Where does baked Alaska come from?

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.

15 thoughts on “Where does baked Alaska come from?”

  1. Hey, Joe – I did find a, possibly, reliable reference to the quote. I believe this shows that Dr. Mitchell wrote it Feb 10, 1802. The link is to Google books, pages from Harper’s monthly magazine, volume 58.

    Hope it’s what you were looking for.
    Love your site and your grand sense of humor.


    1. Hey Robin! Thanks!

      …though that only confuses the issue. If Count Rumford didn’t invent baked Alaska until 1804, then what was Jefferson eating at the White House?


      1. All I can find is this:
        “Early versions of Glace au Four consisted of ice cream encased in steaming hot pastry crumbs. A guest at the home of Thomas Jefferson to dinner at the White House in 1802 described the dessert as Very good ice cream, pie dough completely dried, crumbled into thin flakes. ”

        From this site: http://tinyurl.com/6jvgj9t

        Perhaps the crumbs were heated then the ice cream balls rolled in them. I’m sure they wouldn’t stay warm for long, but it sounds good.

        1. Thanks Robin….that is rather curious, isn’t it? I wonder what on Earth that looked like.

      2. Honestly, I’m not sure I quite follow this 1745 recipe for putting ices or ice cream in meringue “eggs” but it seems the closest to what Thomas Jefferson served of what I’ve found in France for the period. The meringues would be hot here when you first make them – apparently like half-egg shapes – and probably still so if you serve them right away. On the other hand, if you freeze them in the mold mentioned, they would of course be cold.

        (Note that “fromage” for a long time referred to anything “formed”, including but not limited to, cheese – in this case, a “formage” of ice or ice cream.)

        “Iced meringues to garnish iced “formages”

        Whip a dozen egg whites to a “snow”; add to it about half a pound of very fine powdered sugar, beating the egg whites the whole while: then arrange them on white paper; a dozen at a time is enough; powder them with fine sugar, and leave them on the table; put the cover of a country oven on top of them with a modest fire. The Meringues being cooked, raise them on a strainer, the ice [or ice cream] underneath: make as many as you judge appropriate, noting they should each be as big as half an egg; cut them in half, and empty them of everything soft inside; then fill each part with chilled cream well-raised in snow; then place the two halves one against the other, so that that forms an egg. Put them in a tin mold which must be buried in ice; or serve them right away. You can fill them with chilled white cream, or one of chocolate, or the one of pistachios. You can also fill these Meringues with eggs Portugese-style without being iced, or with light white cream, or else of light cream of strawberries, or else of cream of rice, or of blancmange. You can also fill them with jelly, and call them surprises.”

        Vincent La Chapelle, Le cuisinier moderne, vol 5:230-231 1742

        1. It sounds to me like a process similar to making chocolate Easter eggs, i.e., making two halves of the mold, filling them, then putting them back together. In this case it sounds like two pre-cooked meringue pieces, cooled, then filled with ice cream and kept cold until serving. Though the heating part of the process isn’t there, this is extremely close to baked Alaska, no question.

          1. Actually, I think it might be the reverse – if you serve these right away, having just cooked the meringue, filled it with ice cream and then joined the two halves, the result would be a warm meringue with a cold center, no? Maybe not hot, but with a touch of paradox nonetheless.

            You could always (hint, hint) try it… 🙂

          2. But doesn’t call for them to be iced after they’re formed? But heck, I’ll try just about anything…

  2. Oh yeah. And about Baked Alaska so-named. This news item traces it back to at least 1876, to a German chef, and even provides a recipe:


    A traveler in 1880 saw it at Delmonico’s:

    A number of sources, including The Oxford Companion to American food and drink, credit to Charles Ranhofer, a cook at Delmonico’s:


    Specifically in 1869:

    In France, by the way, a very similar dish is called a “Norwegian omelette”, but it seems to have followed, not preceded, the Baked Alaska:




    Though it was first considered a variety of “omelette surprise”:

    1. Hmm…I didn’t see this before. It seems there is pretty good evidence that Ranhofer at least named the dish after the Alaska purchase. Pretty cool! That explains the name, certainly. As for the technique I don’t see why our good friend the Count should be, er…counted out at this point.

  3. Oh yeah, and another thing….
    The Alaska Purchase (“Seward’s Folly”) took place in 1867. That, not statehood, was supposedly the inspiration for Ranhofer’s dish.

    1. Ah yes, good point. Thanks again, Jim! (But I still don’t think it has anything to do with it). 😉

  4. I was looking at this article, and all the facts seem legit, but then I read the comments and now i’m totally confused. So, i was wondering, was the Alaska part of the name just a cool name or was it actually named for the Alaska purchase? please reply soon, i’m trying to do a paper on this subject…

    1. Hi Sav!

      There are a lot of links here, I don’t wonder why you are confused. The evidence suggests that the actual dish, or something very like it, was around well before 1867 when Alaska became, er..cool. The same dish seems to have been in existence in Europe, called a “Norwegian omlette” referring in all probability to a combination of something cold with something hot. American pastry chefs seem to have adapted the name to our own continent, naming it for some cold real estate that was closer to home. Does that make sense?

      Cheers and good luck with the paper,

      – Joe

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