In keeping with last month’s theme of official National Days celebrating weird stuff, I took a look at the February calendar to help me figure out what to cook this month. (Yeah, I make a monthly menu…it’s a chef thing.) I have always followed a seasonal and market guide, but using the National Day Calendar as inspiration is a first, and I feel like I have struck inspirational gold.
Besides putting obscure foods (or those I gave up on long ago) back into my repertoire (such as Tater Tot Day — Feb. 20, Banana Bread Day — Feb. 23 and the [oddly specific] Crab Stuffed Flounder Day — Feb. 18), this calendar also allows me to combine food and nonfood observances for the betterment of mankind. For instance, Feb. 16 is both National Almond Day and National Do a Grouch a Favor Day. (I’m not making any of this up.) So, if you’re feeling generous, you can make the world better by presenting your grouch with a delightful almond cookie (or have him over for trout amandine). Feb. 14 is Valentine’s Day, but also National Organ Donor, Ferris Wheel and Cream-Filled Chocolates Day. But, to be clear, when I am up on that Ferris wheel on Valentine’s Day, I’d better be presented with a box of cream-filled chocolates, and not a donated organ.
Feb. 15 is both Singles Awareness Day and No One Eats Alone Day, which I assumed were combined to cancel each other out, until I read their official websites. They explain that Singles Awareness Day champions the benefits of being single on the day after Valentine’s Day — a comfort to depressed singles the world over who spent Valentine’s Day watching everyone else donate organs to each other on Ferris wheels. However, No One Eats Alone Day, as it turns out, is about kids being nice to each other in the lunchroom, which I like and therefore will not mock.
I assumed Cherry Pie Day was related to George Washington’s birthday, but it falls on Feb. 20, which is neither George Washington’s real nor fake birthday. He was born on Feb. 11, 1731, but the Julian calendar was used at that time. When Britain switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, his birthday moved 1 year and 11 days, to Feb, 22, 1732. I spent several hours in a deep dive into this historical calendar switch, which is fascinating. (But probably only to me, so I’ll spare you the details.) Also, the cherry tree story is a lie.
Regardless, cherry pie will definitely be on my list of things to bake this month, because I love cherries, pies and George Washington. I never use canned cherries or cherry pie filling. I cannot abide the corn-syrupy gel goop. I will pit real, fresh cherries for this pie when they are in season (not in February) or buy them whole and fresh-frozen, then flavor them with something delightfully subtle, like cardamom, lemon zest and a dash of orange-flower water.
Nonfood-related days I’m looking forward to this month include Feb. 11 — Don’t Cry Over Spilt Milk Day — on which I’m going to be super positive, always look on the bright side and try not to serve anyone a glass of milk, just in case. I’m also super psyched for Feb. 28, which is National Public Sleeping Day, encouraging naps nationwide, as if I needed an excuse.
But my favorite day this month is right out of the gate, on Feb. 1, and it is a day I will most definitely be celebrating culinarily. This is the day that celebrates my favorite dessert to both make and eat — baked Alaska.
Baked Alaska was created at Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York City, which opened in the early 1800s and is still open today. (And though it claims to be the oldest restaurant in New York, it has not been operating continuously, as there was a short break in service for about 70 years. Also, another Delmonico’s creation was stretching the truth.) In addition to baked Alaska, this iconic restaurant originated several classic dishes, including eggs Benedict and the Delmonico steak, which was originally two hearts of boneless ribeye tied together with twine, creating a fattier, more tender version of the filet mignon. Today, however, the Delmonico steak is usually a New York strip.
The baked Alaska, initially named “Alaska-Florida” because of its contrasting temperatures, was first served in 1867 to celebrate our purchase of Alaska from Russia. It consists of a walnut sponge topped with banana ice cream, encased in meringue with an apricot compote on the side. The entire concoction was then browned under a broiler, the meringue acting to insulate the ice cream and prevent it from melting.
Delmonico’s was a happening place, and this dessert was the epitome of Gilded Age dining, enjoyed by everyone who was anyone, including all the Rockefellers, Samuel Clemens and Charles Dickens. Today Delmonico’s serves the original version, which delighted me but horrified my youngest, as she finds bananas revolting. It is her only character defect.
I have made this dessert in more variations than I can count. I have served it in every restaurant where I have worked, and included it in every class I ever taught. It can be large and presented to the whole table, or in cute individual portions. It can be drenched in rum and lit aflame tableside, or browned in the kitchen with a torch or under the broiler. I have used all sorts of cakes, brownies and cookies as a base for the rest of the ingredients. The key is to choose something stable that can structurally support the rest of the ensemble. The ice cream can be of any flavor, and I have often used sorbet or sherbet. Some of my favorite flavor combinations include a gingerbread or gingersnap base with eggnog; apple or orange ice cream; brownie base with peppermint or coffee ice cream; or lemon cookie — or even lemon bar — base with tart lemon sorbet. I’m sure you can come up with your own personal favorite. (An easy version includes a graham cracker base with chocolate ice cream, which takes on a s’mores effect when the marshmallow-esque meringue is torched. Magnifique!
The meringue that insulates the ice cream is the tricky part, although after a few tries you’ll find it easy peasy. Most recipes call for the Italian meringue style, which requires cooking sugar syrup to a precise temperature before whisking it into a meringue. I have learned over the years, however, that a Swiss-style meringue is easier, less finicky and faster. Swiss meringue consists of egg whites and sugar combined in a bowl over a bain-marie (simmering water bath), stirred until the sugar dissolves, then whisked into stiff peaks. This meringue is then piped or plopped and spread over the ice cream and cookie, completely concealing it all in a soft, fluffy snowball.
The final step is to brown the Alaska, which I usually do with a propane torch (a pastry chef’s best friend). It can also be popped quickly under a broiler. All of the steps, minus the torching, can be done in advance and the work-in-progress stored in the freezer until the time comes for you to impress your guests with the flame. But don’t wait for guests to make an Alaska. Make it for yourself. If this article is about anything (which I admit is sometimes questionable), it is about year-round celebrating.
This recipe is for the individual-style Alaska, which I prefer. You can, however, bring all these instructions up a notch and assemble it on a 6-to-8-inch cake or cookie base. All of the instructions still apply.
6 cookies (2 to 3 inches) or small slices of
cake. (The flavor is up to you. Bake them
yourself or buy ready-made.)
6 scoops of ice cream or sorbet, well frozen.
(Again, the flavor is up to you.)
4 egg whites (or ½ cup)
¾ cup granulated sugar
Pinch of sea salt
1. Place cookies or cake slices on a baking tray, well spaced. Top each with a generous scoop of ice cream. Try to give the ice cream a flat bottom, so that it will sit securely on the base. Place these into the freezer until very firm. (This step takes several hours; a day ahead is ideal.)
2. Combine the egg whites, sugar and salt in a heatproof mixing bowl, ideally the bowl of an electric stand mixer. Place over a pot of simmering water and stir, gently but continuously, until the mixture is warm and the sugar has dissolved, about 2 minutes. You will know the sugar is dissolved when you touch the mixture and can no longer feel the sugar crystals between your fingers. Immediately remove the egg mixture from the heat and whip it on high speed until it reaches stiff, shiny peaks. Spreading is easier if the meringue is stiff but still a little warm.
3. Pipe or spread the meringue around each ice-cream ball and base. There must be no holes whatsoever. If ice cream is not completely covered it will melt and leak during the browning stage. Best to work with one ice cream/base at a time, pulling it out of the freezer to cover with meringue, then popping it back in when complete. The meringue-covered ice cream can stay in the freezer like this for several hours or overnight.
4. Final preparation requires browning the meringue. If you have a torch, simply pass it across the meringue quickly and evenly until it is browned. (Be sure to do this away from any parchment paper or doilies that might be lying around — another tip brought to you by “learning the hard way.”) To brown in a broiler, preheat the oven, then pop in the entire tray directly from the freezer. (Again, be sure this tray is ovenproof.)
Once browned, the Alaskas must be served immediately. Transfer each one to a serving plate, decorated with sauce or garnish of your choice. You may also ignite your Alaska tableside by sprinkling with a high-proof alcohol and lighting with a match and dramatic flair. When you serve your Alaska, be prepared for a standing ovation. Or just stand and clap for yourself.