Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Chinese origin of the Baked Alaska?

The most famous “origin” claim for the Baked Alaska is that it was invented in 1867 by Charles Ranhofer, a cook at Delmonico's, to celebrate Seward's purchase of that territory. The term would not appear however until over a decade after that and no reference appears to this event in the period itself. As with so many famous foodstuffs, most of what is said about its history is at least doubtful and sometimes plain wrong.

In seeking out solid information about this dish of cold enclosed in hot, some might be surprised to find themselves in.... China.

In the eighteen forties, several writers mentioned a Chinese specialty: roasted ice.
A traveller who visited Pekin, says, that a favourite dish in that city is roasted ice, which is enormously dear, as very few cooks possess the skill and dexterity required for its preparation. A lump of ice is taken upon a sieve, and after being quickly enveloped in a sort of paste made of sugar, eggs, and spices, is plunged into a panful of boiling pork fat or lard. The grand point is then to serve it up before the ice has time to melt. What may be the peculiar attraction of this dainty dish it would be hard to say, for though frozen inside, it burns the mouth when first tasted.
(“Recollections of Peking”)
In 1859, it was well-known enough for an American short story to include a reference to: “'Baked ice a la Ching-ki-pin,' — which was highly esteemed. The ice was enveloped in 'a crust of fine pastry, and introduced into the oven ; the paste being baked before the ice — thus protected from the heat — had melted" (The Atlantic Monthly).

Decades later still, Heinrich Heine used it (in German) as a metaphor:
This cold passion, which is served up to us in such blazing figures of speech, always reminds me of the roasted ice which the Chinese prepare so artistically by holding a lump of something frozen, wrapped in a thin coat of dough, for a minute over the fire. It is an antithetic dainty, which must be swallowed at once, and which, with its hot rind, burns the lips and tongue while it cools the stomach
The principle then was known in the West. And in fact it had already been applied at the start of the century; in 1802, Dr. Samuel Mitchell wrote that Thomas Jefferson served: “ ... in the form of balls of the frozen material inclosed in covers of warm pastryexhibiting a curious contrast, as if the ice had just been taken from the oven.” But this method, very like that used by the Chinese with ice, seems to have been instantly forgotten. (Mitchell's letters were not published until 1879, after other variants of the concept already existed.)

Nor was the idea of such a contrasting dish recent; this is from the 15th century version of Taillevent's Viandier:
Fried Fresh Butter

To make fresh butter in a frying pan, take stale white bread, and crush up the crumbs finely. Take two ounces of starch and two ounces sugar, together with the butter, and soak the dough in eggs and sugar, without any liquid. Then make it as fine as a sheet of paper, and sprinkle the dough with egg yolks. Then wrap the bar of butter in it, and fry in the frying pan with other beef [sic]. After put in dishes and serve.
But did this forgotten method make its way to later American kitchens?

A number of sources cite an article written by Baron Leon Brisse in 1866 and published in the French newspaper Liberté. The article itself is not available on-line, but luckily the Baron included it in his own publication:
During the stay of the Chinese Mission in Paris, the master-cooks of the Celestial Empire have exchanged civilities and teaching with the chefs of the Grand Hotel. The French entremétier*
is very happy about this. He has learnt from his Chinese colleague how to bake vanilla and ginger ices in the oven.
Here is how one proceeds to this delicious preparation. 
One ices hard,one wraps each ice in a crust of very light pastry and puts in the oven. The pastry bakes before the ice melts, the wrapping preventing the heat from reaching it. This phenomenon is explained by inconductibility of certain substances. Gourmets can thus obtrain the double pleasure of biting into a burning crust and cooling the palate at the fragrant contact of the ices.
*This is sometimes mistranslated as "desserts chef", but in a classic brigade de cuisine, the entremétier is actually responsible for openers like soups, etc.
This confirms then the introduction of the method to Western cooks by Chinese. Strangely, however, the same tale is referenced decades later (see below).

Even if this is how French cooks learned to make the Chinese dish, how did it then make its way across the Atlantic?

In 1876, Mary Foote Henderson published this recipe:
German Steamer Baked Ice-cream.
This dish was at least a curiosity, served at the table of one of the German steamers. A flat, round sponge-cake served as a base. A circular mold of very hard frozen ice-cream was placed on this, and then covered with a meringue, or whipped white of egg, sweetened and flavored. The surface was quickly colored with a red-hot salamander, which gave the dish the appearance of being baked.
The gentleman who told me about this dish insisted that it was put into the oven and quickly colored as the egg surrounding the cream was a sufficiently good non-conductor of heat to protect the ice for one or two minutes. However, there is less risk with a salamander.
As it happens, she also mentions ice cream from Delmonico:
Delmonico Vanilla Cream.
Ingredients: One and a half pints of cream, one ounce of isinglass, one pound of sugar, yolks of eight eggs, half a pint of milk, vanilla powder.
Scald the cream only; then add the isinglass dissolved in the milk, and pour it on the sugar and eggs beaten together to a froth; add the flavoring. Strain, cool, and freeze it; then pack it for three hours and a half at least.
But nine years after the Baked Alaska's supposed invention, she makes no connection between Delmonico's and “baked ice cream”.

It is certainly possible that the cook on the steamer had learned the cold in hot method from a French cook; he may even have been French himself (as many elite cooks were).

The first mention of a similar dish at Delmonico's comes from 1883, though retrospectively:
I remember that at Delmonico's restaurant, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Twenty-sixth Street, New York, they served us, on New-Year's Day 1880, with a baked ice, appropriately styled an 'Alaska,' The core of this 'torridofrigid' preparation was a very firm vanille ice. Round it was a souffléor a whipped cream, I forget which. Then the preparation was lightly baked, or else browned with a salamander. It was strangely good. The soufflé was quite hot and the ice was quite cold; and we were not, immediately afterwards, taken to, the Bellevue Hospital to be treated for indigestion.
Curiously, this statement itself is a comment on the story of the Chinese cook in Paris, but treats it as a recent news item:
A paragraph going the round of the papers to the effect that the following recipe for baked ices has been acclimatized at Paris by the chef of the Chinese Ambassadors:—' Make your ice very firm; roll out some light paste thin, and cut it into small squares; place a spoonful of ice in the centre of each piece of paste, and fold it up carefully so that no air may get in, and bake. The paste will be cooked before the ice can melt.'
In 1894, Charles Ranhofer – who supposedly originated the Baked Alaska – published the Epicurean in which he provides this recipe for:
(3538). ALASKA, FLORIDA (Alaska, Florida).
Prepare a very fine vanilla-flavored Savoy biscuit paste (No. 3231). Butter some plain molds two and three-quarters inches in diameter by one and a half inches in depth; dip them in fecula or flour, and fill two-thirds full with the paste. Cook, turn them out and make an incisional around the bottom; hollow out the cakes, and mask the empty space with apricot marmalade (No. 367.5). Have some ice cream molds shaped as shown in Fig. 667, fill them half with uncooked banana ice cream (No. 3541), and half with uncooked vanilla ice cream (No. 3466); freeze, un-mold and lay them in the hollow of the prepared biscuits; keep in a freezing box or cave. Prepare also a meringue with twelve egg-whites and one pound of sugar. A few moments before serving place each biscuit with its ice on a small lace paper, and cover one after the other with the meringue pushed through a pocket furnished with a channeled socket, beginning at the bottom and diminishing the thickness until the top is reached; color this meringue for two minutes in a hot oven, and when a light golden brown remove and serve at once.
If Ranhofer had indeed named the dish to celebrate Alaska (only), he would hardly have used this name, much less years after the supposed event. Rather, it seems clear here that the two states represent, like the dish itself, extremes of hot and cold. (Nor is his recipe for a modern Baked Alaska; it is more like an ice-cream filled biscuit with a meringue topping.)

Further, Ranhofer includes a number of Delmonico's menus in the same work, including some from 1867. None of the latter mention either the Baked Alaska nor the Alaska Florida. (He does mention the latter in some undated menus at the start.)

In his account above, Sala calls the dish an “Alaska”, not a “Baked Alaska”. It is very likely that he was simply contracting Ranhofer's title for the dish. In another work from the same year, he describes the dish as “a baked ice”. It was a short step then to call the dish a “baked Alaska”. But there is no evidence that, at that point, this was its official name.

Fanny Farmer's 1896 version of her cookbook includes this recipe, which may be the first mention in print of the modern name:
Whites of six eggs 2 qt. brick of ice cream
6 tablespoons powdered sugar Thin sheet of sponge cake
Make a meringue of eggs and sugar; cover a board with white paper, lay on sponge cake, turn ice cream on the cake (which should extend one inch beyond the cream) cover with meringue and spread smoothly; place on oven grate and brown quickly in hot oven. The board, paper, cake and meringue are poor conductors of heat and prevent cream from melting. Slip from paper on ice cream platter and serve.
In 1899, a reader wrote “Mrs. Lincoln” at the Everyday Housekeeping magazine, asking: “Can you give in the next number of your magazine, a recipe for the new ice cream called 'Baked Alaska.' It has a hot meringue on the outside, yet the inside is ice cream perfectly cold and hard." Mrs. Lincoln cited Mrs. Henderson's “Baked Ice Cream” in her response and provided her own recipe for “Ice Cream en Déguiser” (approximately, if incorrectly, “ice cream in disguise”):
Make two quarts of ice cream, and when frozen remove the beater and pack it well in the freezer can. Let it stand till hard. Just before serving make a meringue by beating the whites of six eggs till stiff, then beating in, gradually, six rounding tablespoonfuls of sifted powdered sugar. Put a thin, round sheet of sponge cake on a plate suitable for serving, and turn out the mold of cream on the cake. Pile the meringue thickly round the edge and top of the cream, but do not smooth it. Place the dish on a wooden box cover and brown the meringue quickly in a hot oven. Serve at once. The plate should be larger than the cake and the cake larger than the bottom of the can. The cream will not melt, for the wood and the meringue serve as non-conductors of the heat. This is recommended chiefly for its novelty.
Any recipe for ice cream may be used and it may be molded in a brick mold if preferred, in which case a board a little larger than the mold may be covered with white paper, then with the cake and cream. After browning it in the oven, slip it off from the paper on to a platter or ice cream dish.
The fact that the query refers to “the new ice cream” suggests that, even after Farmer's recent mention, this was still coming into public awareness.

And so a dessert which had been at the least hinted at at Jefferson's table, then revived, very likely via a Chinese dessert introduced into Europe, finally found the name we give it today. But that is not all there is to the story.

Count Rumford and the Omelette Surprise
Another frequent claim about the idea of a hot food around a cold one is that Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, happened on the idea while experimenting with materials for insulation. By this account, in 1804 he discovered that egg whites did not conduct heat and then proceeded to invent the Omelette Surprise, a precursor to the Baked Alaska.

Two simple facts argue against this version. One is that Thompson himself does not mention it in any of his works available on-line, nor does he say anything about egg whites and insulation. Here he is on ice being protected from heat by... steam:
Experiment shewed that steam is in fact a non-conductor of Heat; for, notwithstanding the cold body used in this Experiment was very large and very cold, being a solid lump of ice nearly as large as an hen's egg, placed in the middle of the hollow cavity under the bottle, upon a small tripod or stand made of iron wire; yet as soon as the clouds which were formed in consequence of the unavoidable introduction of cold air in lifting up the bottle to introduce the ice, were dissipated, which soon happened, the steam became so perfectly transparent and invisible, that not the smallest appearance of cloudiness was to be seen any where, not even about the ice, which, as it went on to melt, appeared as clear and as transparent as a piece of the finest rock crystal.
Yet in the same passage he says nothing about egg whites.

UPDATE 5/22/2015: Note that you will sometimes see this supposed "quote" from Thompson on various Web sites: "Omelette surprise was the by-product of investigations in 1804 into the resistance of stiffly beaten egg whites to the induction of heat." You will not however find it (nor the term "omelette surprise") in Thompson's own work.

The other argument against the tale is simply the fact that the term Omelette Surprise cannot be found before the twentieth century, when, in 1903, Escoffier provided several recipes under that name, one with the alternate name of norvégienne (“Norwegian'). The latter is the more common term today for the French version of a Baked Alaska.
Omelette en Surprise, or Norvégienne
Put on the omelet platter an oval genoise base with a length proportional to that of the omelet and two centimeters thick. On this base, erect ice cream in the required flavor in a pyramid, vanilla, lemon, coffee, etc, or even several alternate ice creams, and cover the preparation with omelet soufflé. Smooth out the tower, decorate it with a decorating bag and put it in a very hot oven, so that the baking and the coloring occur quickly, and without the heat reaching the ice cream inside.
He also offers these versions: Creole, Jamaican, Elizabeth, Moka, and Icelandic. The last is flambé:
A pad of genoise placed on the round platter with, in the middle, another rolled up pad, stuck with cooked apricot to the round pad. The latter is hollowed at the top, like a bucket, and this cavity is lined with a preparation Condé-style [poached in syrup], which is dried in the stove beforehand. Surround the central pad with ice cream; cover the mixture with omelet soufflé, making it slightly spill over the hollowed pad. Smooth out, decorate, and bake like the Omelette surprise. Just as you serve it, pour a glass of hot rum into the hollowed cavity, and light it.
At the start of World War I, Paul Wentz gave this earthier account of the same dish: "I know what an omelette surprise is – I ate one once, I don't recall where. It is an omelet with rum which is brought to your table, flaming its bluest, and inside which is found pistachio ice cream."

He then went on to compare the French in wartime – excitable on the outside, but stoic on the inside – to this dessert.

Glace/é au Four

In 1868, the Baron de Brisse published his own cookbook (in the form of a calendar) and included the Chinese ice recipe he had reported earlier. He called this Glace au four ("ice in the oven").

In 1927, Heller's Guide for Ice-cream Makers included this note: "Glacé au Four (Fr. four meaning "oven") - Small pieces of Ice-Cream folded in paste and baked." This term (intentionally or not) means "iced or glazed in the oven". This is very reminiscent of both Jefferson's dessert and the Chinese preparation. The fact that it was included in a trade guide suggests that it must have been relatively common, but no other source of the period mentions it.

With its variants, this term can be considered another one for an Alaska-like dish. But its use is very are.

The above gives an overview of what is known about the Baked Alaska and its kin. Some common claims seem to be plainly wrong: that Ranhofer invented the dish to celebrate the purchase of Alaska; that Count Rumford had anything to do with a similar dish, much less the Omelette Surprise. Neither the latter term nor today's Omelette Norvégienne are found until the Twentieth Century, making mentions of either before then unlikely.
Despite the similar method used by Jefferson's cook, it is almost certainly the Chinese method that made its way via the elite chefs of Europe to America, very probably via a German steamer. But it is always possible too that Ranhofer, for instance, read of the Chinese “roasted ice” and tried to imitate the result. Whatever the case, he never himself seems to have called it a "Baked Alaska", a term which at any rate had to contend with several variants over the decades.


“Recollections of Peking”, The Monthly Chronicle, vol 3 1842

Taillevent, Guillaume Tirel, dit, How to Cook a Peacock: The Viandier, tr. Jim Chevallier 2008

“Mien Yaun”, The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 3, June 1859

Heine, Heinrich, Charles Godfrey Leland, The Salon, 1893 

"Dr Mitchill's letters from Washington: 1801-1813", Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Volume 58, 1879

de Brisse, Baron, Le Baron Brisse June 23, 1867
Brisse, Léon, Les 366 menus du baron Brisse 1868

Henderson, Mary Foote, Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving, 1876

Ranhofer, Charles, The epicurean, 1894

Sala, George Augustus, Living London: Being "Echoes"Re-echoed, 1883
Sala, George Augustus, America Revisited: From the Bay of New York to the Gulf of Mexico, and from … Vol 1, 1883

Farmer, Fannie Merrit, Original 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book

“From Day to Day”, Barrows, Anna, Estelle M. H. q (Estelle Minerva Hatch) Merrill, Mary Johnson Lincoln, Eunice B. Littlefield, Winfield S. Nevins, Everyday Housekeeping: A Magazine for Practical Housekeepers ..., Volumes 11-12 1899

Thompson, Benjamin von Rumford, Essays, Political, Economical and Philosophical, Volume 2, 1798

Escoffier, Auguste, Le guide culinaire, 1903

Wenz, Paul, "Le Cocher de Reims", Revue France, May 25, 1918

Heller's Guide for Ice-cream Makers,1927

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