From the menu description alone, it’s not obvious what’s in store when you order the omelette Norvegienne for dessert at Le Coucou, Stephen Starr and chef Daniel Rose’s luxuriously old-school-yet-stylish French restaurant on the edge of Soho. “Pistachio ice cream, cherries, kirsch,” are only half of what goes into this little showstopper, which arrives at the table in the shape of a miniature cake covered in spikes of toasted meringue and a little pile of roasted cherries. After setting it down, a server flicks a match, touches it to the portion of kirsch he holds in a tiny copper pot, and pours the flaming liqueur over your dessert. The quivering blue flame envelops the meringue for a few seconds and then goes out, leaving behind the scent of toasted marshmallows.
In other words, the omelette Norvegienne is basically a baked Alaska. Beneath that toasty coat of meringue is what looks like an ice cream sandwich — made with pistachio and vanilla ice creams between disks of pistachio cake — which stays frozen even after being doused in burning kirsch. As Daniel Skurnick, Le Coucou’s pastry chef, explains, omelette Norvegienne (literally “Norwegian omelette”) really is just the French name for the baked Alaska, Norway having all the same frigid connotations for the French that Alaska does for Americans. The “omelette” part comes from the fact that, traditionally, the French version of this flaming-yet-frozen dessert is made in an oval shape similar to an omelette.
At Le Coucou, says Skurnick, “I try to do a lot of classic French desserts,” by which he means the kind of retro traditional desserts you barely see anymore except at certain restaurant dinosaurs — things like chiboust, crepes souffle, and baba rhum. His versions, of course, are tweaked and modernized, but he often starts developing a dessert by combing the stacks at Bonnie Slotnick or Kitchen Arts & Letters, looking for French books with copyright dates from the 1960s or earlier. For the omelette Norvegienne, he looked back as far as Escoffier’s iconic turn of the century tome, Le Guide Culinaire, which includes multiple recipes for what was then also known as an “omelette surprise.” And though he tinkered with the shape (a single serving cakelet is easier to light on fire at the table than an omelette-sized dessert that needs to be sliced) he stuck to a traditional flavor scheme of pistachio, cherry, and vanilla — at least for now. Here’s how he does it:
Skurnick starts with the pistachio ice cream. To make the custardy base, he begins heating a mixture of milk and cream on the induction burner, adding sugar, a glob of glucose, and another glob of trimoline. The latter two are both liquid sugars, the glucose with a texture like corn syrup, trimoline with the creamy, crystalline texture of raw honey. They help add body to the ice cream, and keep it more supple than plain sugar would. Both are thick enough, Skurnick says, that picking up a blob with his fingers is actually less messy than trying to pour from the big plastic tubs they come in.
In an enormous bowl, Skurnick whisks a little more sugar into 22 egg yolks — this recipe will yield six quarts of ice cream, enough to last the restaurant a couple days —beating until the mixture is light and creamy. Both the sugar and the aeration, he explains, helps protect the yolks from heat, so they don’t curdle when he pours boiling milk over them, as he’s about to do.
Skurnick pours the hot milk and cream into the yolks slowly, whisking steadily, to avoid cooking the eggs too fast. When everything is mixed, he pours the custard back into the pot, which has enough residual heat to finish cooking it off the burner. Then he adds a healthy dose of pure pistachio paste, which is satiny smooth and thick enough to glue your tongue to the roof of your mouth. As Skurnick immersion blends the paste into the custard, the mixture swirls into the color of pea soup and the heady, almost savory scent of pistachio fills his corner of the kitchen.
The custard now goes into the fridge overnight to thoroughly chill down, so that it freezes quickly and smoothly in the ice cream machine. The vanilla custard, which was made the same way as the pistachio, is already chilling.
When the custard base is cool, Skurnick pours it into the ice cream machine to churn. After a few minutes, he opens the mouth of the machine and ribbons of ice cream the texture of soft serve ripple out into Skurnick’s waiting pastry bag. When the bag is full, it goes into the freezer to firm up a little more.
Meanwhile, he makes the pistachio sponge cake that will sandwich the two flavors of ice cream. “I tried a ton of different cake recipes,” says Skurnick, but most involved too many steps — too much whipping, and sifting, and folding. “I’m not interested in difficulty for the sake of difficulty,” he explains, plus he wanted the cake to be “fairly dense,” to provide a sturdy base for the ice cream. So he settled on this relatively basic recipe, which begins with simply whisking a mixture of pistachio paste, egg yolks, and water into a dry blend of flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt until it forms a thick, green batter.
Next Skurnick begins beating egg whites, which he’ll fold into the batter once they’re light and fluffy. As they begin to froth, he starts to slowly add sugar, the mixer still running. “Sugar is like glass,” Skurnick explains. “It cuts through proteins, so if you dump it all in at once you’re in trouble.” But added gradually, it helps aerate the whites, so that before long the bowl is full of thick, soft drifts of meringue.
With a spatula, Skurnick drops a couple big dollops of the beaten egg whites into the bowl of batter. These are what he calls the “sacrificial third” of the meringue: It deflates quite a bit as Skurnick folds it into the batter. But it also helps lighten the mixture, so that when Skurnick gently folds in the other two-thirds of the whites, they keep a more lofty structure. When everything has been thoroughly mixed, the batter is billowy and pale green.
Skurnick spreads the batter evenly across two greased sheet trays, and puts them in the oven for about 12 minutes. To test their doneness, he prods each gently with a finger, looking for the moment when the cake springs back gently to his touch. A finished cake has the frothy look and feel of a sponge, and the deep fragrance of pistachio.
After flipping the cake out of the pan and letting it cool a little, Skurnick cuts it into circles about the size of a coaster. Then he presses each disk of cake down into a ring mold, squishing it gently. Pulling the pastry bags full of each ice cream from the freezer, he first pipes a ring of vanilla ice cream around the inner edge of the ring molds, then fills the center with a blob of pistachio ice cream. After pressing another circle of cake on top of the ice cream in each mold, he puts them all back in the freezer to firm up.
In the meantime, he whips up the meringue topping. Unlike the meringue he folded into the sponge cake batter, this one is made with a cooked sugar syrup, which gives it more stability and a thicker, glossier texture. After partially beating the whites, Skurnick starts boiling a mixture of sugar and water to make the syrup, which has to hit a particular temperature — the softball stage in candy making terms — before being added to the whites. But rather than use a thermometer, Skurnick has an old-school trick he uses to know when the syrup is done. When it starts to get close, he dips one end of a piping tip into the syrup and blows through the other end. If a bubble forms and drifts off into space, it’s ready.
With the mixer whirring, Skurnick pours the hot syrup into the whites in a steady stream. The meringue slowly develops, thickening and expanding into ripples and peaks of marshmallow-like fluff. When it’s cool to the touch and stiff enough to hold its shape, Skurnick stops the machine and spoons the meringue into a pastry bag fitted with a small round tip.
Pulling the ring molds back out of the freezer, he pops out what is basically an ice cream sandwich, sets it gently on a plate, and begins piping spikes of meringue in concentric rings over the top. Only a small patch of cake in the center remains bare; later, Skurnick will fill it with a spoonful of roasted sour cherries. First, he lifts the cake and carefully sets it on an overturned plastic quart container — his miniature, makeshift cake stand — and begins piping ridges of meringue up the sides.
When the entire cake is covered, it will go back in the freezer until dinner service, so that it’s good and cold when it’s time to light it on fire. When that time comes, Skurnick centers the frozen cake carefully on a plate, then grazes the peaks of meringue with a torch until they darken to a toasty brown. He adds a little pile of roasted cherries to the top, then passes the plate off to a server with a matchbook and a copper pot of kirsch, who whisks it off to the table.
Once lit and poured, the kirsch burns blue-hot for only a few seconds – long enough for the spectacle, but not so long the meringue comes out blackened. And anyway, it’s better off eaten than watched, preferably while the ice cream is still cold.