As I’ve blogged about ice cream, I’ve come across many firsts. There was the first ice cream cone. Then there was first ice cream parlor. Then there were multiple claims for the first ice cream sundae. This tops them all. Through extensive research, interviews and verified fact checking, I have discovered the story of the first ice cream cake.
It all started when Chef Charles Ranhofer created the first Baked Alaska in 1867 to celebrate the purchase of Alaska by America.While the chef was already renown throughout New York City as the chef de cuisine at Delmonico’s Restaurant, he soon became well known among the nation’s well-to-do. One of those who heard of the chef and his Baked Alaska was a robber baron named Charles Crocker.
Mr. Crocker desperately wanted to try a Baked Alaska made by the chef personally. There was one small problem. While Chef Ranhofer was in New York City, Mr. Crocker was in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains overseeing the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad. Mr. Crocker sent one of his trusted agents, and a tidy sum of money, to New York City to persuade the chef to come west and prepare the dessert for him.
It worked. The chef took a temporary leave at Delmonico’s and traveled west. Months later, he arrived at the railroad construction site ready to make his famed creation. The robber baron gave him run of his galley, a train car converted into a kitchen complete with every culinary tool a 19th century chef desired.
Chef Ranhofer quickly began preparing the evening’s meal using ingredients readily available at the site. While the complete menu is unknown, it is rumored to have included bear steaks. During his preparation, Chef Ranhofer asked Charles Crocker’s personal chef, Edwin Pleasely, where he could find the ice cream for the Baked Alaska. Chef Ranhofer had wired ahead that ice cream would be required and to “have a plentiful amount stocked prior to my arrival.” Chef Pleasely pleaded ignorance of receiving any such telegraph. Many suspect the chef feigned ignorance due to being “usurped by the renown Chef Ranhofer who was clearly Mr. Pleasley’s superior,” and set out to sabotage Chef Ranhofer.
Now, Chef Ranhofer had heard of how Charles Crocker could be a highly unpleasant man, especially when things did not go his way. He didn’t want to suffer the railroad tycoon’s displeasure. He stormed out of the kitchen and quickly found the agent who accompanied him from New York and inquired where he could find ice. The agent regrettably informed him that no ice was on site, but there was snow still on the ground at higher elevations.
The chef instructed the agent to find a clean container, fill it partly with milk, take the container with him, “acquire the cleanest of snow and mix in the container with the milk.” The chef then returned to the kitchen to finish the meal. The agent did as the chef instructed. Unfortunately, this took some time since the snow was miles away. The agent did not return until well after Mr. Crocker had finished his meal.
Chef Ranhofer was in a near state of panic when the agent arrived with the round metal container of snow ice cream packed in more snow to keep it from melting. The chef didn’t have enough time to make his signature Baked Alaska, but struck upon another idea after seeing the round container. He dislodged the ice cream from the container. Thankfully, it came out in one piece. It was the perfect shape of a cake. He quickly covered it in icing and topped it with fruits and nuts.
The chef announced to Charles Crocker that he did not make the Baked Alaska, but, instead, prepared an original celebratory dessert for Mr. Crocker to commemorate the soon to be completed railroad. He announced the new creation as the gâteau à la crème glacée, or ice cream cake. Mr. Crocker’s initial disappointment over not getting Baked Alaska was quickly forgotten as he sampled the ice cream cake. He was so taken with the dessert, and that it was created solely for him, Mr. Crocker instructed Chef Ranhofer to teach Chef Pleasely how to make the dessert. Mr. Crocker also paid Chef Ranhofer an additional sum never to make the dessert again. The robber baron was a selfish man and didn’t want anyone else to share in the enjoyment of this unique, exotic treat.
Up until his death in 1888, Mr. Crocker was the only known 19th century American who enjoyed the ice cream cake. In 1905, a chef by the name of Edwin Pleasely opened a restaurant in San Francisco that quickly gained famed for “a splendid dessert which can best be described as a cake of ice cream.” Unfortunately, the new restaurant was destroyed in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake.
It would be some time before Americans enjoyed ice cream cakes on a regular basis.