Heston’s Baked Alaska: the Heston Blumenthal In Search of Perfection recipe that no-one wanted or asked for
The more we study the Heston’s In Search of Perfection series the more we realise that the recipes Heston chose to perfect are not simply just the ones that’d provide the most varied range for a TV show or recipe book.
We’re starting to think Heston was picking recipes that’d just allow him to discuss his own personal favourite topics or just hang out with his mates (and get a few cool foreign trips thrown in as well). Baked Alaska, at least in the UK, is hardly a much-loved classic the way that, say, Risotto or Chilli Con Carne are.
At least that’s why we think Heston chose Baked Alaska for the in search of Perfection series, it’s a dessert we were barely aware of until this show came along. Thanks to its inclusion Heston gets to talk about his hero Nicholas Kurti, muck about with his mate Peter Barham, and then jet off to New York.
But rules are rules. Following our life-changing visit to the Fat Duck we’ve set ourselves the challenge of cooking every single one of Heston’s In Search of Perfection recipes, which means we’ll be getting a lot more familiar with this semi-obscure American dessert.
Given the dish’s heritage we decided to pair it with Heston’s In Search of Perfection Cheeseburger recipe, to serve at our unofficial 10pm Supper Club (Heston’s recipes being so complicated that even working all day 10pm is the earliest we manage to finally eat).
Recipes: Heston Blumenthal’s Perfect Baked Alaska recipe from In Search of Perfection
Special Equipment: Food mixer, stick blender, sieve, piping bags, acetate sheets, ice cream maker, foil or plastic moulds
Special Ingredients: Bleached cake flour, dry ice (optional)
Time: 2 days
Difficulty: Very Hard
Here’s what we’re aiming for, a photo of Heston’s Baked Alaska recipe in the In Search of Perfection book (I know, it doesn’t really tell you much about the dish. This could be a still from an 80’s fantasy movie).
Here’s a still from the show, giving you a better idea of the centre:
And here’s Heston making the Baked Alaska on the In Search of Perfection TV show:
A note on ingredients: We detest bananas. That’s a problem, since this recipe uses them as its main flavour. As we’re trying to stay as true to Heston’s instructions as possible we don’t want to change techniques, but for this recipe we couldn’t start without a substitute ingredient.
Thankfully the very generous Kyle Connaughton, (who you’ll remember from the Perfection TV series as heading up the Fat Duck’s development kitchen), was kind enough to suggest via Twitter that we substitute bananas with peaches.
This was the best news we could have hoped for. Not just because we were getting help from a world-renowned chef who’s probably more responsible for the work that made the Perfection recipes than Heston himself, but also because my love for peaches is greater than Monkey Great Sage Equal of Heaven and Presidents of the USA put together.
Step 1: Raspberry Sorbet
Ignore everything Heston Blumenthal tells you about his Baked Alaska recipe and make the raspberry sorbet your first priority.
Why? Well, the sorbet needs to churn and set before you can use it to fill the white chocolate tube, which also needs to set, before it can be placed at the centre of the parfait, which will then take about six hours to set. Thats a lot of arsing around before you can get near to cake, meringue and other bits. So…
Blitz a load of frozen raspberries with a hand blender then whip out Heston’s favourite kitchen torture device: a sieve! Laboriously push all the raspberry puree through the sieve and marvel at the surprising number of coarse seeds left behind. You’ll be rewarded with a beautifully smooth puree. Reserve a bit of this for later.
Add fructose (that’s purefruit sugar, the ideal thing to sweeten fruit with) and a small dash of vodka. Why vodka? Well it’s flavourless and the alcohol doesn’t freeze. So it won’t affect the taste of your sorbet and that small unfrozen component will result in a smoother overall texture and mouthfeel.
You’re meant to set this stuff with dry ice, but we honestly couldn’t be bothered for the sake of this recipe. Plus, our dry ice supply runs at £16 a time, and we couldn’t justify the expense – even for a Heston Blumenthal In Search of Perfection recipe!
We just used our trusty drum-in-the-freezer-overnight ice cream machine. The sorbet sets in about 20 minutes, plenty of time to do the next bit: the white chocolate tube that the raspberry sorbet will go into to form the core of Heston’s In Search of Perfection Baked Alaska recipe.
Step 2: Chocolate Tube
White chocolate is always a pain to melt, it’s really delicate and easy to wreck / overheat. Your best bet is to keep the heat low and stir frequently with a silicone spatula.
You’ll need to make some tubes out of acetate. Don’t try using other materials as a substitute, they just don’t work the same way. At a push you can probably chop up the front of an estate agent report or something.
Cut them to size (measure against whatever mould you’ll be using for the parfait so that they fit) then stick together with sellotape, or, if you want to preserve the makeshift aspect, sticking plasters / band aids. (As it happens the latter work quite well, they’re exactly the right size).
Be sure to put more tape or another plaster over the bottom of the tube, so that the chocolate doesn’t leak out of the bottom when you fill the tube. Amazingly this did not happen to me!
Pour in the melted white chocolate, and then tip the tube back over the chocolate bowl, turning it constantly. You’re trying to cover every bit of its inner surface with white chocolate. Then put the tube(s) in the fridge to set. We’ve made two because, well, you know what I’m like. Better safe than sorry, eh.
By the time the tubes have set your raspberry sorbet should be ready. Scrape it into a piping bag or the kind of cheap and flimsy Asda freezer bag that would split when you’re trying to make sous vide hollandaise. Try not to handle the sorbet too much, it’ll be barely set from the machine and your hands will just melt it more.
Snip the end off the bag (though an Asda one will probably split open at the slightest touch) and then pipe the sorbet into the tube (thanks to the vodka and machine it should still be smooth and workable). I’d tell you to make sure there are no gaps or air pockets that’ll ruin the final presentation, but we both know that’s impossible so let’s agree we will all just try our best.
Get these tubes straight to the freezer (keep them stored upright) for use later.
Step 3: Hazelnut Praline
Given that we were switching to peaches for this recipe we really ought to have used pistachios for this, as per the marvellous Kavey’s advice for our Peach Tart Tatin.
Toast 115g skinned hazelnuts in the oven (recipe says for ten minutes, we did around 12, threw some burned hazelnuts away, then , re-roasted new ones for 8 minutes). Put an equal weight of sugar in a pan and make a caramel.
Add the toasted nuts, stir to coat, then scrape them out onto a baking tray lined with parchment that you of course remembered to lay out ready and weren’t scrambling for as the caramel started to set and harden directly in the pan.
When the praline has cooled (you’ll know because you won’t have to hold your hand under the cold tap after touching it, ahem) put it in a clean tea towel and then bash the living crap out of it with a rolling pin. We went for a range of textures but take our advice, you want the praline to be mainly small fragments.
The recipe doesn’t say to do it but, based on our experience, we’d also advise you to sieve out the dust using a fine sieve.
Step 4: Peach / Banana Puree
In direct contradiction of the Presidents of the USA song we’re using fresh peaches. First they need slicing up and lightly macerating with fructose.
While this is going on get another (bigger) pan on the stove and melt some butter, then add sugar and melt it whilst struggling to get the two to combine (this never works for me).
Add the peaches and cook until tender, stirring regularly. When they look about done add some rum, turn up the heat and set fire to the pan.
Note: If you’re doing this on the stovetop make bloody certain your extraction fan isn’t on. The fan will pull more oxygen towards the flame, making it burn higher until your extraction fan doesn’t work any more due to fire damage.
Blend the peaches with your trusty Kenwood HB724 stick blender and then push them though a sieve.
Step 5: Peach / Banana Parfait
There’s 4 components of the finished parfait. Good news is you’ve already made two. The other two just need a whisk and some spotlessly clean metal bowls.
Start with the meringue. Whip loads of egg whites to soft peaks.
Next, double cream. Heston’s directions for double cream are vague at best. “Thick but pourable, like yoghurt” is what we’re usually told. While this does help it’s hard to get it perfect. What we’d say is to whisk by hand, which makes over-whipping harder. You want to be able to make little mounds out of it that will eventually settle slowly back into the mix. Like yoghurt, I guess… oh.
Now get all 4 ingredients assembled ready to combine. You’ll want to do this in your largest available mixing bowl.
Mix the praline in with the fruit, then start adding these the meringue. You’ll want to use lifting and turning motions to avoid knocking the air out of the egg whites. Keep spinning the bowl around to mix things evenly. It’ll take a while to mix everything through.
Same again adding the thick and pourable yoghurt-like cream to the whites and fruit. Add about a quarter at a time.
Keep spinning the bowl, lifting and turning the spatula to evenly mix the cream through without removing air. Whatever you do don’t add one massive lump of cream and the end that needs to be chopped at with the spatula then fails to mix through. Only a total idiot would let that happen.
Step 6: Assembling the Core
Well done, the parfait that makes up the bulk of the dessert is finally finished. No time to rest, however, because now we need to assemble the core of this dessert before all the air collapses out of it and ruins the texture.
So get the moulds or foil trays you’re using to shape the core and fill them 1/3 the way up with the parfait then put them straight into the freezer- flat and as far back as they will go. Don’t stop, get the remaining parfait into the fridge to protect it.
Check on the frozen trays after about ten to fifteen minutes, you want them to be fairly firm. Why are we doing this? Well, we’re about to put the frozen raspberry sorbet tubes in, and they can be quite heavy. The finished cake is gonna look daft when its cut open if the tube has settled to the bottom, so part-freezing will help to prevent this.
When the bottom layer of parfait is suitably firm place the chocolate-and-sorbet tube in it (lengthways, of course) and cover with the remaining parfait from the fridge.
We made two cores and there was still quite a lot of parfait left over. Check out the ingredients list, there’s well over a kilo of stuff going into this dainty little dessert. This sort of thing is to be expected, it wouldn’t be a Heston recipe if there wasn’t a tremendous amount of waste.
The recipe says that the parfait will need six full hours in the freezer to harden. You now have time for a very long break, several run-throughs of Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes, or you can spend more time than is reasonable making the superlight sponge.
Step 7: Superlight Sponge Cake
Christ alive this is complicated.
In the wake of the Bake-Off series many Brits are staggeringly talented bakers. I, on the other hand, am an imbecile – barely capable of taking the foil off a Gü Key Lime Cheesecake without mishap. Guess which one of us is in control of this bit of the recipe.
Anyhow, start by making a buerre noisette. This is something you’ll find in almost every Heston Blumenthal In Search of Perfection recipe going, so I’ve had enough practice not to screw this bit up.
To this we’re adding two additional types of fat: groundnut oil and Trex. So far it looks like we’re essentially making a slightly novel chiffon cake.
But you’d be wrong! We’re actually making… mayonnaise?!?!? Yup, add some yolks to a bowl and start drizzling in the oil until it all emulsifies.
Considering the kind of stuff Heston Blumenthal is happy to add to ice cream or porridge the addition of mayonnaise to cake batter shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Like a lot of other Heston “gimmicks” this one actually has a purpose. Using mayonnaise can help make a cake more moist and light without affecting the flavour.
Now for the actual cake part. Soft the dry ingredients together (flour sugar, salt, baking powder). To add more lightness to the cake Heston recommends using American bleached flour, such as the Softasilk brand. This stuff is almost impossible to get in the UK, where bleached / chlorinated flour is more or less banned. You can use super-fine sponge flour, but it’s just not the same. We managed to find a substitute in the local Chinese Wholesaler. Wing Yip sells something called “American Rose Wheat Flour” which seems close enough.
Add the mayonnaise and dry ingredients together to mix, then pour in some milk as well.
Next… another meringue!
Whisk this to soft peaks and then fold the meringue into the cake batter. We’re back into chiffon sponge territory here, which is a much more comfortable place to be (incidentally, if you aren’t familiar with chiffon sponge you ought to be, it’s what all Asian bakeries use as their main sponge, a light and airy thing with a beautiful melting texture. It makes every other type of cake sponge seem Neanderthal by comparison).
Pour the batter into a buttered and floured loaf tin, and bake for about 25 minutes.
As you can see our recipe made a bit too much cake mix. I added the leftover batter to a second tin to make a second, smaller cake for a bonus dish we’ll call “6 minutes worth of snacking”.
Tip the cake out of the loaf tin and leave it to cool on a wire rack. Eat the spare.
Step 8: Raspberry Coulis
Remember that sorbet from earlier, and how there was some raspberry puree left over? Good, you’ll need this now. Put it in a small bowl on some scales and add about 2/5 its weight in fructose.
Give this a good stir and reserve for later. You’ve just made Heston Blumenthal’s raspberry coulis recipe. That was surprisingly easy, eh.
Step 9: Swiss Meringue
I didn’t like this step one bit.
Your third and final meringue of the day / ordeal is a Swiss one. This is made exactly the same way as a normal meringue, except the bowl is set over a pan of simmering water, all bain marie style.
The goal here is to get the egg whites to cook (to about 70°C) whilst simultaneously whisking them.
This is a lovely theory, and I am happy for whoever thought it up. Meanwhile back in the real world the meringue will be fully whipped to the requisite firmer-than-soft-but softer-than-stiff peaks long before you get to that temperature. Don’t try turning up the heat – this’ll just bake the whites to the bottom of the bowl and make the washing up murder later on.
Step 10: Assembly
Begin by cutting the sponge loaf to the same size as your parfait.
From making Heston Blumenthal’s many In Search of Perfection recipes we’ve discovered that the man will add daft quantities of butter to literally any dish, if left to his own devices.
If you were thinking that we’d all be safe from this butter onslaught with a chilled and baked ice-cream-and-meringue dessert think again. We’re gonna FRY the sponge cake in melted butter.
Beurre noisette , actually. The smart thing to do would be to make extra at the very start of the sponge cake recipe.
Flip the cake over and fry until its golden brown on both sides. Even colouring might be a challenge if your frying pan is as crap as ours.
Once fried take the cake to a chopping board and start the assembly process. First spread bitter orange marmalade on it.
Now unmould or unwrap your frozen parfait and trim it to size to fit atop the cake. You’ll want a strong metal spatula now as you transfer this Frankenstein dessert onto a plate or serving dish for further decoration, where we will hide it’s multitude of flaws with meringue and yet more flaws.
At this point you can put your Swiss meringue into a piping bag to pipe pretty little lines of delicate meringue all over your darling dainty little Heston Blumenthal Baked Alaska. But no way I was gonna trust myself with the piping kit, so I just walloped the lot on with a spoon and a palette knife then smoothed it out as best I could. More like Baked OAFlaska!
Step 11: Baking and Serving
Considering the name there’s not much baking to be done for Heston’s In Search of Perfection Baked Alaska recipe. About 3 minutes in the oven is your lot. Hence the almost-finished thing looks barely any different to before. There’s a few lightly browned edges.
The meringue is about to get a lot more cooked and significantly darker. Remember that finished-dish photo in the In Search of Perfection book? It tells you almost nothing about the Baked Alaska, just displays some wafting dry ice smoke and a pretty blue flame. Well, we haven’t got dry ice for this recipe, but we have got more rum and some matches!
We’ve been trying lately to pose each finished dish in front of the recipe book for comparison, but with 6 perfection recipes still to go I didn’t think it’d be a good idea to let the paper pages get too close to the flames for this picture. (But I promise I will still burn the book when I’m done). We switched the lights off, set the camera up, set fire to the rum and took this artfully blurry soft-focus photo:
Curse you, rum!!! Just look at what those bloody flames did to our Heston Blumenthal Baked Alaska recipe!
Here’s a closer look to make me seethe with annoyance even more:
Anyway, take a few deep breaths to calm down and then slice the dessert into portions to serve with a drizzle of the raspberry coulis.
Congratulations, you’ve just made Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection Baked Alaska recipe.
I’m afraid this doesn’t really taste of much.
Take a look back at the ingredients list – its mostly just sugar and egg whites. That goes for the cake and the parfait as well as the meringue.
Surely there’s more taste to it than that! Well, what else is in there? Peaches? Well, ours were out of season anyway, but their flavour is so delicate it’s lost under all the sugar. Plus, whatever fruit you use it’s heavily diluted with a lot of cream, egg white and sugar.
Then there’s the hazelnuts, which did provide bursts of intense flavour. Too much, actually, because I hadn’t bashed them small enough, so we had huge clumsy chunks of hazelnut all the way through. Hazelnuts coated in sugar, we might add, increasing the overwhelming sweetness of the dish.
The raspberry sorbet and coulis? Nice and tart, but there’s a fearsome amount of fructose in both, rendering them tooth-achingly sweet. We tend to avoid white chocolate as we find it overly sweet. Encasing the sorbet in sweet white chocolate just makes matters even worse.
There was no flavour of any kind added to the sponge.
But there’s marmalade on top, surely that helps? Well, we’re not fans of marmalade (although it’s more tolerable than banana) so all this provides is a nasty bitterness running through each bite.
Maybe you could argue we ought to have used bananas, and so perhaps we only have ourselves and Kyle Connaughton to blame for picking a milder fruit. But we don’t think it’s that. In all honesty we reckon this dessert is just too sweet for our palettes.
But what about the redeeming and defining contrast of hot and cold that gives Baked Alaska it’s name? Well in truth the parfait and sorbet might be cold (rock solid in the middle, actually) but the meringue barely picked up any heat in the oven, or when being tortured with rum flames, so it was less than lukewarm by the time we served it.
And given what a complicated ordeal it is to make it’s hard for us to recommend anyone ever making Heston’s In Search of Perfection Baked Alaska recipe in its entirety.
We’re not saying that’s the end for Baked Alaska for us, but if were ever to make one again we’d take the following steps.
- Make individual portions with ice cream moulded in ramekins
- Make small sorbet cores using our silicone chocolate mould
- Swap white chocolate for more palatable milk
- Use a standard chiffon with added vanilla paste or orange zest
- Replace the parfait with a good homemade or shop-bought ice cream
- Perhaps also use a good quality shop-bought sorbet
- Reduce the sugar in the coulis by a third
- Replace the Swiss meringue with an Italian meringue…
- …or use the soda siphon meringue technique from ChefSteps
If, IF we were to make this again we’d probably do all of the above. Since banana wonlt be entertained in this household and peaches are too mild we’d probably go for a more leftfield choice with the ice cream: peanut butter.
In fact the local (and multi-award winning) indie ice cream truck Ginger’s Comfort Emporium serves a Salted Caramel & Peanut Butter ice cream that’d be perfect for the job. Fortunately they have a recipe book, Melt, which contains recipes for the many wonderful ice creams they serve, so you can make your own at home.
We think the combo of raspberry sorbet and peanut butter ice cream would give us an ideal PB&J flavour pairing, that’s kind of a tribute to the nation that Baked Alaska comes from. Mixed with peanut brittle, and maybe a few dark chocolate flakes this would be our ideal version of the dessert.
We’ve also had an idea for a festive version of the dessert, made with a dark chocolate and orange sorbet core, Heston from Waitrose Christmas Pudding Ice Cream, candied pecans and your choice of Christmas pudding or chocolate sponge for the base (Heston, the weirdo, is a big fan of pairing Christmas Pudding and Chocolate).
Monitor Muncher – A personal hero of ours and someone whose tackled a lot of the more complicated In Search of Perfection recipes. This is a great and detailed write up on how to make Heston’s Perfect Baked Alaska recipe. A fan of the banana parfait, too.
Iron Chef Shellie – We love these guys for their ambition and dedication. Like us they chose to serve Heston’s Baked Alaska and Cheeseburger together as an In Search of Perfection double-whammy. Unlike us they managed to finish at a decent hour. Fun reading.
Could you be bothered making this dish? Are you a banana-eating pervert? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.