Who would guess that weakness for gourmet desserts would teach me persistence and determination?
It began in 1969 as my husband and I traveled back to the United States after spending two years in the Philippines on a business assignment. For the entire twenty-four months those “far away places with strange sounding names” had been calling us relentlessly. Therefore, we conscientiously stored our pesos month by month, and two days before we left Manila, we converted our cash to travelers checks and plane tickets for Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Taipei, and Tokyo.
On the first evening of our trip, after devouring a scrumptious feast in the Elizabethan Room of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, we decided to indulge in a mouth-watering dessert—“Baked Alaska for Two.” We requested it be served without the traditional finishing touch of flaming brandy.
A few minutes later our smiling waiter presented us with a huge sphere of perfectly peaked meringue. He neatly sliced the psuedo-satellite down the middle and served half to each of us on elegant white china plates. Forks in hand, we quickly took the first bite and were enveloped in a delicious experience. The vanilla cake, less than two inches thick, was rich, moist, and slightly warm. The solid ball of pistachio ice cream was smooth and cold. The meringue was crisp, sweet, and hot. Before the tantalizing taste of the last morsel had vanished, we vowed to enjoy the euphoria of a Baked Alaska again soon.
Two days later, in Penang, we ordered our next white mountain. This one, a spice cake with vanilla ice cream, was served by a Moslem waiter who was delighted with our rejection of the brandy sauce and included a sermon on the evils of alcohol with his duties. The Baked Alaska we ordered in Hong Kong had a layer of fruit in it, and the one in Tokyo had rich chocolate nut ice cream.
Although the mysterious Orient is known for its many addictive influences, we may be the only travelers to have left there hooked on Baked Alaska.
After returning home and setting up residence in Albuquerque, New Mexico, my husband (being a creative cook) decided to concoct a Baked Alaska. In one of my cookbooks he located the recipe:
“Trim a layer of cake to desired size and top with ice cream. Make Meringue: beat five egg whites till soft peaks form. Add 2/3 cup of sugar beating to stiff peaks. Spread meringue over ice cream and cake sealing to edges of cake. Bake in 500 degree oven until golden—about three minutes.”
“Nothing to it!” he concluded, slapping the book closed.
I wrinkled my nose. To me there was something terrifying about putting ice cream into a 500 degree oven.
It wasn’t long before he realized that creating a Baked Alaska was not going to be as easy as it first seemed.
The cake was no problem. To make it less than two-inches thick only required baking it in a pan larger than the directions suggested. Then we sliced ice cream into squares, covered the top of the cake, and, like brick masons, filled in the crevices when necessary. We tried all flavors of cake and ice cream: chocolate with vanilla, vanilla with chocolate, spice with vanilla, pound cake with black walnut, chocolate with chocolate, and peppermint with anything.
The difficulty was the meringue. Since whipping up a stiff meringue was not one of my talents, I was no help whatever. The meringue had to act like styrofoam, totally insulating the ice cream against the 500 degrees heat of the oven. On his first couple of attempts, the fluffy white mixture slid down the sides of the cake-and-ice-cream mountain like an avalanche, coming to rest on the cookie sheet below.
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” he sighed.
I’ll never forget the night we had company and he decided to try, try again. As he finished beating the egg whites he lifted the electric mixer from the bowl without turning off the motor. White blobs splattered across the ceiling, windows, and the faces of our guests. We mopped up, shoved the mountain in the oven, and through the window in the door watched the ice cream trickle onto the pan.
“Every great accomplishment was once an impossible task,” he muttered, quoting some ancient philosopher.
In those days we ate a lot of cake and melted ice cream. But then, one glorious day, it happened. The meringue clung to the mountain, and when it came out of the oven the cake was warm, the ice cream was solid, and the meringue was crisp and hot. We took the first beautiful bite and were back in the Raffles Hotel.
The taste of success! How sweet it is!
Since then he’s made Baked Alaskas by the score and not one has failed. He won because he refused to give up. Compared to other challenges he’s faced, the Baked Alaska was a small one, but to him it was no less important. Only after the adventure of the Baked Alaska did I really understand the message of the plaque hanging on his office wall:
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.
“Talent will not. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.
“Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
“Education will not. The world is full of educated derelicts.
“Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”