarder Jenny Jones.
So, there’s reason to celebrate with a tasty Winter Olympic dessert, but sporting success made up just a fraction of the media attention given to the Sochi games. There was also a fair share of scandal and controversy: six athletes tested positive for drug use, and accusations that the host nation’s surprise gold in figure skating was a fix by a corrupt judge as part of megalomaniac president Vladimir Putin’s desperation to ensure Russia’s position on top of the medal table.
Meanwhile, despite Putin’s government spending a reported $50 billion on hosting the games in the Black Sea resort, the so-called Russian Riviera appeared hopelessly unprepared for its hosting duty, with huge amounts of time and money spent culling the town’s enormous population of stray dogs. The modern world of social media allowed for impressive up-to-the-minute tweeting by journalists of some of the appalling conditions in the Sochi hotels.
Meanwhile, the government’s political repression and intolerance became a talking point when members of feminist punk collective Pussy Riot were released as part of an amnesty on prisoners only to criticise just this action from Putin’s government. When they turned up to protest in Sochi itself, they were beaten and whipped by Cossacks hired as security staff.
All of the column inches devoted to all of these subjects, though, pales into total insignificance compared to the amount of coverage given to one other subject: Russia’s law against the promotion of homosexuality. In the midst of protests around the world hoping to get the Olympics’ many powerful sponsors to object to the country not acting in the spirit of equality on which the Olympics is modelled, Putin managed to cause even more offence by equating homosexuality with paedophilia, saying that gays were welcome in Sochi, “just leave the children in peace”. Sochi mayor Anatoly Pakhomov took a different approach, claiming bizarrely that: “We don’t have them in our town“.
Returning to the point, then, how would I convey all of these ideas in the form of a dessert?
Well, I decided to take inspiration from the contrasting promotional campaigns of Winter Olympic broadcaster the BBC and Winter Paralympic broadcaster Channel 4. The former opted for this dramatic and portentous monologue from a particularly vindictive mountain voiced by the calculatingly threatening tones of Game of Thrones’ Tywin Lannister, Charles Dance.
The latter, however, opted for something that engaged very little with the sporting challenges faced by the athletes and instead focused on the social challenges faced in fighting prejudice. With Channel 4 keen to remind people that it wants to be seen as edgy and boundary pushing, we were given this campy good luck message for the Sochi competitors.
Channel 4’s “Gay Mountain” ad may have stimulated quite a bit of debate around whether it is a bold piece of satire or just cliche filled and kind of offensive itself, but it is definitely one of the big talking points of the Sochi games, just as the BBC’s own mountain ad is in a different way. My Sochi tribute dessert, then, was going to be an icy mountain, which, to my mind, meant one thing: a Baked Alaska, a frozen ice cream surrounded by cake and encased in meringue that is able to cook while the ice cream remains frozen.
This 1970s favourite actually dates back a century further, to the 1870s when it was invented at Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York in honour of the newly acquired territory of Alaska. Under other names, though, it has probably been around a little longer, with evidence of desserts that encased ice cream in a crust dating back to the early 1800s.
The science here is actually pretty simple and relates to some of what I talked about when making soufflé, namely that egg whites contain proteins that have parts that bond with water and parts that repel it, creating air bubbles and the more that you whisk the smaller these bubbles become and the stabler the egg white mix, in that case for the soufflé, in this for the meringue. Air bubbles in the meringue make it a great insulator by slowing down the transfer of heat through it, in the same way that air bubbles in styrofoam mean that you can keep hot liquids in a cup made from it and not burn your hand. By using meringue as an insulator, you can bake the outside of the Alaska and the ice cream inside remains cold.
So, a Baked Alaska would be the structure of my Sochi ice mountain dessert, now I just needed a flavour and for that I took inspiration from Channel 4 and their Gay Mountain ad, specifically in wanting the inside of the snowy white mountain to show in rainbow colours and fruity flavours, the subtext beneath the ski contests.
I decided quickly that a full seven colour rainbow would probably be too many colours and almost certainly too many flavours to work, so narrowed it down to five fruits that would fit five rainbow colours: red – raspberry, orange – orange, yellow – lemon, green – lime, and blue/indigo/violet – blueberry. Using these flavours I decided to make two thin layers of sponge above and below a thicker layer of ice cream in the middle, meaning that the middle colour, yellow, would result in a lemon flavoured ice cream.
I began, then, by making a simple lemon ice cream from dissolving sugar and lemon zest in lemon juice and adding this to a whole lot of whipping cream before putting all these ingredients into my ice cream maker. For the purposes of the rainbow pattern the ice cream was looking a little pale with only a hint of yellow in the otherwise white colour of the cream. So, I added a little yellow food colouring into the ice cream maker as it churned. The eventual result came out yellow alright, but it was a shade that could only be described as high-vis jacket fluorescent yellow. Still, at least it would stand out next to the colouring of the cake layers.
For these I made a basic sponge mix based around 3 eggs and the equivalent weight of flour, sugar and butter. This I divided into four separate bowls and added the four different fruit flavours to them, along once more with a little of the relevant food colouring. I baked four little sponges and cut rings out of them. These rings of sponge were too tall for four piled on top of each other with a layer of ice cream in between to not be enormously big, so I cut them in half horizontally and decided to make two Alaskas. While the red and blue sponges came out with a dark version of their respective colours, the orange and green, orange and lime sponges were both sort of yellow with just a hint of their desired colours. It would probably take a bit more experimentation to make sure the colours were strong, bright and distinct, but as I assembled the tower of cake and ice cream, I was quite pleased with the approximation of rainbow flag. Then I just had to cover it with the snow of meringue.
Using three egg whites, I whipped them into soft peaks with an electric whisk and then gradually whisked in 150g of caster sugar. Unfortunately, although I managed to get the egg white to whisk to a good consistency at first, after adding the sugar the whisk started really to struggle, eventually just not managing to get through the whisked egg whites at all, even though the meringue was still slightly liquid. Unsatisfactory though this may be, it meant that I had to use the meringue in this state or get a new whisk in the next few minutes. Covering all of the ice cream with meringue, and quickly, is paramount to seal it in that insulating substance and prevent it from melting. This was a little harder to be sure of with a slightly liquid meringue, but I managed to cover the rainbow flag mountain with a (slightly melted) snowy looking coating. All it needed now was the heat.
Technically I guess my Sochi ice cream mountain isn’t really a “Baked” Alaska as I didn’t put it in the oven. Instead I used a blowtorch to cook the meringue coating to the exact extent that I wanted from it, making sure that it didn’t burn or heat too much to melt the ice cream within completely.
Cutting into the dessert after all this I was pleased that, although the meringue was softed than it would ideally have been and the ice cream slightly melted, the rainbow mountain had held its shape and revealed its pro-equality colours beneath the snow white meringue on the outside. As for the flavour, it was very sweet and the citrus fruits of the ice cream and the middle two layers of cake perhaps overwhelmed the berry flavours of the other two layers, but there’s nothing wrong with citrus flavour cake and ice cream. For the first attempt I’d made a making a dessert like this I was pretty pleased.
Debate may continued about the appropriateness of Channel 4’s Gay Mountain song, but it’s hard to imagine anyone not wanting Cake Mountain.
A couple of weeks ago I asked Mustard to make a baked alaska. I don’t really remember any more context to it than that: it was just a dessert I’ve never tried before. And then I came home and there one was! All cakey and ice-creamy and meringuey. Huge, too; I don’t think there’s a feasible way to do it in a single portion. It wasn’t how I imagined (I kind of expected one of those 80s style ice cream rolls, but with added meringue) but exactly as I hoped it would taste. Loved the meringue especially, and the way it all melted together as you ate. And equally good the second time around.