The Making of Saul Bolton’s Baked Alaska, at Saul in Boerum Hill
"The meringue acts like an igloo, shielding the frozen parfait from the elements."
It’s hard not to see Boerum Hill restaurant Saul as a trailblazer—if not a particularly obvious one. Opened ten years ago this August, when Smith Street was anything but a fine dining destination, Saul Bolton’s namesake establishment has watched its surroundings sprout a veritable restaurant row, and has itself earned one of Brooklyn’s only three Michelin stars (Dressler and Peter Luger hold the others).
Though his career has wound through the kitchens of Bouley and Ripert, Bolton has an approach to food that remains remarkably unpretentious, shining through in his signature dessert: the Baked Alaska. The bronzed, meringue-topped sweet, a little bite of nostalgia that appeals to any diner’s childlike side, has been on the menu since Day One. “We tried to switch things up and take it off the menu, once,” Saul told me. “But the regulars were beside themselves. They demanded we bring it back.”
Usually a chocolate cookie crust, with a coffee and vanilla parfait and the mandatory meringue shell, this summer’s Baked Alaska is a more seasonal rendition—a vanilla cookie base, strawberry parfait, and a spiced rhubarb sauce to set off the sweetness.
While it’s a relatively simple recipe—just a crust, a frozen interior, and a meringue on top—my own attempts at Baked Alaska had always fallen flat. (Or, more accurately, melted into a gooey, drippy mess.) So how did Saul’s emerge from the broiler so perfectly? He agreed to show me in the Saul kitchen. A photo tutorial, after the jump.
“I really dig desserts,” says Saul, an amiable fellow who’s much less intimidating than some of these photos make him appear. “And they’re allowed to be fun. They’re supposed to be fun.” So he starts his throwback dessert with a throwback cookie: Nilla wafers, straight from the box.
They're ground to crumbs in the food processor, and mashed up with twelve egg yolks...
... and rolled out into a thin sheet. That cookie base is partially baked, tossed in the oven for just a few minutes, so it doesn't dry out on its second stint under the heat.
The soft cookie is cut into rounds, one for each Baked Alaska to come.
Then comes the parfait. Saul chose a frozen parfait for his Baked Alaska, rather than the more traditional ice cream, after finding that ice cream scoops just didn't soften in the oven. "We'd fire them for five, six minutes, in a 450° oven," he told me, "and they were still a rock when they came out. Who wants a rock for dessert? Customers should never have to struggle."
So he whips up a parfait, starting with egg yolks and sugar, heated over a water bath.
When the sugar fully dissolves, that's when it's done.
That heated mixture is then whipped at high speed until it's whiter, lighter, and cooled to room temperature. "That's the key to desserts," Saul tells me. "You want everything at one temperature."
He carefully stirs in the strawberry and raspberry purées. Why both berries, for a strawberry dessert? "Strawberries and raspberries—when you add just a little bit of one to the other, it makes it taste more like what it is. So a little touch of raspberry brings out the strawberry. I can't explain it. It's just true."
Then he stirs in a batch of freshly whipped cream, and after that, folds in the egg whites.
The finished parfait is spooned into molds to set up in the freezer.
Last step? The meringue, egg whites and sugar first gently cooked, then whipped up until softly peaky, and scooped into a pastry bag.
Now for the fun part.
Each frozen parfait is carefully popped out of its mold, positioned on a cookie, and piped with a blanket of meringue dots that (and here's the takeaway) cover the parfait completely, with no little gaps. "The meringue acts like an igloo," muses Saul, "shielding the frozen parfait from the elements."
The un-baked Alaskas head into a 450° oven for a few minutes. Once fired, still hot from the oven, they're placed on a bed of rhubarb sauce, flavored with star anise, ginger, vanilla, and lemon.
And there you have it: a summer Baked Alaska, in all its spiky glory.
The result? A dessert as tasty as it is beautiful. Just as Saul intended, a fork cleanly slices through the silky parfait and soft cookie crust, yielding a perfect, balanced bite. I love that the meringue is left moist and sweet—like a pie topping, this isn't a meringue you want dried to a crunch—and how the crust takes exactly like my favorite cookie. (I can just see the customers in the dining room arguing over how he captured the taste of 'Nilla Wafers.) And the tangy rhubarb sauce, spicy notes lingering in the background, lend this whimsical dessert real complexity and excitement.
My Baked Alaska may never look this beautiful, or be graced with as sophisticated a sauce. But after watching how simple Saul made it seem, I'm inspired to head back into the kitchen.