When I read that Sister André celebrated her 117th birthday in the South of France, I clapped for joy. When I read what she had for lunch, I called my friend Zoë François. Sister André, who was a governess in Paris before committing herself to the Sisters of Charity, was born in 1904 and survived the pandemic of 1918, two world wars and a bout of Covid. She lived through the administrations of 18 French presidents and drinks a glass of wine every day. For her birthday, she had more than one. The celebration meal, served in the assisted-living facility where she lives, kicked off with Port and included foie gras with roasted figs, capon with porcini, a cheese plate, wine and a glass of Champagne, of course. But it was the dessert that was most glamorous, and it’s what sent me to Zoë: Sister André’s birthday lunch ended with an omelette norvégienne, a Norwegian omelet, or what we call a baked alaska. The ice cream cake encased in flambéed meringue is one of her favorite desserts. It’s one of Zoë’s too.
Zoë is a pastry chef, the host of a television series, a cookbook author and a woman who knows her way around a blowtorch. Delighted to learn that she and perhaps the oldest person in Europe share an affection for the same sweet, Zoë barely let me finish before she proclaimed, “Bring back the baked alaska!” and began ticking off the reasons the classic deserves a comeback: It’s beautiful, elegant and dramatic — a flaming dessert is an attention-grabber; it’s easy to make; it’s convenient — it can be made ahead; it’s got ice cream (enough said); it’s got meringue — which is the same as saying it’s got magic; it looks gorgeous whole and just as gorgeous sliced; it’s creamy and icy cold inside, marshmallowy all around and warm on the edges. Beauty is built into the meringue, and it has the best ingredient in any recipe: surprise. Baked ice cream balances on the brink of improbability. In other words, it’s perfect.
Inspired by Sister André’s love of baked alaska — and her longevity (it’s too much to imagine the dessert as the key to a long life, but it’s so tempting) — Zoë suggested a birthday baked alaska in her honor.
It’s creamy and icy cold inside, marshmallowy all around and warm on the edges.
The cake is made with blueberry, vanilla and strawberry ice cream (blue, white and red are the colors of the French flag). It can be homemade or store-bought, which isn’t a compromise. If you’re using homemade ice cream, you can spread it into the loaf pan — your mold for the dessert — straight from the churn. If what you’ve got came from the freezer, cut it into chunks, turn it into a bowl and go at it with a wooden spoon or a sturdy flexible spatula. Pound and mash and mush, and no matter how satisfying it feels, stop when it’s soft enough to spread. You’re going to freeze each layer, and you don’t want to lose the ice cream’s texture before you get it back into the freezer. If you want the blueberry ice cream to be a truer blue, mix in some freeze-dried blueberry powder to get the color you want. (Food coloring works, too — you can even use it to color vanilla ice cream if you can’t find blueberry.) The vanilla ice cream gets mashed with shredded coconut for flavor and chew and another soupçon of surprise. The final layer, the strawberry ice cream, is twice as tall as the others — it’s a great look — and gets run through with fresh berries. It can also take some coloring. Finish with a cushion of ladyfingers, then freeze.
Now, the best part. Once you’ve warmed the egg whites and sugar and beaten them to shiny, stiff peaks, unmold the ice cream loaf and smooth, slather or swish the meringue over the cake. Traditionally the meringue on top is spread in thick swirls or piped into pristine patterns, but that’s not the way Zoë does it. She grabs small gobs of the glossy meringue, pops them onto the cake and then pulls the meringue with her fingers into spikes and points, willy-nilly, asymmetrical, wild and wonderful.
I know I said that the meringue was the best part, but the flaming’s pretty spectacular. To brown the spikes and spindles, either warm some liqueur in a pan, set it aflame and pour the blazing booze over the frozen cake, or take a torch to it (a small, easy-to-handle kitchen torch is ideal). When the applause subsides, all that’s left is to pour Champagne and toast Sister André. It’s what Zoë and I will be doing every year.
Recipe: Birthday Baked Alaska
Dorie Greenspan is an Eat columnist for the magazine. She has won five James Beard Awards. Her new cookbook, “Baking With Dorie: Sweet, Salty & Simple,” will be published in October.
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