Baking for Bookworms: Baked Alaska Cupcakes from Mary McCarthy’s The Group


Sorry this is a bit on the late side! My brother flew out to Boise this last week to watch a concert with us, and it sort of threw off my posting schedule–though in the best possible way.

Baked Alaska is a strange, intimidating kind of dessert. It has a million kinds of textures, combined in the strangest way. It challenges you to master some of the most difficult techniques in dessert and then you have to set the thing on fire. But it can also be delicious.

This dessert is chosen as the wedding dessert in the beginning of the book. The first marriage the reader sees helps to show the personalities of the various girls the story follows. The wedding, like the girls, breaks with some traditions, and most of the food in the story shows this constant pull between doing things the new, “modern” way and falling back on old, comforting traditions. Although the dessert proves to be a disappointment, like most modern things, the idea of the dessert is what counts to the girls. It stands for everything they hope their post-college lives will be, but it also hints at the disillusionment in store for them.

“The dessert was not all that good. The meringue had browned unevenly; it was white in some places and burned black in others, which gave it a disagreeable taste. Underneath the slab of ice cream, the sponge cake was stale and damp. But fealty to Kay sent plates back for seconds. The Baked Alaska was the kind of thing that in Kay’s place the group hoped they would have thought of–terribly original for a wedding and yet just right when you considered it. They were all tremendously interested in cooking and quite out of patience with the unimaginative roasts and chops followed by molds from the caterer that Mother served; they were going to try new combinations and foreign recipes”                                                                        29

Thankfully, you can make a Baked Alaska that is both impressive-looking and quite tasty. Meringue and I are natural enemies, and I didn’t have much luck with that part (I over beat my egg whites), but one more try and I’ll get the hang of it, and since I messed it up first, you don’t have to.

This recipe will make six cupcakes. They’re best served immediately after you brown the meringue, so only make what you need.


Cupcake recipe slightly adapted from Dessert for Two

You’ll need

  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • pinch of salt
  • small handful chocolate chips (optional–you can also swirl in a couple tablespoons of your favorite jam, candies, nuts, sprinkles, or a pinch of cinnamon and chili pepper or instant espresso, or a 1/4 teaspoon of a favorite flavor like peppermint–your cupcake is your oyster. Or rather, your very own cupcake)
  • 4 teaspoons canola oil (you can also use safflower)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup buttermilk
  • ice cream flavor of your choice. You’ll need a scoop per cupcake. I used strawberry, and I think fruit flavors go nicely, but feel free to be creative with your flavors!
  • 3 egg whites
  • 2 tablespoons powdered sugar or fine baking sugar (regular sugar won’t dissolve nicely)

Preheat oven to 350F. Line a muffin pan with 6 cupcake liners.

In a medium bowl, combine all the dry ingredients, except the sugar, and stir to combine. In another bowl (or in a wet measuring cup to avoid unnecessary dishes) measure out your buttermilk. You can use 1 teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar and add 1/3 cup milk of your choice, if you don’t have buttermilk on hand. Add the sugar, vanilla, and oil and mix thoroughly with a whisk.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ones and stir to combine, being careful not to over-stir. Scoop into cupcake liners and bake for 11-14 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.

Let cupcakes cool completely and then scoop out a scoop of ice cream onto each cupcake. You don’t have to be extremely precise, but if you like to be you can dip your scoop in hot water between each cupcake. Freeze the cupcakes for at least two hours, or until you feel the cupcakes have formed a lasting bond, up to a day.

Make the meringue by separating 3 egg whites from their yolks, being very careful not to get any yolk in the egg whites. Place the whites in a very clean bowl. To make sure there are no oils in the bowl, wipe it and your beaters with a paper towel dipped in vinegar. Whip egg whites until light and frothy and then add sugar, one spoonful at a time. Beat for a further 3-5 minutes on high speed, or until stiff peaks form and you can’t feel any sugar when you rub the mixture between your fingers.

Using a spoon (you can also pipe this on, if you want to get really fancy), cover the ice cream completely with meringue. The back of the spoon will help you make little peaks. You can either put the cupcakes in a very hot oven (500F) for 3-4 minutes, watching carefully so that the meringue browns but doesn’t burn, or you can use a torch to finish them off, holding it far away from the cupcakes, so it doesn’t get as dark as mine did.

Serve immediately and let everyone be impressed by your prowess! The resulting treat is a not too sweet meringue, with a good amount of ice cream, and a dense, moist cake. I have to admit, I’ve always been intimidated by this dessert, but making it into cupcakes made it easier. I still have a ways to go before I can say that I’ve made a perfect Baked Alaska, but I’m a bit more confident now.

What’s a dessert or meal that’s always intimidated you? Have you ever had the courage to make it? If so, how did it turn out? Let me know in the comments.

Women Writers Reading Challenge #41: The Group by Mary McCarthy


Published in 1963, Mary McCarthy’s novel follows eight young women following their college graduation (Vassar class of ’33). These women are educated and intelligent yet they are not immune from either the economic pressures of the Depression nor of societal pressures to be meek and fall in line. Without giving too much detail about any one woman’s life, McCarthy manages to place you into the world of the 1930s and into the lives of these women. She captures their struggles, their failures and successes. They are all unique and utterly human. They may have placed themselves on pedestals, but life sends them tumbling down again. Replete with important life events, these women are just as identifiable among groups of modern women, and though the pressures exerted on them are different than those today, it’s plain to see that not much has changed.

The book is neither particularly uplifting or particularly depressing. Instead of passing judgement on the characters, they’re allowed to simply be with all their faults. If you like literature of the 1920s and are interested in the progression of women beyond that period, I highly recommend this well-written novel.