Tasteful Inventions: Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford

I don't mind saying, I was a bit confused when I was first introduced to Count von Rumford in a book titled The Delectable Past by Esther Bradford Aresty. At first, I assumed Count Rumford was associated with the Rumford Chemical Works Company the maker of Rumford Baking Powder. After all, Benjamin Thompson (ie: Count von Rumford) was an active inventor. He developed improvements for chimneys, fireplaces and he invented the double boiler. He also made numerous practical inventions such as the kitchen range, a dripolater coffeepot and, thermal underwear. The Rumford fireplace was also invented by Count Rumford. So what's all the confusion about? Well, it seems that the name Rumford is distantly "related" to both. Rumford Baking Powder, which was patented in 1859, was invented by a former Rumford professor at Harvard University by the name of Eben Norton Horsford. Eben Norton Horsford was co-founder of the Rumford Chemical Works of East Providence Rhode Island. It was in Count Rumford's honor that Horsford named the baking powder after him.

Count Rumford courtesy of wikipedia

Benjamin Thompson was born on March 26, 1753 in Woburn Massachusetts. There is much detail about the man and his inventions at Dartmouth College. Here is an excerpt from the article.

Benjamin Thompson was born a farmer's son on 26 March 1753 in North Woburn, Massachusetts; his father died before the boy was two years old. During his boyhood years, Thompson had limited schooling. Largely self-taught, as he grew older he sought information from friends and acquaintances. His inquisitive mind led him to pose scientific questions at an early age. But at thirteen, he apprenticed as a clerk to an importer and later worked for a dry-goods merchant. Then he became an apprentice to Doctor John Hay of Woburn, to learn the science and art of medicine.

Have you ever experienced Baked Alaska? Well, it seems Count Rumford also has his name encased in this sponge cake based, meringue topped insulated ice cream dish. Before we get into the discovery of Baked Alaska, I would like to try and clarify how Benjamin Thompson also became known as Count von Rumford. According to Esther B. Aresty, Thompson installed a kitchen range in a Bavarian nobleman's kitchen in 1789. A thankful reward was given as the title of Count.

Thompson was largely responsible for lifting cooking out of the fireplace and transferring it to ranges built-in ovens. In 1789 he installed the forerunner of the modern kitchen range in a Bavarian nobleman's kitchen. A grateful Bavaria rewarded him with the title of Count Rumford for the scientific researches he conducted in that country.

Much like Benjamin Thompson, Baked Alaska is also legendary. Not only does it have a few other names, (omelette surprise, omelette á la norvégienne, Norwegian omelette, and glace au four) it also has a few people who claim to have invented it. Most agree it was invented by Benjamin Thompson in 1804 as a result of his interest in the insulating qualities of egg whites. He named his dish omelette surprise. Others believe it was "reinvented" by Charles Ranhofer as a tribute to Secretary of State William Henry Seward, Sr. who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia on March 30, 1867. The famous Delmonico's chef called his creation Alaska Florida Cake. An earlier theory stems from a column written on June 6, 1866 in a French publication. The author of the article Baron Brisse suggests the dessert was brought to France by the master cook of a Chinese mission in Paris who disclosed his technique to the French chef Balzac of the Grand Hotel. (source) By 1895, Baked Alaska had become a privileged dessert popularized by chefs such as Jean Giroix at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. In 1896, Baked Alaska found its place in the archives of America's top 100 dishes when it was published in the "Bride's Bible" The Boston Cooking School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer.

The following recipe for Baked Alaska comes from The Settlement Cookbook: The Way to a Man's Heart by Mrs. Simon Kander. Enjoy!

Baked Alaska
Whites 6 eggs, 6 tablespoons powdered sugar, 3/4 teaspoon vanilla, 2 quarts of ice cream, Thin sheet sponge cake. Make two quarts of ice cream after any receipt and when frozen remove the beater and pack it well in the freezer can. Let it stand till hard. Just before serving make a meringue by beating the whites of six eggs till stiff, then beating in, gradually, six rounding tablespoonfuls of sifted powdered sugar. Put a thin, round sheet of sponge cake on a plate suitable for serving, and turn out the mould of cream on the cake. Pile the meringue thickly round the edge and top of the cream, but do not smooth it. Place the dish on a wooden box cover and brown the meringue quickly in a hot oven. Serve at once. The plate should be larger than the cake, and the cake larger than the bottom of the can. The cream will not melt, for the wood and the meringue serve as non-conductors of the heat. This is recommended chiefly for its novelty.
  • 1. Benjamin Thompson @ wiki
  • 2. What is a Rumford Fireplace, Anyway?
  • 3. Esther Bradford Aresty @ Months of Edible Celebrations
  • 4. Fannie Farmer @ Months of Edible Celebrations

    Cakespy said...

    How wonderful! I think we should ALL have some Baked Alaska to celebrate this revered day! :-)

    ~~Louise~~ said...

    Thanks for visiting, I'm in! I just updated all three of my blogs. I sure would enjoy a teeny slice just about now!