[ RECIPES ]
Several years ago, I acquired the "Time Life Picture Cookbook" -- a gigantic coffee table-style book published in 1958. Aside from its cool pictures of men barbecuing in suits and ties, and children eating their lunches in kitchens with atomic symbols on the curtains, the cookbook gave me a window into a world long past. There are pictures of waiters in Paris taking apart pressed ducks tableside, of unctuous servers standing before carts on which crepes suzette are about to be made, and of turbaned waiters at Chicago's Pump Room delivering flaming shish kebabs to delighted diners.
Just as you don't see waiters in turbans much anymore, tableside service and flambeeing anything (at least on purpose) is pretty much a thing of the past, a victim of the evolution of the service industry. Fifty years ago, when waitering was still a career, and restaurant dining was a special occasion, you could depend on the ability of at least some of the guys (and they were all men) working the front of the house to be able to flame an order of steak au poivre, or assemble bananas foster or cherries jubilee. Today, it's pretty much a lost art, found in only a handful of places, and then confined primarily to dessert. And more often than not it's the chef or pastry chef who comes out of the kitchen to put the torch to your dessert.
The vogue for all things brulee of late seemed to augur a return to the age of fire in the kitchen -- home cooks flocked to the cooking stores to buy sleek, expensive blowtorches to melt sugar atop their custards and fresh fruit. But that didn't seem to translate into a return to the flashier side of cooking. So, I decided that it was about time to revive some old standbys, bringing fire to breakfast, dinner, and dessert. Alas, a flaming cocktail that didn't require the assembling talent of a brain surgeon was beyond me.
Before we begin, my wife -- who insists that this sort of thing probably isn't covered by our home owners' policy -- wants me to say a few words about how to flambe safely. First, make sure you have the proper safety equipment. Even if it's not right next to you, make sure that a fire extinguisher is handy whenever you are playing with fire. Whatever pan you happen to be cooking should have a tight fitting lid that you can slap down on top of it if things start to get out of hand (this won't just save your house, it might also save your dinner or dessert). Flambeing in a lightweight pan is a sure invitation to burned food or a flash fire, so make sure you are using a heavy, uncoated sautee pan.
A final word on firing things up: if you do decide to follow these recipes, I strongly encourage you to use a wooden kitchen match rather than a long-stemmed click lighter to start the fire. As remote as the possibility is, with a click lighter you are holding a handful of lighter fluid. With a match you've got a tiny piece of wood.
So, you still want to set your breakfast, dinner, or dessert on fire? Good. There are several factors you will need to take into consideration in order to do it right every time. First, the booze that you use has to be at least 80 proof (that is, 40 percent alcohol). In order to get a dish to catch fire, both the liquor and the sauce on which it floats need to be boiling hot -- it's the vapor coming off the liquor that ignite, not the liquid itself. Next, you must have all of your ingredients at hand, and you must have your matches in easy reach. Pouring the rum or cognac into the pan and then walking away for five minutes to find a match is not going to serve you well. Depending on how hot the sauce is, it might burst into uncontrolled flames while you are on the other side of the room -- a guarantee that your significant other will never let you try this at home again.
In order to flambe successfully, you also need to rein in your startle reflex. Accept that flames are going to happen. Don't get flustered, and keep your pot lid handy just in case. Your emergency sequence should be as follows: lid on, pan off of the heat source, turn off the heat source. You might want to run through this as a dry run a couple of times before you break out the liquor and matches.
All of the recipes here (with the exception of the French toast under the bananas, which is my own excuse for setting breakfast on fire) are old-school tableside service standards, but I only know of two places in our area where you can still find even a glimmer of the past: Warfield's in Clifton Springs, where they do cherries jubilee and bananas foster tableside, and Red Osier in Stafford, where diners can watch bananas foster being made for them. My wife was very disappointed to find out that there really wasn't any alternative to allowing me to start fires in our kitchen.
Bananas Foster French Toast
Pain Perdu (quantities are for two servings)
2 thick-cut slices of bread
1/4 cup of milk or cream
1 tsp vanilla
Dash of cinnamon
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tbsp butter
1/2 tbsp olive, canola, or peanut oil.
Bananas Foster (quantities are for two servings)
1 ripe banana, cut into thick slices or rounds
2 tbsp butter (increase by 1 tbsp for two or more servings)
3 tbsp light or dark brown sugar
1/2 tsp lemon zest
Dash of cinnamon, nutmeg
1/4 cup rum (light, dark, spiced, it really doesn't matter)
1. In a shallow dish, beat together egg, milk, cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar. Slide the bread into the mixture and poke it several times with a fork to make sure that the egg mixture soaks in. Turn the bread once, carefully. Most of the egg mixture should soak into the bread, giving it the consistency of a very wet (and very fragile) sponge.
2. Melt butter and olive oil over medium heat, keeping a careful eye on the pan to make sure that the butter does not burn (the olive oil will help to temper the butter's finicky nature).
3. Using a spatula, transfer the custard-soaked bread to the waiting frying pan, being careful not to crowd the pan, and cook until the underside of the each slice is golden (a good indication of this is that the edges of the bread will start to darken). Flip the slices, cook until golden, and then transfer the finished French toast to plates (as rich as this dish is, one slice is more than adequate for a hearty breakfast).
4. While cooking the French toast, in a separate pan melt 2 tbsp of butter over medium heat. Add sliced bananas and cook until the fruit begins to darken and smell sweet. Heat the rum in a glass measuring cup in the microwave for 30 seconds.
5. Add brown sugar, lemon zest, and cinnamon to the pan and swish about liberally, making sure this mixture coats the bananas. Increase heat to medium high, bringing contents to a fast boil.
6. Remove the pan from the heat. Add the rum. Return the pan to high heat allowing it to come to a furious boil.
7. Ignite the sauce with a wooden match. When flames subside, spoon the the bananas and sauce over the French toast and serve immediately.
Steak au Poivre
1 1/2-2 lbs of any relatively lean steak: hanger steak, New York Strip steak, or filet mignon are preferable
3 tbsp black peppercorns, roughly cracked
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1/2 cup beef stock or beef broth
Juice of one lemon
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
1/8 tsp dijon mustard (optional, works particularly well with whiskey-based sauces)
Zest of one lemon
1 shallot, minced
2 oz. cognac, brandy, or whiskey (depends on preference)
1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
1. Trim steaks of any exterior fat and gristle. Break larger steaks down into uniformly sized pieces about 1"-1 ½" thick and no larger than about one-third of one pound to ensure even cooking.
2. Season the steaks with salt, and press the coarsely ground peppercorns into the flesh, coating both sides of each steak evenly. Combine beef stock, lemon juice, Worcestershire, and mustard in a small bowl, and set aside. In a glass measuring cup, heat two ounces of liquor for 30 seconds in the microwave.
3. Place a heavy, non-Teflon-coated, pan over high heat, add olive oil. When there is a faint shimmer across the surface of the oil, add the steaks, cooking them to what Irma and Marion Rombauer call the "desired degree of rareness." Give the steaks about two to three minutes per side depending on how rare you like them. It is, however, a crime to cook a good steak more than medium (or even medium rare). You may want to cook the steaks slightly less than you otherwise might: the flaming alcohol and the sauce at the end of this recipe will add some heat to the meat.
4. Remove the steaks to a side platter. Give the alcohol in the microwave another 30 seconds of heat. Lower the heat under the pan, and spoon or pour off all but the smallest amount of the accumulated fat. Add butter, shallots and lemon zest to the pan and increase the heat to medium-high, sauteeing until fragrant. Add beef stock mixture to the pan, scraping up any browned bits that have accumulated in the course of cooking. Increase heat to high and bring the sauce to a rapid boil. Return the steaks to the pan.
5. Remove the booze from the microwave, grab a wooden match. Make an excuse to call your friends and family into the kitchen. (Note, you could do this tableside with an electric hotplate, but doing it in the kitchen at least allows you to pretend that you aren't just showing off).
6. Add the cognac, brandy, or whiskey, bring it to a boil, and light the match. As long as the sauce continues to boil and you keep the pan over the heat source, the flames will continue until the easily available alcohol in the sauce is burned off.
7. Remove the steaks to a platter, and either pour the finished sauce over them (which makes a classic steak au poivre), or whisk the cream into the sauce and then pour half of the sauce over the steaks (serving the rest on the side) to make the more contemporary and familiar version of the dish.
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1. Preheat oven to 325°. Select and have ready either one 2.5 quart casserole or souffle pan, or six 8 oz. ramekins (heavy coffee cups or mugs will work in a pinch). In a small sauce pan combine water and sugar, and place over medium-high heat. Swirl the pan occasionally until the syrup clears. Cover and cook for two minutes. Uncover the pan, increase heat slightly, and continue swirling until the liquid begins to darken. Be careful not to burn the sugar, once it begins to change color, the syrup will darken very quickly and it will continue to darken even once you take it off the heat.
2. Pour the syrup into either the casserole or the ramekins. Swirl the syrup up the sides of the container(s). Set aside to cool.
3 cups of milk, cream, half-and-half or some combination of the same.
5 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 tbsp vanilla
2 tbsp butter (increase by 1 tbsp for two or more servings)
3 tbsp light or dark brown sugar (increase by 1tbsp for three or more servings)
1/2 tsp lemon zest
1/2 to 1 oz. of dark rum per serving
1. Over medium to medium-low heat, warm the milk or cream until it is steaming. Do not allow it to boil.
2. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, sugar, and salt; whisk to combine.
3. Slowly add the milk or cream to the egg mixture, whisking constantly. If the eggs begin to curdle, you will have to start over with cooler milk. Whisk until the custard is smooth, and add vanilla.
4. Strain the custard through a fine mesh sieve into a large bowl or measuring cup (it will need to be at least a two quart measure), and then either pour the mixture into the casserole, or divide it among the smaller containers.
5. Place the individual cups or the casserole into a heavy roasting pan or a large cake pan. Place the pan on the middle rack of the oven. Pour very hot tap water into the roasting pan until the water level is about halfway up the side of whatever container(s) you are using.
6. Bake the custard for one hour, longer for a single, large portion. The custard is done when the top is firm to the touch. If the skin is too thin or fractures easily, you may want to give the custard a few more minutes.
7. Cool, cover, and then refrigerate until ready to serve.
To remove the flan from its cooking container, run a knife around the edge of the dish, place a heatproof plate or a platter over the top of the container (note that the plate's rim should be high enough to capture the sauce that's going to come out on top of the flan), and invert the dish. If you've done everything correctly, the flan should drop onto the plate surrounded by a pool of liquified syrup. Even if you decide to stop at this point, you have a killer dessert. For those of you out there who are dedicated firebugs, now comes the fun part.
1. Heat 1/2 to 1 oz. of rum per portion of flan in the microwave. You want the rum steaming hot or it will not flame at the critical moment.
2. In a sauce pan over medium heat, melt butter. Add brown sugar and lemon zest, and heat this "sauce" until it comes to a rolling boil. Lower heat, and prepare for action.
3. Just before you plan to serve the flan, pour the boiling brown sugar and butter mixture directly over the top of the custard. Immediately pour the rum over the surface of the flan, strike a wooden match, and light it up. The flame will last a surprisingly long time, and is likely best done at the table to give guests the maximum enjoyment of the experience.
4. You can also buy yourself some flambe insurance: soak a spiral of orange peel or lemon peel in rum and sugar for an hour or so before service. Pop it on top of the flan just before you touch the match to it. Even if the flambe fizzles, the citrus will provide the requisite pyrotechnics to wow your guests -- and the dispersing orange oil will impart the dish with the tiniest amount of burnt orange flavor.