Monday, January 4, 2010

The Old Acquaintance, Forgotten: Baked Alaska with Flourless Chocolate Torta

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I'm not really a New Year's Eve kind of guy.

Well, perhaps I should say that I'm not one to "go out" on December 31st -- there are drunks driving out on the road, restaurants run terrible, over-priced prix fixe menus, and, when the strike of midnight arrives, it's often, more than not, a little bit of a let down. That's not to say that I don't like getting together with friends. Armed with an overcoat, a decent pair of gloves and a working subway system, I'll do my best to put in an appearance, a bottle of cava in hand.

Anyway, after years of NYE naysaying, karma finally caught up with me -- this past Thursday, I rang in 2010 by myself, and in a decidedly uncomfortable position. The Pasta Burner was out of town (visiting her family), and, while working on a few projects around the house, I threw out my back something wretched. Indeed, as 11:59 became 12:00, I found myself horizontal, a heating pad tucked underneath me, the Times Square ball appearing to drop left-to-right.

Worst of all, for the first time in a long time, I had really gone all-out to celebrate, creating this dessert for a party hosted together by friends. The story has a happy ending, however -- two nights later, another gathering presented itself, and I was able to serve (and photograph!) this great dish.

A classic post-war delight, Baked Alaska combines cake, ice cream, and fire into a spectacle of deliciousness. All but forgotten, a relic of dusty cookbooks from the past, it's just the thing that deserves a modern rebirth.

While the process of creating it may seem involved, it's really three different, simple elements: a flourless chocolate cake (which is delicious when served on its own with nothing more than a quick coating of Nutella), an ice cream bombe, and a simple meringue. This is both impressive and easy to pull off. Let's get to it.

Baked Alaska with Flourless Chocolate Torta
Makes 1 Cake, Serves 10

12 oz. Chocolate (dark or bittersweet is best, but your taste should dictate)
1 Stick (1/2 cup) Sweet Cream Butter
1/3 Cup Sugar
3 Extra-Large Eggs
3/4 Cup Unsweetened Cocoa Powder

Three One-Quart Containers of Ice Cream or Gelato
(in complimentary flavors)

Plastic Wrap
1 Tablespoon Vegetable Oil

8 Egg Whites
A Pinch of Cream of Tartar (or 1/4 teaspoon either lemon juice or white vinegar)
1/2 Cup Sugar

2 Tablespoons Brandy (or other flammable liquor)

Parchment Paper

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F.

Melt down your chocolate and butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Depending on how confident you are with your whisking skills, you can either do this over direct heat or by lowering the saucepan into a larger pan filled with boiling water.

Whisk constantly until silky, smooth, and homogeneous.

Pour your chocolate into a cool bowl, and whisk in the sugar.

Next, whisk in the cocoa powder. The batter will be very, very thick.

Finally, add in the eggs.

Once again, stir the batter well; ideally, the batter should fall smoothly from the whisk in large ribbons.

Line an 8" tart or cake pan with parchment paper, and grease the paper with the wrapper from the stick of butter. If you've already thrown that out, use a little vegetable oil. Pour the batter into the pan, and place it into the oven for 20 minutes, or until a knife placed into the center of the cake emerges clean.

Next, it's time to make the bombe. Pick three flavors that will play together nicely (and with the chocolate cake). I played it safe -- vanilla bean, dutch chocolate, and black cherry. If you really have a masochistic streak, make the ice cream from scratch. I won't stop you.

Start by cleaning out your batter bowl (or any bowl that will fit, inverted, on top of the cake), and greasing it with more vegetable oil.

Next, line the bowl with plastic wrap, making sure you have complete coverage. These two steps will ensure that the bombe umolds properly.

Start loading scoops of ice cream into the bowl, alternating scoops to create a mosaic pattern. This will both look attractive and ensure that everyone gets a little of each flavor. Every once in a while, press down on the ice cream to pack it in tightly -- we don't want any holes or gaps of air. Once the bowl is filled, level off the top, and toss the entire thing back into the freezer for two hours.

By now, your cake should have finished baking. Let it cool, on a rack, for two hours. Even better, after the first hour, place the cake rack into the fridge. We want the cake cold so that things don't start melting on us later. Once the cake is cool (and the bowl of ice cream has sat in the freezer for no less than two hours, place the cake on a large baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper underneath it (something I remembered to do moments after taking this picture).

Separate your eight eggs. Don't toss out the eight egg yolks! They can be put to excellent use in many recipes: Crème Brûlée, Egg Bagels, Challah, you get the idea. Do your homework and figure something tasty out. Waste not, want not.

Whip your egg whites until light and fluffy. About halfway through (when it is quite foamy and starting to set), add in your Cream of Tartar. Slowly introduce your sugar until it is all incorporated.

From here, you have to work quickly. Unmold your bombe unto the waiting cake.

Once you are satisfied it is centered, start applying the meringue in a thick layer. This will provide the only insulation when the whole thing goes into the oven, so make sure you don't miss any spots! By the way, if you want to be fancy, a pastry bag and a nice tip could come into play here.

Once you've coated the entire thing (and made decorative points on it, if you so desire), place the entire thing, baking sheet and all, back into the freezer. Freeze for no less than two hours -- or for up to three days. Indeed, it was at this point that I blew out my back, so, believe me, it can last for three days.

When you're ready to serve it, heat up your oven as hot as it will go. If it has a "oven-top broiler," even better. Go with that. We want sustained, blasting heat, no less than 500 degrees F.

Take the dessert straight from the freezer and, in one motion, go right into the oven. Cook for two to four minutes -- in fact, if you have a broiler blasting directly on to it, it could be as short as a minute. Keeping an eye on it, cook until the top turns golden brown. By the way, if you missed any spots with that meringue, you'll find out riiiight about now.

Remove from the oven and bring to the table immediately. Dim the lights, pour on your brandy, and light that baby on fire (as seen at the top of this post). Try not to overcook the meringue. If it blackens (as mine did), just scrape up the charred parts (or give them to someone who likes their marshmallows burnt to a crisp. From here, slice (with a very big, heavy knife) and serve!

The final product:

This really is a rich, decadent, show-stopping finale to any meal -- it gained rave reviews from all that tasted it. It serves plenty of folks, too; I even had a little left over to save for the Pasta Burner when she comes home this week. Don't let the involved steps scare you off -- think of this as a few different recipes, and spread the process over a few days. After all, there are plenty of steps that allow for (or, indeed, demand) a breather.

On that note, I want to wish you and yours a wonderful and very Happy New Year -- as for myself, I don't think I'll ever take an NYE celebration for granted ever again. We'll return back next weekend. Be sure to check in then.

Music: John Cafferty -- "Hearts on Fire"

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