A Midnight Clear by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner is a FREE prequel novella to their Fly Me to the Moon series, 1960s-set historical romances with astronaut heroes. This novella is set in the late-1940s, a bit before the start of the rest of the series, and features young love, motorcycle riding, sailing, dinner party planning and Baked Alaska. For the holiday-phobic, there is a brief scene set around Christmas, but I would not call it a holiday romance despite the Christmasy-sounding title.
Joe Reynolds is a midshipman at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in 1948. He meets Frances Dumfries at a party and falls in love with her at first sight. But Frances isn’t convinced. She doesn’t date midshipmen, as a rule. Her father is an Admiral and most of the young men who profess an interest in Frances are really just trying to advance their careers by getting in good with the Admiral’s daughter. My second favorite scene in the book is early on when we see Frances deliver an admirable, even Admiral-worthy set-down to a midshipman who dares to try to use her this way. It establishes Frances’ formidable character immediately and sets up a convincing conflict between her and Joe. The conflict is context-specific, but I loved how Barry & Turner use it to reflect what a lot of young women were experiencing in the post-War, proto-feminist world. Frances has taken a look around her and decided she wants more than her current life. It’s all very deftly developed and I don’t want to spoil the details, but I was pleased to see this much character depth and real conflict in a novella.
For his part, romantic Joe isn’t entirely impractical. He understands that everyone is skeptical of his motives and doubts that his interest in Frances is really of the lifelong variety. It is faintly ridiculous to fall in love with a woman you’ve only barely spoken to, but he remains unwavering throughout the novella. Joe is utterly committed to winning Frances and his efforts on every page are swoon-worthy. And yet A Midnight Clear manages to dodge the “instalove” bullet by giving Joe reason to pause. As he gets to know Frances better, he comes to understand her feelings and motivations, resulting in a genuine desire to make her happy, whether that happiness includes him or not (of course, he hopes it does).
This is a realistic, believable romance written in miniature. We don’t see every date or outing, but the relationship develops over several months, culminating in a Christmas proposal and a wedding. The sexual tension that develops is distinctly sparky, but felt perfectly on point for the period. They’re young and in a conservative military town. Joe has a curfew and Frances has the Admiral, which keeps them from going very far too quickly, providing a really delicious tension. I would have been perfectly content with the level of heat even if Barry & Turner had left Joe and Frances at the proposal. For lovers of the sexy stuff though, there is a post-wedding epilogue that doesn’t disappoint. It’s charmingly awkward in the absolute best way.
Both Barry and Turner have become romance favorites of mine (and in the case of Emma, a friend, for full disclosure) and their work together on this series has been nothing of short of delightful. And based on the excerpt in Star Dust (book one of the series) of the next full-length novel in the series, Earth Bound, I can’t wait for the next installment.
Okay, so technically the dessert served during an awkward dinner with Joe, Frances, Frances’ sister Suzanne and the Admiral is Baked Alaska, not Bombe Alaska. What’s the difference? Well, Baked Alaska actually goes in the oven–just under the broiler for a minute or two to brown the meringue–and Bombe Alaska is flambéed at the table. Otherwise, it’s the same basic idea: a round of cake topped with molded ice cream, usually in more than one flavor, piped with meringue to cover the surface and then cooked briefly by a high-heat method.
I really, really wanted to set dessert on fire. So I went the Bombe Alaska route.
As I mention in the recipe notes, it helps to have some specialized equipment for this recipe. I used two sets of these metal dome molds that I already had on hand for playing with sugar. I also have a set of these round cookie cutters, which come in handy for all sorts of things. The 3-inch cutter I used to cut out my cake round is a pretty standard size–it’s what most people use for biscuits (of the fluffy Southern, American type). I hate refilling piping bags because meringue is sticky so if you have access to 18-inch piping bags and a large star tip, that helps too. Finally, I found a match unequal to the task of setting the alcohol on fire. The steady flame of my little butane kitchen torch worked much better and had the added benefit of being able to finish off any little bare spots not toasted by the flaming alcohol.
There are several ways to make this recipe simpler. You could buy pound cake, slice it thin and cut rounds out of it instead of baking your own cake. You can spread the meringue instead of piping it, which might be faster if you’re not adept with a piping bag. You could also totally skip the impressive, but also slightly anxiety-producing, tricky step of setting a shot glass full of booze on fire and broil these used the oven for a true Baked Alaska. People will still be delighted. It will still be delicious.
An impressive party dessert for adventurous cooks.
For the ice cream layer
- 1 container cherry or raspberry ice cream
- 1 container pistachio ice cream
For the cake
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened plus more for the pan
- 3/4 cup white sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 4 egg yolks
- 1/3 cup whole milk
- 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup cake flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
For the meringue
- 12 egg whites (or 15 ounces pasteurized egg whites from a carton–see notes)
- 2 1/4 cups white sugar
- 3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 6 ounces 40-proof or higher spirit (I used brandy, but rum would also be appropriate)
For the ice cream
- Line six 3-inch metal domes with plastic wrap. Work with one mold at a time, placing the mold in the freezer as you add the ice cream.
- Using an ice cream scoop, add approximately 1/3 cup of cherry ice cream to the first mold. Using a second small piece of plastic wrap, press into the mold until the sides are evenly covered to a depth of about half an inch. The ice cream should be flat across the top with a hollow in the middle. Set aside the piece of plastic wrap for the next mold.
- Using another piece of plastic wrap, press a 1/3 cup of the pistachio ice cream into the hollow. Cover the mold with the plastic wrap you used to press in the second flavor of ice cream and put it in the freezer. Repeat with the remaining five molds.
- Freeze for at least 8 hours, or better yet, overnight.
For the cake
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch x 13-inch cookie tray, line with parchment paper and butter the parchment.
- Cream butter, sugar and salt on high speed in a stand mixer. Add egg yolks one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition.
- In a liquid measuring cup or small bowl, combine milk and vanilla extract.
- Sift together flour and baking powder.
- Alternating between flour mixture and milk mixture, add half of each at a time, mixing after each addition. Pour the batter onto the prepared pan and smooth with a spatula.
- Bake the cake for 12-15 minutes or until the edges turn golden and the center is done. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes, then remove to a flat surface.
- When the cake is completely cool, using a 3″ round cookie cutter, cut out 6 circles. Reserve remaining cake for another use (I like trifles) or eat it while you assemble the rest of the dessert. If not eating same day, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and set it on the counter so it doesn’t dry out.
For the meringue
- In a large pot, boil 1 inch of water. Set a large bowl over the water, making sure that the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the surface of the water. Add the egg whites, sugar and cream of tartar and whisk to combine. Cook, stirring frequently, until a thermometer reads 155 degrees.
- In a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, whisk the meringue until it forms stiff peaks and the bowl is room temperature.
- Add the meringue to an 18-inch piping bag fitted with a large star tip, if desired. You can also spread the meringue on with a spatula if you prefer.
- Working with one mold at a time, set a cake round on a heat-resistant, high-sided plate or bowl, unmold the ice cream onto the cake round and peel off the plastic wrap. Pipe or spread the meringue onto each ice cream round, making sure that no ice cream is visible beneath the meringue.
- Pour one ounce of brandy in each of six shot glasses and set one glass on each plate.
- Remove the desserts to the table immediately. Turn down the lights. Light the alcohol in each shot glass with the kitchen torch and pour over the meringue-coated ice cream. As the alcohol flames out, you may want to finish with the kitchen torch for even browning.
- This recipe requires special equipment: 3″ metal dome molds, 3″ round cookie cutter, a piping bag with large star tip (optional) and a small butane kitchen torch. If you’ve never flambed before, I would also recommend having a fire extinguisher handy. Better safe than sorry.
- If you use egg whites from a carton, you can skip step one of the meringue recipe and go straight to whipping your meringue.
Fly Me to the Moon
November 7, 2015