This recipe celebrates one of the first and sweetest harbingers of spring: local strawberries. Sure, the supermarket offers strawberries all year ‘round, but the gems that are grown locally and show up in season boast way more flavour than their cousins from the other side of the world. What you’re looking for is a bright red colour from stem to tip.
These local heroes are perfect even if you eat them raw, but here I’ve gussied them up quite a bit with some borrowings from an old-fashioned dessert called Baked Alaska, the basics of which are spongecake and ice cream frosted with a thick layer of meringue and briefly set under the broiler. A generation ago, Baked Alaska was as much showbiz as it was dessert, doused in alcohol and set aflame just before your cruise-ship waiter paraded it through the dining room on a platter and landed it on your table with a flourish.
I’ve kept the ice cream, swapped out the cake for the crushed cookie of your choice (I chose gingersnaps because I love the way ginger plays with fruit), added strawberries to the mix and finished it with the key ingredient: meringue, aka beaten egg whites and sugar.
A few notes about making a successful stiff meringue: first, the fresher the egg whites, the better; fresh egg whites produce more volume. Second, let the whites come to room temperature before beating. (If you’re in a rush, just set the metal bowl in a larger bowl of hot water, which will warm it up quickly.) Third, be sure to beat the whites in a small clean bowl, preferably stainless steel (which is easy to get very clean), because any kind of fat will deflate them. Finally, add the sugar slowly in a steady stream. After all the sugar is added, keep beating until the peaks are stiff.
This is a relatively simple (and thoroughly scrumptious) dessert to make, not least because we have dispensed with the pyrotechnics. I promise your guests will be wowed without them.
STRAWBERRIES BAKED ALASKA
Start to finish: 30 minutes
1/2 cup vanilla ice cream
10 medium to large strawberries
1 large egg white at room temperature
Pinch of cream of tartar
3 tablespoons plus 1/2 teaspoon sugar, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons Grand Marnier or balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup crushed gingersnaps or cookies of your choice
Mint sprigs for garnish
Using a melon baller, scoop out 12 balls from the container of ice cream, put them on a plate, cover them with plastic wrap and freeze them while you prepare the rest of the recipe.
Cut off the leaves from the top of each strawberry. Cut 4 of the strawberries into 1/4-inch pieces and in a bowl toss them with 1/2 teaspoon sugar and the Grand Marnier. Halve the remaining strawberries lengthwise and, using a melon baller, scoop out a hollow on the cut side of each strawberry half (this is where you will put the ice cream ball). Cut a tiny sliver off the other side of each strawberry half so the half will lay flat when the cut side is up.
In a small bowl beat the egg white on medium speed with electric beaters. When it is foamy add the cream of tartar. Continue beating the egg white until it holds soft peaks. Slowly add the remaining 3 tablespoons sugar in a stream, beating the whole time. Increase the speed to high and continue beating until the meringue holds stiff peaks.
Preheat the broiler. Position an oven rack about 6 inches from the flame. Arrange the strawberries on a rimmed sheet pan with 2 or 3 inches between them. Fill the hollow of each strawberry half with a ball of ice cream. Working quickly, spoon the meringue over the ice cream and top of the cut strawberry and spread it out with a small offset spatula or butter knife, making little peaks with the meringue if desired.
Place the sheet pan on the rack set 6 inches from the broiler and broil the strawberries for 45 seconds to 1 minute or until the meringue is lightly browned. Transfer 3 strawberries to each of 4 plates. Spoon a mound of the marinated strawberries next to them, sprinkle the cookie crumbs over the plate and garnish with a sprig of mint. Serve right away.