food on fire
What’s more sensational, more epic, than a culinary delight burst into flames? Not the Pillsbury dough you left to smoke in the oven, or the blackened popcorn etched onto your saucepan. It’s the fusion of fire and sugar, the joys of torching your crème brulée, the fear and excitement in Greek restaurants at the sound of “WOOPA!” as a pan of cheese ignites in a golden tower.
Cook meets pyromaniac, and suddenly everything seems better burnt. According to fellow Post- columnist Rémy Robert, Bananas Foster was invented out of necessity. A New Orleans restaurant found itself bombarded with overripe bananas, and to get rid of them all, they threw on rum and sugar and lit them on fire. Bananas Foster is one of the only desserts my mother makes. Part of the ritual includes turning off the lights and watching the blue flames swirl around the pan until they vanish, leaving toasted bananas dripping with caramel rum in their wake.
When used appropriately, fire is an easy and effective way to dazzle dinner party guests. In an effort to impress a pretty cool crowd, I tried my hand at Baked Alaska. In theory, the dessert’s quite simple: cake topped with ice cream and insulated by a coating of meringue, frozen then baked for just a moment at a high temperature. Of course, I wanted to light mine on fire; given the option, it seemed a clear choice. I overestimated, however, my understanding of pyrotechnics. Not everything doused in alcohol will burn. We drenched the cake in brandy, held a lighter to it, fearful of explosion, and…nothing. One flame flickered up, then perished. We dropped a match into a pool of brandy on the top of our meringue. The match extinguished, lame and impotent. Alas, all we could do was admit defeat and pop it in the oven. Still, we had our dessert, which, although rather flame retardant, was delicious.
A lovely homage to the frozen tundra of our northern territories, or what would happen if Alaska caught on fire. This dessert allows for a lot of variation. While I chose chocolate cake with coffee ice cream, practically any flavors can be mixed and matched. But please, be reasonable.
6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 ounce unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
2 large eggs
1/3 cup all purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 pint ice cream (I wanted to go for plain coffee, but East Side MiniMart only had Ben and Jerry’s Coffee Heath Bar Crunch. What a drag that was.)
3 large egg whites
To make the cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt the chocolate and the butter over low heat on the stove top, let cool for 10 minutes. Beat together ¾ cup sugar and the 2 eggs, then stir in the chocolate mixture. Mix in flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt, then scrape the batter into a greased cake pan and cook for about 17 minutes (cake should have a gooey, almost brownie-like texture. A fork should come out with some crumbs attached). Let cool.
Assemble the Alaska: Line a medium-sized bowl with plastic wrap, then scoop ice cream into the bottom. Place the cooled cake on top of the ice cream. Freeze for a couple hours or overnight.
The next day: beat egg whites and the remaining sugar in a metal bowl over heated water for 2 minutes, then whip until glossy and billowing. Invert the now dome-shaped ice cream cake onto a baking sheet and spread the meringue (artfully!) on top. Freeze for at least 2 hours.
Bake the Alaska (or engulf it in flames!): As I said before, I wasn’t very good at this part. I suggest lighting alcohol (i.e. brandy or rum) on fire in a saucepan, then pouring it over the frozen Alaska. Or to be safe, stick the dessert in the oven for 3 minutes at 500 degrees until the meringue turns golden brown. Drink the alcohol.