Baked Alaska

In Dinner Roles, Sherri Inness argues that popular magazines and cookbooks in the 1950s encouraged women to use cooking as a way to express their creativity, while at the same time persuading women to follow the recipes exactly as written. You might wonder how cooking could be a creative outlet if women relied on a strict interpretation of the texts.

In reality, cooking was partly deemed creative in contrast to other forms of housework. Even Betty Friedan remarked upon how much she enjoyed cooking despite resenting both the role of the patriarchy in relegating household work to women and a cultural discourse that naturalized women’s place in the home.  Unlike doing the laundry, the act of baking a cake or fixing a pot roast provided relief from the tedium of repetitious cleaning.  A similar phenomenon occurred in Canada, as demonstrated in Meg Luxton’s More Than A Labour of Love.  Many housewives and even women who worked outside of the home, who were able to devote more than the bare minimum amount of time to cooking, generally enjoyed this chore above all others and found it to be artistic.  Housewives still considered cooking to be part of their workload but for many (not all: See the “I Hate to Cook Cookbook” of 1960— written as a response to the idea that all women loved cooking) it was generally more pleasurable.

Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book of 1950 reminds us that food was also artistic beyond the recipe. The presentation of the meal itself could be the creative venture. While the recipes in the book are easy to decipher, a woman could create any combination of dishes for every meal.

Betty Crocker, in the section on meal planning (34), reminds housewives that in addition serving a variety of foods, the meals should be “appetizing, attractive, and delicious to eat.” Note the centrality of “attractiveness.”

In the book there are a variety of showpieces that moved beyond a simple casserole and actually required a performance. One of my favorites is the Baked Alaska.

Now Betty Crocker did not invent the Baked Alaska (also known as glace au four, omelette à la norvégienne, Norwegian omelette and omelette surprise). The dessert actually has quite a long history, dating back to 1876 when Chef Charles Ranhofer of Delmonico’s Restaurant made the dish to honor the recently acquired American territory. Remember that Alaska was not part of the union until 1959 when it became the 49th state.

The dish requires the cook to bake a lemon-flavored sponge cake, which is labeled as a “Egg Yolk Sponge Cake;” to make a meringue in order to cover the half a tub of ice cream which the cook puts in the center of the cake; and to finally place the completed dish in a 500 degree oven for a few minutes. The guests will be surprised, as the ice cream has not melted despite the hot temperatures.

The last components require the housewife to finish all of the final steps right before serving the dish. Unlike a pie, this dish cannot be baked in advance. However with the cake needing to cool completely, the meringue taking about 10 minutes to make (by which I was quite surprised as it was my first meringue), and the close  watch required over the stove, the Baked Alaska requires an entire day’s attention. And for what other than showmanship? It definitely isn’t for flavor because even though it is tasty, the dish ultimately tastes like cake and ice cream.

I have included the exact Betty Crocker recipe below (emphasis reproduced). I made no significant changes except that when I made the dish for the group I halved the recipe list but used 6 rather than 5.5 egg yolks.

The Recipe for a Baked Alaska:
Bake half recipe Egg Yolk Sponge Cake in 10’’ spring form pan which makes a cake with high sides and cavity in top.
Egg Yolk Sponge Cake Recipe:
From Mrs. Ludwig Rice, a homemaker for 23 years and one of our Minneapolis recipe testers.

Follow method and bake as in (key symbol) recipe above—except add baking powder and salt. Sift with flour. ( No egg whites.) Use:

11 egg yolks (3/4 cup)
1 whole egg (1/4 cup)
1 ¾ cups sugar
2 cups sifted SOFTASILK or 2 cups sifted GOLD MEDAL Flour
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
½ cup cold water
1 tbsp. grated orange rind
1 tbsp. strained orange juice
½ tsp. lemon extract

Shortly before serving, make a:

Special Meringue:
Beat 6 large egg whites with ½ tsp. cream of tartar until stiff. Beat in gradually 1 cup sugar. Continue beating hard until meringue is stiff and glossy.

(Assembly) Place cooled Sponge Cake on several thicknesses of wrapping paper on a wet board. Pile 2 qt. ice cream (preferably pink) into hollow in cake. Completely cover ice cream (and sides of cake) with a thick coating of the meringue. Place in very hot oven (500 F) for 3 to 5 min. (just until meringue is delicately browned). Slip the dessert from board onto serving platter. Serve at once.
Amount: 12 to 16 servings.

After all of this I still don’t know why pink ice cream was preferable. If any reader knows, please share in the comments below.

(post by Alex Ketchum)


  1. Super interesting Alex! I used to follow a recipe to the T. I didn't know there was a choice until Sam developed a severe dairy allergy. Now I use a recipe as a guide, which makes it much more likely that I will actually get around to making something new.

  2. I had a confrontation with a chef aboard a princess cruise in alaska. He served an ice cream cake covered in some sort of meringue topping and used a torch to brown it.
    I gave him the recipe you made and he said his way was the method he used for the past 15 years .
    Your method is the one my mother used 75years ago.


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