I Don't Know: Alaska

A quest for the puffed proteins that make a meringue

Stiff Peaks Stand Tall

Laura Silver

Explosive activity continues at Alaska's Mount Redoubt. I paid homage to the Alaskan volcano by concocting a dessert named for the 49th state in my Brooklyn kitchen.

In case you're one of those lower 48ers yet to encounter this feat of gastronomic prestidigitation, the baked Alaska is a cake, plus ice cream, plus meringue all over. Baked in the oven. The meringue gets browned, but the ice cream doesn't melt. In fact, it doesn't even get warm. Chalk it up to physics. Sidney Perkowitz, author of Universal Foam: From Cappuccino to the Cosmos (Anchor) and a physics professor at Atlanta's Emory University, and said the cold dairy product remains unscathed in a 400-degree oven because the fluffed-up egg whites act as an insulating agent.

"Little bubbles of air do not conduct heat well," said Perkowitz, who has delved into cappuccinos, latté and soufflés, but has yet to summit the baked Alaska. "I think it's one of those things that even a supreme chef has to do several times to get it right," he said, referencing a Waldorf-Astoria chef's 50 attempts at the perfect soufflé.

It took me three tries to bake the Alaska.

First, I made the cake (gingerbread) and froze the ice cream (a pint of vanilla mixed with a pint of coffee) in a pie tin. No problem. Next, I got my gear in order for the ascent of the egg whites. On the first go-round, a smidgen of dreaded yolk oozed into the whites. The mixture fluffed up a bit, but a yellowy liquid remained separate at the bottom of the bowl. I sought an expert's opinion.

Shirley Corriher, author of Bakewise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking with Over 200 Magnificent Recipes (Scribner, 2008), devotes a chapter in her latest tome to meringues. "Puff, The Magic Leavener," provides a detailed guide to urging egg whites into a fluffy foam, which, according to Corriher, is a loosely coagulated bunch of egg-white proteins.

"You can wreck a foam with a tiny bit of fat," says Corriher, whose book was recently named a finalist in the 2009 James Beard Foundation Awards, "The fat in an egg yolk [and in extra-virgin olive oil] seems to be more detrimental than others," says the Atlanta-based food-science guru. "It prevents the linking of the proteins because it coats the bonds." Slippery bonds can't reach out and grab like-minded proteins, even if they'd like to.

Corriher suggests several tricks for quarantining whites (breaking yolks on a flat surface, rather than the edge of the bowl, for example), but I resorted to the guaranteed uncontaminated storebought container of egg whites -- not particularly sexy, but guaranteed yolk-free. I let them sit at room temperature, then beat them with sugar and cream of tartar. For 20 minutes.

Again, a yellowy liquid clung to the nether regions of my glass mixing bowl (copper is preferred; plastic is verboten). It seems like it was a case of too many eggs, not enough air.

Corriher recommends a beater with many tines or an electric mixer with beaters that rotate around the bowl, to incorporate more air and make a foam faster. A baker friend suggested using fewer egg whites to maximize chemical reactions and speed up the meringue-ification.

Perkowitz says those reactions do not yield the same results each time. "I don't think anyone should be surprised if you make a great meringue one day and not the next day." Nonetheless, I was demoralized. "You have to beat something up," said Perkowitz, "but not yourself."

I enlisted a friend for attempt number three. She started with the equivalent of three egg whites, whisked them to soft peaks (bits of fluffy whites that have a sheen and retain their form when pulled up with a beater, but then flop over a bit) then added a pinch of cream of tartar and blended the sugar in one teaspoon at a time. Peaks, peaks and more peaks.

I admired the view and prepared for the final climb. I put the cake on a baking sheet, flipped the ice cream on top of it, coated the beast in the fluffy white stuff, and let it sit in the freezer for two hours. Then I popped the whole shebang in a 450-degree oven for 10 minutes.

Corriher says the meringue foam isn't the only part of the Alaska that keeps ice cream from the heat. "Theoretically, the cake base insulates the ice cream from the hot pan." Foam master Perkowitz says the bubble-rich, puffed-up proteins of the meringue prevent heat from getting to other parts of the dessert's frozen core. Leaving it in the oven for an extended period would melt the cold stuff, of course. How quickly it might turn into a puddle would depend on the solidity of the ice cream before its oven encounter -- Corriher suggests sticking it in the bottom of the freezer for maximum cold -- and the properties of the cake and the meringue.

My Alaska emerged with its cold center intact and slightly browned, slightly defeated peaks of meringue, just in time for the spring thaw.

Here's the recipe I used. Bake at your own risk. And share photos of your results!

Don't Laugh

There's cold ice cream beneath that browned meringueLaura Silver