Omelette norvégienne (Norwegian omelette), more commonly known as baked Alaska in the United States, is neither an omelette nor Norwegian but a traditional French dessert, that is hot on the outside and iced on the inside, composed of a sponge cake, ice cream and meringue. It’s also called an omelette surprise (surprise omelette) or omelette sibérienne (Siberian omelette).
What is an omelette norvégienne?
The omelette norvégienne is a dessert composed of vanilla ice cream covered with meringue, placed on a sponge cake base, and lightly toasted under the oven grill or with the flame of a torch to color the meringue.
The baking time of the meringue does not have to be long. The meringue plays the role of an excellent insulator by preventing the heat from reaching the heart of the dessert and melting the ice cream.
The sponge cake from the omelette norvégienne is traditionally flavored with Grand Marnier and the dessert is also flambéed with Grand Marnier just before tasting.
What is the origin of the omelette norvégienne?
To understand the origins of the omelette norvégienne, you must go back to the International Exposition of 1867 in Paris, organized by Napoleon III.
The omelette norvégienne is above all a story of chemistry. During this exhibition, the City of Paris received a Chinese delegation to dine at the Grand Hotel.
The chef of this palace, Balzac, learning that the guests were going to talk about electricity decided to create a spectacular dessert, in tribute to science.
To do this, Balzac relied on research and experiments led by Benjamin Thompson, Earl of Rumford, an American physicist born in Woburn in Massachusetts, and who emigrated to Bavaria, a state located in the south-east of Germany.
Benjamin Thompson had established that egg white beaten in meringue was a poor conductor of heat, therefore acting as an insulator.
It was therefore on the basis of this discovery that chef Balzac had the idea of creating the omelette norvégienne: a vanilla ice cream surrounded by a lightly baked, then flambéed meringue, where the beaten egg white would prevent the heat from melting the ice cream.
And why Norwegian? As Chef Balzac presented this dessert for the first time, he wanted to pay homage to the Earl of Rumford; but as he was not really educated in geography, during his speech, he publicly located Bavaria … in Norway!
And this is how it started to be called Norwegian omelet and this recipe, often improved by other chefs, will become a great classic of French cuisine by the end of the 19th century.
The Norwegians call this dessert fransk isbombe, which means “French ice bomb”.
The omelette norvégienne in the United States
This dessert is known throughout the world under the name of Norwegian omelette but for the Americans, it is none other than baked Alaska, slices of sponge cake flavored with rum, ice cream with various flavors, in the shape of a dome, also enclosed in baked meringue and flambéed with rum.
Baked Alaska was created by a French chef. Charles Ranhofer, of the New York institution Delmonico’s Restaurant, claims baked Alaska as his creation, which would have been served to celebrate the purchase of Alaska from Russia by America in 1867, hence the American name for the cake.
Charles Ranhofer then claims to have also based his creation on scientific research by the American Benjamin Thompson. This would give the Americans even more clear claims on the paternity of the omelette norvégienne.
Benjamin Thompson, this illustrious physicist to whom we owe the modern theory of heat as movements of small molecules, and the first determination of the equivalence of heat and mechanical work, but also of inventions like modern cookers, first portable lamps, central heating and modern radiators, was most certainly born American, but he was also colonel of the British army, Bavarian Minister of War and French scientist and it is in France and as a member of the Institute of France under Napoleon III that his scientific career took off.
The secrets of meringue
Who invented this sweet and fabulous union between egg white and sugar?
It all started in Meiringen, Switzerland, in the 18th century, when in the small workshop of a pastry chef by the name of Gasparini, probably of Italian origin, the egg white and icing sugar were first whipped.
The pastry chef was then summoned to the court of the King of Poland Stanislaus Leszczynski. The latter’s daughter, Queen of France and wife of Louis XV, then presented the meringue to the royal court of Versailles.
The meringue then quickly spread throughout Europe with new combinations, flavored with cocoa, cinnamon, almonds or accompanied by a soft whipped cream.
Even Queen Marie Antoinette had a real passion for meringues and liked to prepare them in person. Did you know that until the beginning of the 19th century, meringues were formed exclusively using a spoon?
It was the eminent French chef, Antonin Carême, known for simplifying haute cuisine, who came up with the idea of forming them with a pastry bag, thus giving them pretty shapes that were always different.
The different types of meringue
Italian meringue is a meringue that requires a kitchen thermometer to prepare as the temperatures must be very precise. The egg whites are whipped until they are firm and the sugar is first cooked with a little water, so as to form a sugar syrup, brought to a temperature of 250 F.
This cooked sugar is then gradually added to the egg whites. This produces a thick and firm cream with a beautiful bright white color. The Italian meringue is ideal for decorating cakes and can be colored by flaming it with a blowtorch. Italian meringue is also used as a base to add volume and air to frozen desserts and mousse.
You can also dry the Italian meringue in the oven and the cooking temperature should be low, at most 175 to 210 F, for enough time to dry them, on average 2 to 3 hours, depending on the thickness of the meringues.
French meringue is a type of meringue that is prepared cold, whisking the egg whites with the sugar which must be added little by little.
This type of meringue is mainly used to prepare oven-dried meringues, to spread on a baking sheet and baked in a convection oven at 150 to 210 F for a few hours. The low baking temperature is necessary in order not to caramelize the sugar and therefore to ensure that the meringues are perfectly white.
Swiss meringue is prepared by beating egg whites with icing sugar on a double boiler. The egg whites are first beaten by themselves on a double boiler then, when the preparation becomes frothy, the icing sugar is incorporated while continuing to beat.
When the mixture becomes homogeneous, the beating must be completed off the heat. It is bakked about fifteen minutes in a hotter oven than for French meringue, around 265 F. Its very firm and less brittle consistency than the French preparation allows it to be used for making decorations.
Sardinian meringue is also called bianchino. Produced in Sardinia, it has the particularity of having almonds in the preparation. That is, the egg whites are whipped and mixed with icing sugar and almond paste. These meringues are baked at 350 F for 15 minutes.
Japanese meringue differs in part from the others because it looks more like a dacquoise made from nuts such as almond or hazelnut. It is no longer used for making many desserts.
How to make a perfect meringue
- Preferably use the egg whites that were separated and left at room temperature, they will be easier to beat.
- Always use well-cleaned utensils, it is best to use a glass or metal bowl because in a plastic bowl, small scratches may contain grease residue which would cause the meringue to collapse.
- Before preparing a meringue, always wash the bowl with 2 tablespoons of vinegar and 1 teaspoon of salt, then rinse with water to remove any grease residue before starting. Fat is the enemy of meringue.
- Add a touch of lemon juice or vinegar to the egg white, this will firm up the egg whites while beating.
- It is important that the meringue contains as much air as possible, so it is best to whisk by hand using an electric whisk (or not), with large movements to form a solid foam. If using an electric whisk, you should always whisk on medium speed first, until the foam forms, then you can increase the speed and beat it into a firm meringue.
- It is the sugar that gives stability to the meringue and extends the baking capacity and you should never whisk the sugar with the egg white from the start; sugar should not be incorporated until foam has formed.
- Never whip the meringue for too long because if too smooth, it will eventually liquefy again.
- Never add salt to the meringue, as it will be difficult for the meringue to rise.
- Whisk until the foam is so hard that it forms stiff peaks when you lift the whisk, or when you can turn the bowl upside down without the meringue moving.
- To bake meringues: bake at low temperature (195 F) for at least 2 hours to obtain crispy meringues. Meringues baked at a higher temperature (250 F to 300 F) for a shorter period become too hard. They will not be crumbly and crispy.
Discover this very festive dessert recipe of omelette norvégienne or baked Alaska and its chemical miracle!
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup sifted flour
- ½ cup caster sugar
- ¾ heavy cream
- 6 egg yolks
- 2 cups whole milk
- ⅔ cup caster sugar
- 1 large vanilla pod
- ⅔ cup water
- 3 tablespoons caster sugar
- 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier
- 4 egg whites
- 1¼ cup caster sugar
- 4 drops freshly squeezed lemon juice without pulp
- ½ cup Grand Marnier
- Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Beat the eggs (without clarifying them) and the caster sugar in a double boiler until the mixture becomes foamy and doubles in volume.
- Gradually add the flour, gently incorporating it into the beaten eggs.
- Pour this mixture onto the baking sheet and tap it on the countertop to even out the dough and expel air bubbles.
- Bake for 30 minutes.
- Remove from the oven and let cool for 15 minutes
- Heat the milk in a large non-stick pan.
- Split the vanilla pod in half and extract the seeds.
- Add them with the pod to the pan of hot milk.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg yolks with the sugar and then slowly add the milk, still hot, without ceasing to beat.
- Pour this preparation back into the pan and thicken over low heat, stirring continuously using a large wooden spoon.
- When the cream begins to coat the spoon, remove it from the heat.
- Let cool and finally add the heavy cream.
- Add the preparation into an airtight glass container and place it in the freezer.
- After 30 minutes, take out the ice cream, scrape it with a fork to avoid the formation of crystals.
- Repeat this operation 4 times to obtain a creamy ice cream.
- Place in the freezer for 1 hour.
- Bring the water and sugar to a boil.
- Cook for 10 minutes over low to medium heat, then add the Grand Marnier.
- The day before, crack the eggs and separate them. Reserve the egg whites in a bowl covered with plastic wrap and let them age outside the fridge overnight.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, start beating the egg whites at medium speed until they become frothy.
- Then add a tablespoon of caster sugar and 4 drops of lemon juice.
- Beat for about 1 minute at maximum speed so that the sugar has time to dissolve in the egg whites.
- Add a second spoonful of caster sugar, and continue beating. Add the remaining sugar gradually until it is dissolved.
- When all the sugar is incorporated, the meringue is very smooth, very dense and very shiny.
- Pour the beaten egg whites into a pastry bag with the pastry tip of your choice.
- Place a sheet of parchment paper at the bottom of a rectangular cake mold (about 10 inches long).
- Cut a slice of sponge cake to the size of the mold and brush syrup on it.
- Line the sponge cake with vanilla ice cream.
- Cover with plastic wrap and place the mold in the freezer for at least 4 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 430 F.
- Take the mold out of the freezer 5 minutes prior.
- Unmold and place the ice cream on a rectangular serving dish and coat with meringue using the pastry bag.
- Place the omelette norvégienne in the freezer for 30 minutes.
- Put the oven in the grill position.
- Take the omelette norvégienne out of the freezer and place it in the oven in a cold bain-marie, just long enough to brown it (watch very closely)
- Brown the meringue with a blowtorch.
- Keep in the freezer until serving.
- Heat the Grand Marnier in a small saucepan over high heat.
- Remove from heat, and light it up
- Pour the flaming alcohol over the meringue.
- Taste immediately.