That’s the Bombe: The Palmer House Hotel, Leading Ladies, and Complicated Cookery

Introduction

The Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, Illinois, has been the backdrop for many historical occasions – every sitting president since Ulysses S. Grant has stayed there, the first brownie was created in its kitchens, and the final scene of the blockbuster movie “The Fugitive” was filmed in its halls. But, most importantly (or, most importantly for the purposes of this paper), on July 20, 1933, the Palmer House Hotel hosted a meeting of the International Congress of Women and was home to a complicated, celebratory dish called a bombe.

Palmer House Hotel, 1875
Chicago Department of Planning and Development, “Landmark Designation Report: Palmer House Hotel”  https://www.chicago.gov/content/dam/city/depts/zlup/Historic_Preservation/Publications/Palmer_House_Hotel.pd

The Palmer House Hotel and the International Congress of Women

In 1870, Potter Palmer, a notable retailer and businessman from the city of Chicago, wanted to do something truly special for his young fiancé Bertha in order to celebrate their recent engagement and showcase his love. So, he built her an opulent, 225 room hotel. The new Palmer House Hotel was to be accompanied by another, even larger location nearby, but both hotels were burned down in the Chicago Fire of 1871.1 The third iteration of the hotel, completed in 1875, was fittingly hailed as “The World’s Only Fire-Proof Hotel.”2 By 1925, the hotel was remodeled (into its fourth and final form) and quickly became one of the finest hotels in Chicago. Architects would later dub the Palmer House Hotel a poster child for the new “microcity” type of accommodations.3 The 25-story building housed an astounding number of dining halls, meeting rooms, barber shops, and retailers, not to mention a radio station and a hospital; to support such a sprawl, the Palmer House Hotel became the first Chicago establishment to “be equipped with electric lights, telephones and elevators.”4

Palmer House Hotel, Main Lobby
Chicago Department of Planning and Development, “Landmark Designation Report: Palmer House Hotel”  https://www.chicago.gov/content/dam/city/depts/zlup/Historic_Preservation/Publications/Palmer_House_Hotel.pd

Such amenities made the Palmer House highly popular as a meeting place, and in 1933 the National Congress of Women of the United States chose to host the International Congress of Women (ICW) at the Palmer House Hotel. Prior to her passing in 1918, Bertha Palmer was a highly regarded figure in the Chicago women’s movement, and it is very possible that the Palmer House Hotel was selected to host this event to honor her memory. The event lasted from July 16-22, and although there is very little information available about the event itself, these affairs often acted as a forum for regional women to find common ground with their international counterparts.5 Topics such as improving female education and obtaining suffrage for women certainly would have been discussed, as well as more abstract notions like how to peacefully co-exist with other cultures.6

International Congress of Women, 1933, Palmer House Hotel, Chicago,IL
https://www.amazon.ca/Photo-International-Congress-Rights-Chicago/dp/B00RQY0HKG

On July 20, Marcelle Kraemer-Bach, a delegate from France, gave a speech titled, “The World As It Could Be,” with delegates from America and Turkey giving accompanying lectures that stressed global unity. This message of alliance was further solidified by that day’s demonstration. Prior to the start of dinner, a number of messages were sent to international women’s leaders via telegram and radiogram. Courtesy of the Postal Telegraph-Cable Company, the ladies could view a massive map of the world that traced each message with flashing lights as it was received and answered.

The Menu

ICW Event Menu, July 20, 1933
http://menus.nypl.org/menu_pages/63522/explore

Compared to such an exciting technological marvel, the evening’s menu may seem a bit dull in comparison – but it certainly ends with a bang! In accordance with the majority of fine dining during this period, the menu’s composition was decidedly French. All six of the courses can be found, in some form, in Auguste Escoffier’s 1903 cookbook, Le Guide Culinaire. Escoffier’s influence on the art of cooking at the turn of the 20th century cannot be overstated; his strict methods of running a kitchen revolutionized what it meant to be a chef. Prior to his appearance on the fine dining scene, French cooking could be characterized by sloppy, unorganized kitchens and extravagant, stylized food.7 Escoffier, on the other hand, developed a new kitchen hierarchy that streamlined and quickened the cooking process, and demanded extreme cleanliness from his staff.8 Escoffier’s approach to both the kitchen and his recipes are summed by his famous motto “surtout, faites simple – above all, make it simple.”9 His cookbook also follows this maxim. Le Guide Culinaire’s first section describes the “Fundamental Elements of Cooking,” in great detail, while the second section, “Recipes and Methods of Procedure,” builds from the basic recipes.

Le Guide Culinarie Cover
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/273669.The_Escoffier_Cookbook

As previously mentioned, all of the dishes listed on the ICW event’s menu can be found in Le Guide Culinaire, so it is highly probable that the cookbook was present in the Palmer House Hotel kitchen, or at the very least the cook staff was trained in French cuisine. The second item on the ICW event’s menu, for example, is a consommé, one of the principle sauces/stocks of French cuisine. This dish was prepared by heating meat, vegetables, and water together, then performing a variety of steps that resulted in a light, flavorful broth. The main course, filet of prize beef, was “covered on top and beneath with slices of beef fat, flattened to the thickness of a rasher of bacon by means of a mallet or cleaver, and tied with a string” before being cooked.10 Escoffier recommended serving the filet with sides of Yorkshire Pudding or Horse-radish Sauce, but the Palmer House Staff chose two richer dishes: Potatoes Parisienne and Giant Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce. Potatoes Parisienne were essentially little balls of potato that were covered in a meat glaze (reduced meat broth), while the asparagus was served fresh and coated in Hollandaise, a sauce made from beaten egg yolks and butter.11 As luxurious as these dishes are, none of them hold a candle to the menu’s dessert course, the pièce de resistance, the Bombe Imperial.

The Bombe

“What is a bombe?” you may ask. Well, that is a question with many answers, but at its core a bombe is a molded, layered dessert. At least one of the layers is ice cream, meaning the dish is frozen prior to serving. Like most dishes, the bombe’s origins are unclear. Its traditional components – ice cream, fillings (like mousse or jelly), and sponge – are equally hard to track, but variations of ice cream as we know it developed in different areas of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.12 The sponge cake has a similar history. Escoffier is known for streamlining and popularizing the bombe, while Charles Ranhofer, head chef of the famous Delmonico’s restaurant, is credited with creating the bombe’s cousin, the Baked Alaska, in 1867.13

Various Moulds as pictured in Le Guide Culinaire.

Bombes are notoriously difficult to produce due to the fact that each component is prepared at a different temperature, and if one component is off the structure of the entire bombe will collapse in on itself. This challenging aspect, however, is what made the dish so appealing. Chefs only went through the trouble of producing a bombe for the most momentous of occasions, so if you were not a member of the elite class, you were unlikely to ever see one. Bombes were most often present at events like the inaugural first-class dinner on ocean liners or at diplomatic luncheons. Thomas Jefferson was known to have an affinity for “pastry-wrapped ice cream,” and the bombe was such a great favorite with the Kennedy’s that it was present at JFK’s 46th birthday party.14

And so it Begins…

One of the most difficult parts of the recreation attempt was actually compiling the recipe itself. Bombes could be named after their place of creation (the restaurant, cruise liner, etc), their creator, or their most prominent ingredient, therefore, figuring out what was inside of any given bombe based solely on its name is virtually impossible. Escoffier did not have a recipe for a “Bombe Imperial,” nor did any other cookbook I consulted, so I decided to simply choose the Escoffier bombe recipe with the most detailed information and description. This criterion led me to the “Bombe Nero,” a vanilla and caramel concoction that seemed relatively simple in its construction. Boy oh boy, would I be proven wrong about that assumption!

Bombe Nero Recipe from Le Guide Culinaire. Photo by Jesse LeBoeuf.

Next, I combed through Le Guide Culinaire in order to piece together the recipe’s components. Each individual recipe in the cookbook is written like a “choose-your-own-adventure” novel, with notations every few words directing you to a different page to learn more about a specific technique or procedure. In the end, I used five supplementary recipes: punch biscuit sponge, Italian style meringue, English cream, vanilla ice cream, and iced mousse with cream. Once this step was completed, I assembled the fragments into one master recipe and began to plan what revisions were needed for the recipe to suit a modern kitchen. Mediating between historical accuracy and what is available today is no small task, but the process was made much easier due to the fact that all but one of the ingredients (tragacanth gum) was commonly recognizable and available at my local grocery store. After procuring a whopping five dozen eggs and various other ingredients, I was ready to create my bombe!

Photo by Jesse LeBoeuf.

A song of fire and ice . . .

I began by preparing the ice cream mixture because I wanted to ensure it would have enough time to set in the freezer. As I stated previously, the texture of each component must be close to perfect for the bombe to not disintegrate into a disappointing, albeit tasty, puddle. After cracking ten eggs and breaking the handle on my measuring cup (perhaps an omen of what was to come?), I made an unfortunate discovery – none of the Escoffier recipes give any indication as to what temperature should be used for each step. Luckily, I found a similar ice cream recipe that included this pertinent information, so I was able to proceed. 

Making Ice Cream. Photo By Jesse LeBoeuf.
Photo by Jesse LeBoeuf.

After mixing sugar and egg yolks together in a saucepan until they reached the ribbon stage, I added boiling milk (flavored with vanilla) to the mixture in small increments.  Slowly but surely, the mixture thickened into a very thin custard. There were tiny pieces of egg floating around in the bowl, probably due to an unknown mistake on my part, so I strained the mixture until they were mostly removed. For the mousse, I beat eggs and powdered sugar together in a bowl, added boiling milk, and whisked it over the stove. Once properly thickened, I left the mousse preparation to cool next to its custardy cousin and moved on to the sponge. The sponge batter was utterly massive with its proportions, including 23 eggs, a pound of sugar, and twelve ounces of flour. Interestingly, the recipe directed me to flavor the batter with “three tablespoons of best rum;” I was excited to see if the rum would still be remotely noticeable against all of the other flavors. 

Since the ice cream mixture had been cooling for a couple of hours at this point, I decided to put it in my ice cream maker. When I checked it about 40 minutes later, I was extremely dismayed to find that the mixture was still ice cream soup.

Ice Cream Soup. Photo by Jesse LeBoeuf

Left with no other option, I asked my dad to go to the store to buy vanilla ice cream and said a prayer that the other elements would all turn out. After adding raw cream, xanthan gum (my substitute for tragacanth gum) and vanilla to the cooled mousse base, I placed it in a bowl packed with ice packs and “whisked until frothy.”

Whisking the Mousse. Photo by Jesse LeBoeuf.

I then put the mousse in a sealed container in the fridge as directed. Over time, I was relieved to see it thicken into a mousse-like consistency! Meanwhile, I heated some sugar while my mom whisked eight egg whites for the meringue. This process was extremely frenzied, as the two components had to be ready simultaneously, so I did not get any photos. Watching the meringue “come to life” without the assistance of a stand mixer, however, was very satisfying!

Once all of the components were prepared, I began to assemble my bombe. First, I coated a large bowl in vegetable oil and layered cling wrap until all surfaces were covered. Next, I scooped two cartons of ice cream into the bowl and used more cling wrap to press the ice cream into place on the sides of the bowl. 

Moulded Ice Cream. Photo by Jesse LeBoeuf

After putting the bowl back in the freezer to harden, I took it out, removed the cling wrap, and laid down a thin layer of (store-bought) caramel. Then I poured my mousse into the center of the bombe. Now for the most nerve-wracking part – turning the bombe out onto its sponge base. Miraculously, it came out with ease, and I almost cried tears of joy! I quickly trimmed off the excess sponge and stuck the bombe back in the freezer.

Success! By Jesse LeBoeuf.
Removing Excess Sponge. Photo By Jesse LeBoeuf.

The final steps of the process were literally a family affair – my mom piped the meringue onto the bombe (my hands are far too shaky for anything that precise), my dad manned the blowtorch, and I photographed. The bombe did melt a bit during the process, but it remained intact for the most part. Here is the final product!

Bombe Nero. Photo by Jesse LeBoeuf.
Bombe Slice. Photo By Jesse LeBoeuf.

Overall, the bombe turned out about as well as I expected – a few mishaps here and there, but it was delicious nevertheless! I was disappointed to find that the caramel had somehow vanished from the interior of the bombe, making the inside a solid white instead of a bombe’s characteristic layered appearance. A quick taste test confirmed that the dish still tasted delicious, despite its visual flaws. The rum flavor was decidedly nonexistent, but all of the other components had a very pleasant vanilla taste. 

All things considered, I think that I would attempt to make a historical recipe again, especially if I did not have to use so many eggs! Food connects us with so many cultures, traditions, and experiences, and I very much enjoyed the notion of sharing food with my feminist predecessors. Updating the recipe for a modern kitchen is certainly a hassle, but the result is delicious, not to mention very impressive to your friends and family!

Notes

  1. Chicago Department of Planning and Development, “Landmark Designation Report: Palmer House Hotel,”  last modified May 2006, accessed November 20, 2020, https://www.chicago.gov/content/dam/city/depts/zlup/Historic_Preservation/Publications/Palmer_House_Hotel.pdf
  2. Stanley Turkel, “Hotel History – Palmer House, Chicago, Illinois (1871),” Hotel News Resource, last modified April 27, 2015, accessed November 20, 2020, https://www.hotelnewsresource.com/article83260.html.
  3. Chicago Dept., “Landmark.”
  4. Ibid.
  5. Marie Sandell, “Regional versus International: Women’s Activism and Organisational Spaces in the Inter-War Period,” The International History Review 33, no. 4 (2011): 607. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23240853
  6. Ibid, 609.
  7. Luke Barr, Ritz & Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef, and the Rise of the Leisure Class (New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2018), 49-59, Kindle.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Auguste Escoffier, Le Guide Culinaire (New York: Crown Publishers, 1969), 630.
  11. Ibid, 652-692.
  12. Jeri Quinzio, “Early Ices and Iced Creams,” in Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009), 8, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt7zw39d.5
  13. “History of Baked Alaska,” What’s Cooking America, accessed November 22, 2020, https://whatscookingamerica.net/History/IceCream/BakedAlaska.htm.
  14. Ibid; Ian Shapira, “JFK’s Last Birthday: Gifts, Champagne and Wandering Hands on the Presidential Yacht,” Washington Post, last modified May 26, 2017, accessed November 23, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/05/26/jfks-last-birthday-gifts-champagne-and-wandering-hands-on-the-presidential-yacht/.

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