The bombe! How could the world forget the bombe? A hundred years ago, la bombe glacee was the summit of ice cream splendor, but just try to find one today.
A bombe is two or more flavors of ice cream frozen together in a mold, so in effect it’s a sundae, only more trouble to make. But it’s a French dessert. Of course it’s more trouble.
The point is that it’s also a lot more impressive. If you can make the ice cream the day before to freeze a bombe overnight, your guests will be--well, blown away.
The idea of molding frozen desserts is even older than ice cream. When the secret of producing below-freezing temperatures was discovered in the 16th century, its first use was for freezing sweetened water, which was usually done in a mold. The whole point was to have grand, angular shapes to show off your glistening ice.
Ice cream as we know it was invented in the 18th century. Confectioners discovered that if you stir cream as it freezes, you can prevent large crystals from forming and incorporate a lot of tiny air bubbles, creating a light, melting texture much more luxurious than ice.
Once ice cream is made, you have to stop stirring it and leave it at subfreezing temperatures to harden, a process familiar to backyard ice cream makers. Because there was that tradition of freezing ice in molds, ice cream was often hardened in a fanciful mold, particularly in haute cuisine.
In “The Harvest of the Cold Months,” Elizabeth David recalled the bombe molds of the early 20th century: “those crenelated, betowered, beswirled and colonnaded creations of the coppersmith’s art and the porcelain-maker’s skills.”
The bombes that emerged were “minareted like the mosques of Stambul, many-domed as the Brighton Pavilion, as variously bespired as Ludwig of Bavaria’s neo-gothic palaces.” On top of all that, a really fancy bombe might be frosted like a cake.
Auguste Escoffier, the most famous chef in the world from about 1890 to 1920, preferred simpler, more elegant bombes. He used bowls as bombe molds, and it’s certainly easier to remove the bombe from a bowl than from a complex mold.
Originally, bombes used two or more kinds of regular ice cream, but since Escoffier’s time, the inner layer has usually been made from what he called bombe preparation. It starts as something like a custard made with syrup instead of milk. When it’s cold, whipped cream is folded into it.
Its great advantage is that it doesn’t have to be frozen before being added to the bombe--once you’ve lined the mold with ice cream and hardened it in the freezer, you can just fill the rest of the mold with bombe mixture and leave it in the freezer for a couple of hours.
This is because the thickened “custard” reinforces the air bubbles in the whipped cream, giving a texture even lighter than that of ice cream with no need for stirring it while it freezes. The ice crystals that form are a little larger than those in ice cream, however, which gives bombe preparation a faintly crunchy consistency.
This odd-sounding egg yolk-syrup-whipped cream mixture is descended, as David showed, from candito d’uova, or candied eggs, a 17th century Italian confection of frozen egg yolks. And it’s not as unfamiliar as it might sound. You’ve had it if you’ve ever had the Italian ice cream called spumone.
In fact, spumone is really a sort of bombe--layers of different flavors of ice cream. And now you know how they’re able to freeze spumone in layers without stirring it.
The spumone/bombe preparation recipe is handy if you ever want to, or have to, make ice cream in a freezer, without a mechanical ice cream maker. It works well with fruit flavors, particularly strawberries and pineapple (both traditional spumone flavors), but it will collapse if you use melted chocolate as a flavoring, which explains why the chocolate layer in spumone always tastes like cocoa.
But bombes are more luscious than spumone, and you wonder why they haven’t made a comeback in this Haagen-Dazs/Ben and Jerry’s world. Many of Escoffier’s own bombe recipes are not to our taste, with their late 19th century flavorings of liqueurs and candied flowers, but his technique hasn’t been improved on. And his Bombe Africaine and Bombe Richelieu show just how high the bombe can go.