The Story of the Baked Alaska Dessert

Maya Silver wrote . . . . .

On March 30, 1867, for a mere $7.2 million — about two cents per acre — the U.S. bought land from Russia that would eventually make Alaska its 49th state, gaining a delicious fringe benefit in the process: Baked Alaska.

No, this igloo-shaped dessert — cake and ice cream shrouded in toasted meringue — didn’t come from the icy north, but its name was inspired by the land deal. In fact, the treat’s true roots date back to the turn of the 18th century, when American-born scientist Sir Benjamin Thompson (aka Count Rumford, a title he gained for his loyalty to the crown during the American Revolution) — whose inventions included a kitchen range and a double boiler — made a discovery about egg whites.

Rumford realized that the air bubbles inside whipped egg whites made meringue a great insulator. “That’s really why the Baked Alaska works,” says Libby “O’Connell, the History Channel’s chief historian and author of The American Plate. “The meringue insulates the ice cream from heat.”

By the 1830s, this culinary revelation had inspired French chefs to create a dessert called the “Omelette Norwegge.” This predecessor of Baked Alaska consisted of layers of cake and ice cream covered in meringue, then broiled. The French named this elaborate treat in reference to its own frigid territory to the north — Norway.

So how did the “Omelette Norwegge” become embroiled with the Alaska purchase?

Charles Ranhofer, an expat Parisian pastry chef at the legendary Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City, was renowned for dishes doubling as cultural commentary — Peach Pudding à la [President Grover] Cleveland or Sarah Potatoes after actress Sarah Bernhardt, for example. In 1867, Ranhofer made a quip through his pastry that the world would never forget.

Secretary of State William’s Seward’s acquisition of a faraway tundra drew no shortage of criticism and ridicule. Ranhofer, who likely encountered the “Omelette Norwegge” in his French training, jumped on the bandwagon with a dessert he dubbed “Alaska, Florida” — a reference to the temperature contrast between ice cream and toasted meringue.

The original version consisted of banana ice cream, walnut spice cake and meringue torched to a golden brown. While making Baked Alaska today is much easier because of modern conveniences such as electric mixers and blowtorches, it was once an incredibly opulent dish, requiring a full kitchen staff and a significant amount of time. And it was also exotic, because it contained expensive bananas from Central America.

“To me,” O’Connell says, “it’s one of the best exemplars of the Gilded Age in American history.” The price tag reflected its grandeur — the cost of the dessert then would equal about $40 today. And Delmonico’s, established in 1837 and still in business today, was a who’s who of the dining scene, drawing personalities like the Rockefellers and Charles Dickens.

According to Billy Oliva, Delmonico’s current executive chef, the dessert’s name was coined in the 1880s when English journalist George Sala visited the restaurant and remarked: “The ‘Alaska’ is a baked ice … the nucleus or core of the entremets is an ice cream … surrounded by an envelope of carefully whipped cream, which, just before the dainty dish is served, is popped into the oven or brought under the scorching influence of a red hot salamander.”

Michael Krondl, an associate editor of the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, tells a slightly different tale. He says the French “Omelette Norwegge” didn’t appear until the 1890s, and evidence for Ranhofer’s debut of the “Alaska, Florida” is too slim to credit him with its creation.

According to Krondl, the journalist who visited Delmonico’s was Charles Augustus Sala — though records account for just one English journalist in this era with the surname Sala: George Augustus Henry Sala, which is in line with Delmonico’s story. “Charles Augustus Sala described eating an ‘Alaska’ at Delmonico’s with more enthusiasm than accuracy,” states the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, “He mistook the meringue for whipped cream.”

Conflicting accounts aside, Ranhofer definitely featured the dessert under the name “Alaska, Florida” in his 1894 cookbook, The Epicurean. And today, Delmonico’s continues to serve it at a much more reasonable price — $13 — and in more or less the same fashion as the originial: walnut sponge cake layered with apricot compote and banana gelato, covered with torched meringue.

“It’s been that way since day one at our original downtown location,” says Chef Oliva. “This is one of our signature items and something diners travel across the world to enjoy.”

About 36,000 diners per year, actually. That averages out to about 100 a day — most of whom probably know little of the history behind this elaborate dessert. Yet it seems fitting that the Baked Alaska’s surprise core should come with a creation story shrouded in mystery, too.

Source: npr

In Pictures: Pancakes

More Evidence Diabetes Drug Actos Raises Bladder Cancer Risk a Bit

But odds are small, and experts want it to remain on market, although newer drugs are available.

More evidence linking the diabetes drug Actos to an increased risk of bladder cancer has surfaced in a new study that also finds the risk rises with increased use.

Actos (pioglitazone) appears to increase risk of bladder cancer by 63 percent, Canadian researchers say. The findings, published March 30 in The BMJ, stem from an analysis of nearly 146,000 patients treated between 2000 and 2013.

The data also showed that bladder cancer risk increases if Actos is used for more than two years, or if someone takes more than 28,000 milligrams over the course of their lives.

The overall risk is small, however. Still, “the more you accumulate the drug into your system, the higher the risk,” said senior researcher Laurent Azoulay, an associate professor of oncology at McGill University in Montreal.

Azoulay and his colleagues did not find a similar link between bladder cancer and Avandia (rosiglitazone), another diabetes drug in the same class of medication as Actos.

“It appears to be a drug-specific effect, not a class effect,” Azoulay said.

The maker of Actos, Takeda Pharmaceuticals, issued a strong statement in response to the study.

“Takeda is confident in the positive benefit-to-risk profile of pioglitazone. Two large, long-term observational studies found no significant increase in the risk of bladder cancer in diabetic patients taking pioglitazone. This data includes a 10-year, prospective cohort study, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and Kaiser Permanente Northern California and … a large epidemiological study utilizing five European Union databases … to investigate the potential risk of bladder cancer with pioglitazone use,” said Elissa Johnsen, head of the company’s Global Product and Pipeline Communications.

Actos and Avandia are thiazolidinediones, a class of drug that helps lower blood sugar by helping the body’s cells more effectively use insulin.

Both drugs have been around since the late 1990s in the United States, Azoulay said, and each has had a troubled history.

Previous studies have linked Avandia to heart failure and heart disease, while in 2005 a clinical trial unexpectedly showed an increase in bladder cancer cases among patients taking Actos, he said.

Since then, the association between Actos use and bladder cancer has been controversial, with studies reporting contradictory findings, the study authors said in background notes.

For the study, they explored the link between Actos and bladder cancer by analyzing data from the UK Clinical Practice Research Database for 145,806 patients newly treated with diabetes drugs between 2000 and 2013. They took into account other risk factors such as age, sex, duration of diabetes, smoking status and alcohol-related disorders.

When compared with other classes of diabetes drugs, the higher risk of bladder cancer linked to Actos was significant, the study found.

The reason Actos, but not Avandia, is associated with bladder cancer may come down to the fact that there are key differences between the two drugs, Azoulay said.

Actos targets two different receptors to make cells more sensitive to insulin, while Avandia targets only one. The additional receptor influenced by Actos could be the reason for increased bladder cancer risk, he said.

The controversy over Actos and Avandia is largely moot at this point, diabetes experts say, because newer and safer medications have supplanted them.

“When these drugs were first approved in the U.S., they were one of the very few options we had,” said Dr. Kevin Pantalone, an endocrinologist with the Cleveland Clinic. “Now, largely because of the controversy surrounding these agents in recent years, their prescription pattern has declined.”

In 2008, thiazolidinediones accounted for 20 percent of diabetes drug prescriptions handed out by the Cleveland Clinic, Pantalone said. Five years later, in 2013, they accounted for only 7 percent of diabetes prescriptions.

Dr. Caroline Messer, director of the center for pituitary and neuro-endocrine disorders at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, agreed there’s little call for either Actos or Avandia these days.

“I don’t think I’ve used Actos since 2005, to be honest, or I’ve used it rarely,” Messer said. “I have so many other medications at this point, there’s not a lot of reason for me to reach for this.”

Actos already carries an FDA-mandated warning on its label about bladder cancer risk, Azoulay said.

But even with this new evidence, diabetes experts said they still want Actos available as an option for treatment.

Bladder cancer is a rare disease, and remains rare even after Actos increases its risk, Pantalone said.

Decisions about its use should be made according to the individual patient, said Dr. Robert Courgi, an endocrinologist with Northwell Health’s Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, N.Y.

“Actos is a potent, inexpensive oral drug for diabetes that should not be pulled off the shelves,” Courgi said. “The clinician must decide if Actos is the right drug for the patient. Obviously, patients with a history of bladder cancer or who are at high risk should not get Actos.”

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Diabetes Meds Vary in Safety and Effectiveness, Study Shows

Every drug or drug combo for type 2 disease has its benefits and risks, British team says.

A study of nearly a half-million people with type 2 diabetes shows there are pros and cons to nearly every form of drug therapy for the disease.

In the British study, researchers looked at patient outcomes from a large U.K. database of almost 470,000 adults with type 2 diabetes, tracked between 2007 and 2015.

Julia Hippisley-Cox and Carol Coupland, of the University of Nottingham, sought to parse out differences among a variety of diabetes drugs. They accounted for complicating patient factors such as age, sex, smoking and poverty, as well as how long a person had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

The researchers also focused on five major outcomes linked to diabetes: blindness, amputation, severe kidney failure, and high or low blood sugar.

Reporting March 30 in BMJ, they found that when a class of drugs called glitazones (Actos, Avandia) was prescribed along with the standard diabetes drug metformin, there was a higher risk for kidney failure than with metformin alone.

The same was true when another class of meds called gliptins (Januvia, Onglyza and others) was combined with metformin.

However, there were “up” sides to these drug combos as well. People who took a gliptin or a glitazone plus metformin had “significantly lower” risks for high blood sugar than those who took metformin alone, the research found.

Finally, the study looked at “triple” therapy: patients taking metformin, a gliptin or a glitazone, and a sulphonylurea, another type of diabetes drug. This combination was linked to “significantly higher” odds for episodes of potentially dangerous low blood sugar, the British researchers said, compared to people taking metformin alone.

On the other hand, triple-therapy users had a reduced risk for diabetes-linked blindness, compared to the metformin-only group.

The study doesn’t establish direct cause-and-effect relationships between the various drugs and these outcomes. Still, according to experts, the findings support the notion that diabetes care is never a “one-size-fits-all” endeavor.

“There are many treatment options for diabetes — they have the benefit of lowering blood sugar levels, but they also carry risk,” said Dr. Robert Courgi, an endocrinologist at Northwell Health’s Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, N.Y.

He said that standard guidelines typically list metformin as a first-line therapy against type 2 disease, but additional drugs may be needed. “Ultimately, the physician and the patient need to work together to find the best treatment possible,” Courgi said.

Dr. Gerald Bernstein coordinates the Friedman Diabetes Program at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. He believes the field of diabetes care is constantly evolving.

“Treating type 2 diabetes used to be like a singles pingpong game — give a pill, lower blood sugar,” he said.

However, “over the last 75 years or so we have learned that it is more of a team effort, because the process of safely lowering blood sugar is more complicated than previously thought,” Bernstein explained. “The goal of treatment for all diabetes is to prevent complications and have a high quality of life.”

Different medications have different targets and effects, he said, and “the art of treatment today mixes and matches these medications depending on age, weight, activity.”

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Dessert with Coconut and Lentil


1/3 cup toasted sunflower seeds
1/2 cup toasted coconut flakes
1 cup cooked or canned green lentils, rinsed and drained
3 Tbsp cocoa powder
1/4 cup honey
3 Tbsp coconut oil


  1. Place the seeds, coconut, lentils, cocoa powder, and honey into the bowl of a food processor and pulse until smooth. You may need to scrape down the sides a few times. Scoop out into a bowl.
  2. Melt the coconut oil on low heat on the stove and stir into the lentil mixture.
  3. Transfer the mixture into a small parchment lined pan and chill for 3 hour.
  4. Once chilled, cut into 12 pieces.

Makes 12 servings.

Source: Lentils for Every Season

Today’s Comic