Half-Baked Alaska

My Misadventures in Cooking

I Never Expected it to Look Like This

            A place of my own! It seemed as if I’d lived at home forever. Now I finally had my own little domicile. My own kitchen! A kitchen with an automatic dishwasher! It didn’t matter that my furniture was from my old bedroom and cast-offs from my parents’ basement. This place was all mine. I could come and go as I pleased. Clean or not, as I pleased. Barring the constraints of a job, I could go to bed and get up when I pleased. I was an independent woman. This was an occasion to celebrate.

            How could I best mark such a special event? Not celebrating was not an option. A girl moves into her first apartment only once in her life.

           An apartment warming party, of course. I’ve never been the sort to throw big bashes. Small and intimate is more my style. I wasn’t confident enough in my cooking skills to host a dinner party. My mother was the one who entertained. I was the go-fer and the non-automatic dishwasher.

            What kind of party should I throw? Cocktail parties are not part of the culture I come from. People expect a meal with their drinks. A tea party didn’t seem grown up enough. The guest list was already firm in my mind: my parents, my uncle, my godmother and her husband. They had all known me since birth and loved me enough to be tolerant of mistakes.

            I don’t know where the idea came from, but I decided that I could handle a dessert party. I’d always enjoyed making desserts. It would be festive, but not too challenging for someone with no experience entertaining on her own.

            Next question–what dessert would be special enough? If I knew my people, and I did, they would all bring some special treat.  My contribution had to be something extra special. Something impressive, but easy.

            When I was a teen, my father took me to a fancy restaurant on a father-daughter outing. Until that evening, I’d never even heard of Baked Alaska, let alone eaten it. The name intrigued me. The dessert enticed me. Distinctive. Elegant, but simple—nothing but a cake with ice cream on top and a thick layer of meringue to insulate the ice cream from the heat of the oven. I was sure I could handle it. I would impress everyone with my culinary skills.

            Pride goeth before a fall.

            I should have had a rehearsal. But it seemed easy as pie. Not to mention that I didn’t want to consume all those calories by myself. So, I plunged right in on the day.

            In those pre-internet days, it took considerable searching to find a recipe. Magazines and books to go through. Lots of them. With the help of a friendly librarian, I found what I wanted.

            Okay, I wasn’t a total martyr to ego. I allowed Ms. Betty Crocker to help. No one would know that I hadn’t baked the cake from scratch. With the fancy topping, they wouldn’t care.

            I chose pretty strawberry ice cream to contrast with the white cake and meringue. The ice cream came in rectangular blocks. Frozen solid, it would be easy to slice and arrange on top of the cake.

           Next, the meringue. I’d never made it. But what could be so difficult about whipping up a bunch of egg whites with sugar, vanilla, and a touch of cream of tartar? My mother baked meringue kisses, so I knew that “cream” of tartar was a powder, not a liquid. There was much else that I didn’t know. Only I didn’t know how little I knew.

            I didn’t realize it was important to have the eggs at room temperature before beating them. Nor did I know that eggs that are three or four days old work better than very fresh ones. And I didn’t know enough not to add sugar before beating the whites.

            But since I was ignorant of my ignorance, I happily set about making perfect meringue topping.

           I knew to be very careful when separating the eggs. I wasn’t as careful as I thought while performing this delicate task. Some of the yolk-y whites would eventually end up scrambled for breakfast. I didn’t worry. I had a dozen eggs.

           As the beater turned the whites into glistening foam, I realized that I had no idea what “stiff peaks” were supposed to look like? I didn’t think they were intended to stand up straight, but how droopy was too droopy? I also knew it was important not to over-beat the eggs so that the meringue wouldn’t break.

            When the white mass seemed stiff enough I quickly cut slices of ice cream, arranged them on top of the cake and put the whole thing into the oven just before my guests were due to arrive. As I let them in, I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

            I didn’t expect everyone to follow me into the kitchen when the oven timer went off. They gather around eagerly to see my Baked Alaska.

            Shock and disappointment overwhelmed me when I opened the over. Ice cream and white fluff, which had turned a toasty golden color, looked like a Hawaiian lava flow. No one was tactless enough to say so.

            My face was as pink as the strawberry ice cream. At my exclamation of dismay, my godmother said, “Never mind. Scoop it into bowls. I’m sure it will taste wonderful.”

            I obeyed. My guests ate my half-baked Alaska and proclaimed it fine. Even I had a good laugh at my failed cooking experiment.

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