For me, 2020 has become a year of extreme baking where I’ve broken out of my straight jacket of tried and tested caution and taken on many risks, and my family and friends have been more than willing guinea pigs.
Last week, I thought I’d reached my zenith with the precarious Tree House Cake I created for a friend’s birthday. Moreover, just to blow the risk out of the park, we needed to transport the cake without the chocolate house sliding off its perch. Indeed, at one point, Geoff had to slam on the brakes and I almost leaped out of my skin!! However, the cake survived, and was an amazing success.
Perhaps, it was that success which spurred me on to attempt this week’s total insanity. You know how it is. You take a huge gamble. Have a bit of success, and it goes to your head. Now, you think you can do ANYTHING! Indeed, you’ve become invincible.
Moreover, I’ve also been watching Masterchef Junior where you see pint-sized supremoes conjure up the most incredible and unbelievable dishes out of the weirdest and most exotic flavours and ingredient combinations. You can either be incredibly humbled, or inspired to have a go yourself. I haven’t tried to replicate their dishes. However, time and time again, I’ve seen how you can jazz up a simple dish with a few added elements and create something truly spectacular and utterly scrumptious. So, I think it’s fairly fair to say that Masterchef Junior has fuelled my courage, spirit of experimentation and my seeming passion for skiing straight over a cliff, and expecting to land on both skis. Indeed, Masterchef has turned baking into an extreme sport.
Added to this mix, there’s the coronavirus. With so many of the usual sources of excitement, entertainment and facets of simply being human prohibited, perhaps it’s not surprising that I’ve turned to baking for a buzz. What else is there to do, especially for those of us who are in a high risk category and need to isolate and stay out of circulation as much as possible?
However, countering these temptations to succomb to extreme baking, there’s my mother’s tried and tested cooking advice. Indeed, I’ll call it “Mum’s Golden Rule” and that reads: “Never cook anything for a special occasion that you haven’t tried and tested at home first.” Clearly, that’s very good advice, especially when people are counting on you.
Yet, as I said, I’ve been throwing caution to the wind lately, and there’s no better illustration than my decision to bake Bombe Alaska for my friend’s 60th Birthday Party on Friday night.
After the famed tree house cake, I couldn’t just dish up a dried up sponge cake. No, it had to be spectacular. Have a sense of theatre, especially as she’s a performer and loves a lot of sparkle. So, what could be better and offer more theatre than a bombe…a Bombe Alaska? Not that I’ve ever tried baking Bombe Alaska before. Indeed, I’ve never even seen or tasted it before. So, I really was flying blind. Yet, how hard could it be? You just follow the recipe and Bob’s your uncle. Your bombe is ready to explode.
Well, at least, I knew I had to clear carve out a massive hole for the huge bowl of ice cream in the overloaded freezer. After all, baking isn’t just about creativity. There’s a lot of science and meticulous preparation, which can seem a bit boring and dull, but it’s just as important as the baking process itself.
In case you don’t know much about making Bombe Alaska either, the bombe itself is made out of 6 cups of ice cream which is packed into a pudding basin. This goes back into the freezer to set, and then upended on top of a cake base, covered in meringue and baked in the oven at 200 degrees celsius. Of course, baking ice cream in the oven really goes against the grain. Doesn’t the ice cream melt into a ginormous puddle and DISASTER strikes?!! However, this is where the science comes in. The meringue is supposed to act like a shell insulating the ice cream inside while the outside forms a voluminous crust. After the meringue shell is lightly browned, you take it out of the oven, pour warm brandy over the top and light a match…KERBOOM!!!
Well, at least that’s what’s supposed to happen…
As I said, this was the first time I’ve even made Bombe Alaska, and it’s not a dessert I’m even familiar with.
Just to complicate matters further, I significantly altered the recipe. The original recipe used a combination of vanilla ice cream, frozen raspberries and lemon sorbet on a sponge cake base. However, I had a layer of chocolate ice cream on top and a mixture of vanilla and raspberries inside and I replaced the sponge cake with a gooey Flourless Chocolate Cake. After finding out the mix for the chocolate cake was big enough to make 2 cakes, I also made some Nutella Buttercream Icing and spread lashings of icing, roasted hazelnuts, Violet Crumble over both cakes and the other cake became home for the Happy Birthday candles.
Unfortunately, the chances of the Bombe working out were always going to be low. The party was being held at a friend’s place and I had to beat up the meringue at home before we left, a good two hours before it headed into the oven. Obviously, that delay was hardly ideal. The other concern was that I didn’t know whether I’d have enough meringue to seal it properly, and I couldn’t just whip up more on the spot. So, I was really taking a huge chance.
Yet, surprisingly I just shrugged off the doubt and the possibility we’d be drinking our bombe out of mugs. However, despite the obvious insanity of proceeding with the bombe, I could sense in my heart that the bombe was meant to be – whether it worked out or not. I was just following orders. BTW, taking a chance like this is very out of character for me. I’m usually quite the perfectionist albeit in a quirky, haphazard guise. I don’t like failure and usually play it safe.
So, without any further ado, the bombe goes into the oven and there’s a group of spectators hovering around the oven door. We’re intrigued, and rather curious to see what happens when you put ice cream in the oven. It certainly goes against the grain and doesn’t make a lot of sense. Moreover, again I’m wondering why I took on such a risk, and so publicly. What was I thinking? Indeed, was I thinking at all?
All goes well for the first few critical minutes, but it doesn’t take long for trouble to brew. A hole opens up in the meringue and the chocolate ice cream pokes it’s head out. Oh no! I’m hoping it can just manage to hold itself together until the meringue has browned. However, reminiscent of the Christchurch earthquake, the ice cream begins to liquify. More meringue slides down the embankment and it’s pretty clear there’s nothing I can do to salvage the wreck. Yet, I’m still trying to brown the meringue so it’s not just a sticky moat of rawness around the base. Ever the optimist, I haven’t given up yet and I’m still hoping we’ll somehow be able to light the brandy and get the bombe to go off. However, we ended up being a bit confused about what to do with the brandy and how to heat it, and we were also doubtful it would light on the ice cream surface now the meringue had washed away. However, it didn’t work. So, we’ll end up calling this “a learning experience”.
Yet, the Bombe Alaska still tasted really good and still had a lot of theatre, suspense and it made everyone happy. Moreover, it did what it was really intended to do, and that was to show my friend how much I love and value her. It helped to make her birthday extra special, and that’s what I particularly wanted for her as Covid has hit her business really hard and she’s had to do a hell of a lot of soul searching this year. That’s what really mattered, and what’s important about my baking… seeing people smiling inside and out.
So, although the bombe didn’t light and all the meringue fell off in the oven, I still consider it a success and I’m planning to have another go fairly soon at home. See if I can perfect this spectacular dessert and possibly come up with a Christmas variation.
It’s exploding with possibilities.
Have you ever had or baked Bomb Alaska? What are your secrets for getting it to work out? I’d love to hear from you.