Cambridge, MA: Oleana's Incredible Baked Alaska
Every time I tell someone about Oleana's Baked Alaska ($14), I find myself prefacing the description with a buffer in my own defense. Something along the lines of, "I know, I never liked Baked Alaska either, but this one is different/better/totally unlike any other version you've had."
It's true. I really don't like conventional Baked Alaska. Meringue is far too sweet and too lean for me, and I've never been a huge fan of cake—especially sponge cake. But if there's one thing to know about Oleana, it's that nothing is conventional, particularly not the dessert menu. Pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick's reputation for dreaming up some of the most inventive sweets in town starts here.
A couple years ago, I asked Kilpatrick how she came up with her rendition, the headlining item on the restaurant's dessert menu for 11 years. She said the most important element she considered was contrast. Whereas a traditional Baked Alaska pairs three soft elements—meringue, cake, and ice cream—Kilpatrick builds hers on a crisp-chewy coconut macaroon. The ice cream that sits on top of the macaroon base, also coconut, is buttery, nutty, and ultra-dense; it actually takes some might to push a spoon through it, but it's perfectly creamy and smooth to eat.
As for the meringue, it changed my perspective on meringue. The entire exterior is torched to a toasty brown, but once you crack through the shell, it's all satin: tall, spiky peaks of the glossiest, richest, most luxurious whipped eggs whites you've ever had. That may sound illogical; "rich" is not a word I'd use to describe something that gets its texture from air. But Kilpatrick's meringue is a total departure from the foamy, weepy icebergs out there—something not unlike the velvety yet lightweight body of premium shaving cream.
The other major selling point: The dessert's usual cloying sweetness has been stepped down several notches. That's thanks in part to the top-to-bottom torching of meringue, but also to the surrounding moat of tangy, faintly bitter passion fruit caramel.
Oh, and as a nod to Tuesday's upcoming holiday: The menu doesn't suggest it, but this is definitely a dessert built for two.
About the author: Liz Bomze lives in Brookline, MA, and works as the Associate Features Editor for Cook's Illustrated Magazine. In her free time, she freelances regularly for the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, the Improper Bostonian, and Martha's Vineyard Magazine; practices bread-baking and canning; takes photos; reads; and watches baseball. Top 5 foods: fresh noodles, gravlax, sour cherry pie, burrata, ma po tofu.