Red Bean Xenoliths Janessa
Baked Alaska is a highly technical dessert. Its success requires a firm and pliable meringue, a moist and springy sponge cake, deft assembly work, and the time-dependent heat equation. The final product is tasty enough, but it is usually meant primarily as a delivery vehicle for boasts about one’s l33t dessert skillz – the delicious flavor is just along for the ride.
Baked Alaska is also the first thing I thought of when my old friend and Alaska resident Janessa asked for a red bean dessert as her prize for contributing to the Donors Choose fundraiser gimmickfest. I am so very free of hackneyed associations! But I’d been wanting to try my hand at a baked Alaska for a while, just to see if I could make it work.
You will need:
- Red bean paste – I do not recommend making this yourself, it is far more work than it’s worth. Get it from a can.
- 1 sponge cake – I used the recipe from The New Best Recipe, and folded in some black sesame seeds
- Ice cream – as solidly frozen as possible
- Egg whites and sugar (and cream of tartar, and corn starch and water, if you want to bolster your meringue with a bit of chemistry).
Step 1: Slice the sponge cake into two layers, and spread red bean paste between them. Put some more red bean paste on top.
Step 2: Preheat your oven to super-duper hot. Beat the meringue into stiff peaks, and fold in a tablespoon or two of black sesame seeds. Fun fact: The whisk attachment on your crummy little hand-held mixer will work better if it’s attached to a drill.
Step 3: Working quickly, place a scoop of ice cream on top of each sponge cake/red bean platform, and cover it thickly with meringue.
Step 4: Place it in the oven. It is very important that the cake and ice cream are entirely covered, with no gaps, because this is where the geology happens:
The picture above is a xenolith – a chunk of rock that was snatched off by an erupting volcano and carried to the surface essentially intact. It’s literally a “different stone” from the surrounding lava flow.
If it had remained in close contact with the magma for an extended period of time, it would have melted; but the magma cooled fairly quickly after snatching up the xenolith, so the crystals survived.
A baked Alaska also relies on timing, and the slow speed of heat conduction, to preserve the crystals in its ice cream. The goal is to leave it in the oven long enough to cook the meringue, but not long enough for the heat to travel through the meringue to melt the ice cream.
With noble goals comes noble failure:
Incidentally, you can simulate some aspects of an active lava flow with a mess of meringue and molten ice cream – the meringue surface will solidify as it is carried along by the ice cream, forming ropy, buckling pahoehoe flows. I didn’t notice any ‘a’a meringue, but then, I really need to clean the window on my oven door…
Oh well. It was still delicious.