Not Alaska, that much I know for sure. That name was invented, probably in America, around 1900. It appeared in print for the first time in the 1906 edition of Fanny Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. Why was it named for Alaska? Not because Alaska was admitted to the union at that time as some people claim (that wasn’t until 1959). No, it seems the Alaska part simply seems to be a trendy — at least at that time — reference to something cold.
So that’s when the name came along, but what about the dish? That’s older. It dates at least as far back as the early 1800’s, and is associated with one of my very favorite presidents, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had an affinity for ice cream, and indeed was the first president to serve ice cream at the White House, in 1802. He may have served a dish very like baked Alaska either at the White House or after his presidency at his home, Monticello. A quote from one of his dinner guests (that I can find neither an attribution nor a date for) describes his dinner with Jefferson thusly:
Among other things, ice-creams were produced in the form of balls of the frozen material inclosed in covers of warm pastry, exhibiting a curious contrast, as if the ice had just been taken from the oven.
Could that “pastry” have been meringue? It seems at least possible. But where did Jefferson get the idea? Evidently from another American, the extremely accomplished and equally eccentric Benjamin Thompson, a.k.a. Count Rumford, about whom I’ll have more to say a bit later.