Eric Newill, Executive Editor
Eric Newill, Executive Editor
Jan 2021

One of the culinary world’s most fanciful desserts, Baked Alaska is a concoction of ice cream, sponge cake and meringue, ideally torched tableside with a flamboyant blue flame. It reached its pinnacle of popularity in the 1950s, alongside such recherché dishes as beef Stroganoff and duck à l’orange, but later became relegated to the back catalogue of cuisine, only available at such classically minded spots as Faith & Flower in Los Angeles and Junoon in New York. Still, every iconic dish must have its day, and in honor of Baked Alaska Day (February 1), we look at the tasty origins of some beloved American creations—all of which are still being served at their original homes.

Baked Alaska at Antoine's / Courtesy of Antoine's

Baked Alaska

Antoine’s, New Orleans (1867)

How did a dessert named after a Northern region come to be born way down South? It actually took an act of the federal government. In 1867, the United States purchased the Department of Alaska from Russia, and to commemorate the occasion, Antoine Alciatore—who founded his namesake restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter in 1840—whipped up a hot-and-cold combination of ice cream, cake and flambéed meringue approximating the shape of an iceberg.

Naturally, some give credit to others, including the equally legendary chef Charles Ranhofer, who created dishes such as lobster Newburg during his epoch-defining reign at New York’s Delmonico’s. Although Ranhofer called his version Alaska, Florida, both were created in the same year—and can still be enjoyed at both Antoine’s and the current iteration of Delmonico’s in the Financial District.

Hangtown fry at Tadich Grill / Courtesy of Tadich Grill

Hangtown fry

Tadich Grill, San Francisco (1855)

Befitting its Wild West birthplace, Hangtown fry is a scrappy dish combining diverse ingredients and a mess of tall tales, all relating to the California Gold Rush and the dusty town of Placerville, nicknamed “Hangtown” for its embrace of extrajudicial punishment. One story involves a newly rich miner ambling into a hotel and demanding the most expensive meal he could get, which at the time incorporated costly bacon, rare oysters and fresh eggs, which went for $1 apiece (the equivalent of $30 today). Another account focuses on a condemned man, who when asked his preference for a last meal listed a series of items that would take some time to procure, thus delaying his demise. That the ultimate creation—essentially an omelet with fried bacon and oysters—seems almost commonplace today does nothing to detract from its deliciousness. Indeed, it has remained on the menu unchanged at San Francisco’s Tadich Grill for more than 160 years.

Boston cream pie at Parker House hotel / Courtesy of Parker House

Boston cream pie

Parker House hotel, Boston (1881)

Its name notwithstanding, this elegant confection is not a pie. Comprised of two layers of sponge cake separated by a luscious vanilla cream, ringed by toasted almonds and topped with a chocolate ganache, Boston cream pie was created at the city’s venerable Parker House hotel by French chef Raelyn. Among its early fans were essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson and jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, who regularly attended the property’s Saturday Club salons. Baked chocolate was then a novelty, which could account for the dish’s immediate success, and by the 1950s its fame and popularity were so great that even Betty Crocker sold a ready-made mix for the home baker. Named Massachusetts’ official dessert in 1996, Boston cream pie inspired the similarly flavored doughnut. The hotel also enjoyed a commensurate hit with its buttery and crisp Parker House roll.

Chicago-style pizza / Courtesy of Pizzeria Uno

Chicago-style pizza

Pizzeria Uno, Chicago (1943)

The pizza that launched a thousand arguments—which is better, Chicago or New York? deep-dish or slice?—was arguably invented during World War II by restaurateur Ike Sewell, a former college football star who launched Pizzeria Uno in the city’s River North neighborhood. Often three inches tall, and more a casserole than a traditional pizza, the dish is baked in a large pan, with ingredients that seem inverted: A buttery, not-too-thick crust is topped first with heaps of cheese (which would burn nearer the top), then meats and vegetables such as sausage and peppers, and finally rivers of chunky tomato sauce. Again, there is dissent about its genesis: An Uno chef named Rudy Malnati is also given credit for its creation, which would allow the equally popular Lou Malnati’s (operated by his son) family authenticity. Either way, fans of New York pizza won’t budge: Though they grudgingly acknowledge the Chicago version’s tastiness, they refuse to call it a pizza—it can’t be folded and wolfed down on the subway.

California-style pizza at Chez Panisse / Courtesy of Chez Panisse

California-style pizza

Chez Panisse, Berkeley (1980)

If Chicago-style pizza is meant to keep locals warm through the icy winters, California-style pizza might be its opposite: a lighter, crispier treat that doesn’t weigh too much on health-conscious residents of the Golden State. A decade after opening Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Alice Waters—the doyenne of California cuisine, which first prioritized seasonal, local fare—wanted to combine the traditional Italian wood-fired crust found across the bay in San Francisco’s North Beach with nouvelle ingredients such as duck confit and goat cheese. The pizzas, which became a signature item in Chez Panisse’s more casual café, are still on the menu, now featuring toppings like wild mushrooms and gremolata. A few years later, Wolfgang Puck’s Spago became world-famous for its spin on California pizza, with its smoked salmon and dill crème fraîche pie remaining a favorite of Hollywood celebs and moguls.

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