"Oh-oh!" Betsy said sympathetically. She must have seen the tears that plopped down into my dessert dish of meringue and brandy ice cream, because she pushed over her own untouched dessert and I started absently on that when I'd finished my own. I felt a bit awkward about the tears, but they were real enough. Jay Cee had said some terrible things to me.
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
It is impossible to read The Bell Jar without thinking of the life of Sylvia Plath. She poured so much of herself into her central character - Esther - that the book (published posthumously) reads as a semi-autobiographical account of Plath's own struggle with mental illness. I flew through the book in barely more than a sitting a couple of years ago. It is an incredibly moving Bildungsroman; confirming that things in life rarely turns out in the way we imagine they will, and asking whether it's possible for women to truly 'have it all'. It's also full of meals (some delicious sounding, one resulting in a memorable food poisoning scene), including the meringue and brandy ice-cream Esther eats in the scene above.
I've wanted to try a Baked Alaska since tracing a picture of one out of Alison Lester's Alistair Eats Alligators (or was it Rosie Sips Spiders?) when I was little. I always liked drawings but, having never been much of an artist, tracing them was my game. The dessert in question has rather fallen out of fashion in recent years, and it wasn't until the challenge was set during Bake Off this summer that I was reminded of my desire to give one a try. It seemed, in the end, the best version of brandy ice-cream and meringue I could think of... and a dish worthy of a mid-century magazine lunch in New York.
Chocolate, Cherry and Brandy Individual Baked Alaska
170g light brown sugar
3 egg yolks
300mL double cream
110g light brown sugar
1/2tsp vanilla extract
1/2tsp baking powder
50g chopped glacé cherries (or chopped dark chocolate)
A cut lemon
3 egg whites
165g caster sugar
Electric hand whisk
Ice-cream maker (optional)
Six 6cm biscuit cutters/tart moulds
Glass or metal mixing bowl (for beating egg whites)
1. Start your ice-cream the day before (or the week before, if you like). Bring the milk almost to the boil in a medium sized saucepan over a low heat. While it is heating, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until light and smooth. Once the milk is simmering enthusiastically, pour it over the yolks and sugar, whisking continuously to ensure the mixture doesn't scramble.
2. Transfer the mixture back to the saucepan and cook over a low heat, stirring constantly, until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat, transfer to a bowl and cool the custard in the fridge with cling film pushed right into the bowl against it (to prevent it forming a skin).
3. Once the custard is cool, whip the double cream, with an electric hand whisk, until firm peaks form. Pour the brandy into the custard and stir well, then fold the custard into the cream.
4. Transfer to an ice-cream maker, and churn until firm. Spoon into a freezer-proof container then transfer to your freezer for at least four hours, or overnight. *If you don't have an ice-cream maker, transfer your custard to a freezer-proof container and freeze for at least four hours, whisking with an electric hand whisk every half hour for the first two hours to break up the ice crystals.
5. Heat your oven to 180C. To prepare your biscuits, cream the butter and sugar with the electric hand whisk until light and smooth. Add the egg and vanilla and continue to beat for a minute. Sieve the flour, baking powder, salt and cocoa into the batter, then fold in. Finally, chop the cherries into quarters, toss through some flour and fold through the batter.
6. Lightly grease the biscuit cutters or tart moulds, place on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper, then spoon around a tablespoon and a half of the biscuit mixture in. Smooth it out, then cook in the oven for 9 minutes. The biscuit should still be slightly doughy when it comes out - it will continue to set once out of the oven. Before they cool, gently press the centre of each biscuit down with the back of a tablespoon, to form a biscuit dish (of sorts) that will hold the ice-cream. After five minutes cooling on the baking tray, remove the moulds/cutters and cool the biscuits completely on a wire rack.
7. Take your ice-cream out of the freezer, and prepare six dense scoops of ice-cream around 4cm in diameter. Place in a freezer-proof plate and return to the freezer so that the scoops can harden.
8. To make the meringue, clean and dry your bowl, then run a cut lemon around it to remove any traces of fat. Beat the egg whites with the electric hand whisk until stiff. You should be able to hold the bowl upside down over your head (without the egg white ending up in your hair).
9. Place the sugar in a saucepan, and cook over a medium heat. You can stir to help it along before the sugar is dissolved, but not after, or the sugar will crystallise. Cook until the sugar reaches 120C - if you don't have a thermometer, you should be looking for the mixture to be bubbling furiously, but not yet colouring.
10. Bring the saucepan of bubbling sugar over to the bowl of egg whites and restart your electric hand whisk. Slowly pour the sugar down the side of the bowl, incorporating it into the egg whites, but ensuring you don't pour the sugar directly over the beaters (or you'll end up with spun sugar). Continue to beat until the meringue cools to room temperature.
11. It's important, before assembling the Baked Alaska, to have everything ready, as you will be working quickly. You should have your biscuits, meringue, a palette knife, a glass of warm water, blowtorch and a spoon (for the ice-cream) close to hand, and your scooped ice-cream ready in the freezer.
12. Once all the above elements are ready, assemble your Baked Alaska. Place a biscuit in the centre of each serving plate. Bring your ice-cream back out of the freezer, and place one scoop on top of each biscuit. Using the palette knife, cover the sides and top of the ice-cream with the meringue, then dip the palette knife into the glass of water and lightly smooth the meringue. You can either cover the biscuit fully, or (like I have above) leave it partially exposed. Working quickly, kick-start your blow torch, and torch the meringue until browned in places. *If you don't have a blowtorch, you can assemble the Baked Alaska on a baking tray and, once assembled, pop them under a very hot grill (250C) until lightly browned. Transfer very quickly to your serving plates.
13. Serve immediately. Sit down, enjoy and let someone else wash up.
Bonus You'll have leftover brandy ice-cream - to be honest, you only need a little for the recipe, but it's not worth making in small amounts. Some thoughts for your leftovers... it's perfect as an affogato (with a shot of very strong coffee over the top), or with mince pies or Christmas pudding next month!