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By Melissa Clark, The New York Times
Amid the usual restaurant cacophony in the dining room at Monterey American Brasserie in Manhattan, you’ll hear the occasional whoosh, followed by delighted “oohs” and “wows.” Another pan of bananas Foster has been set ablaze, orange flames surging and swaying before fizzling out, leaving behind caramelized, rum-soaked bananas and causing all the neighboring tables to adjust their dessert orders.
Fifty years ago, scenes like this were routine in fancy restaurants all over the country, where a waiter in a tuxedo might discreetly light your cigarette before ostentatiously igniting your crepes. Today, a flambéed dish is a rare sight, a relic of the flamboyant past or a hat tip to it.
Part of its draw, said Monterey’s chef, James Tracey, is that flambéing bananas Foster at a tableside cart evokes a kind of old-school dazzle.
“Everyone loves the show,” he said of the dessert. “Once they see the flames, they want to order it.”
But even more essential to him is the exquisite taste that the flames impart.
Bananas Foster (or other desserts such as crêpes suzette or cherries Jubilee) could be flambéed unobtrusively in a restaurant kitchen, but in the precious minutes it takes to get to the table, the dish can devolve from heady and sublime to soggy and cold. Done at the table, the bananas stay hot and rummy, and the ice cream icy. The aroma of boozy butterscotch wafts seductively around the room.
“I wouldn’t serve bananas Foster any other way,” Tracey said.
Neither would I, and nor need you. Because flambéing at home is a showstopper that, when done carefully, is not nearly as dangerous as you think it might be. With Valentine’s Day approaching, a flaming pan of cherries Jubilee might be the very thing to warm your loved one’s heart. How could such an exhilarating technique have ever gone out of style?
In the years since its midcentury heyday, flambéing, the art of setting alcohol on fire, has come to be thought of as a fusty gimmick. Yet behind its spectacle lies a legitimate culinary purpose with a long pedigree.
From the moment the first drops of high-proof alcohol were distilled over 1,000 years ago, people have been lighting booze on fire, said the cocktail historian David Wondrich, who is the editor of “The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails.”
One of the earliest European terms for distilled spirits, aqua ardens, Latin for burning water, was meant literally and didn’t just refer to how your throat feels after you do a shot.
“Burning water is a paradox, it shouldn’t happen,” Wondrich said. But once those early distillers discovered they could set spirits on fire, he said, “it must have been a party.”
Igniting booze is indeed a party, especially in the icy heart of winter. The heat and brilliance of a convivial conflagration breaks the dark gloom of cold nights, and hot drinks are more appealing in frigid temperatures than cold ones.
Better still, flambéing spirits can improve their flavor. A kind of alchemy occurs when flames meet alcohol, as more volatile vapors burn off along with a percentage of the alcohol. Flames can render harsh, young spirits more palatable — a boon for, say, those 18th-century German university students who, limited to what was available at the time, used lesser spirits in their fiery punch bowls.
But even for punches and other beverages graced with high-quality spirits, flambéing lowers the alcohol content, caramelizes the sugar and gently singes any citrus peels, spices and aromatics in the mix. A similar thing happens when brandy is flambéed in recipes like classic coq au vin and boeuf Bourguignon. (It’s true that you can get nearly the same outcome by simmering the sauce, but flambéing is faster, more efficient and a whole lot more fun.)
By the time Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol” in 1843, flambéed beverages, fruit cakes, puddings and sauces were long established. There’s Mrs. Cratchit with her glory, the speckled, cannonball-like Christmas pudding “blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top” that so thrilled her overworked husband, Bob.
Dickens himself was known to enjoy a flaming punch, the making of which he minutely described in a letter to a friend. “I send you, on the other side, the tremendous document which will make you for ninety years (I hope) a beautiful Punchmaker in more senses than one,” he wrote in 1847.
With the rise of European restaurant culture in the late 19th century came a flourishing of flambéed delicacies, including kidneys, omelets and crepes, set ablaze in the middle of the dining room for all to admire.
The pioneering French chef Auguste Escoffier was among those fire-wielding innovators. Cherries Jubilee, very fashionable at the time, is a sauce made from sugared, butter-sautéed cherries flambéed with either kirsch or brandy, then poured over ice cream. Although it’s unclear whether Escoffier invented it, he did name the dish in honor of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
According to Luke Barr, who wrote “Ritz and Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef and the Rise of the Leisure Class,” the popularity of cooking tableside in restaurants paralleled Escoffier’s rise to the status of celebrity chef, a novelty at that time.
“Escoffier walked through the dining room greeting people, instead of staying hidden away downstairs,” said Barr, adding that this was the moment when chefs and their restaurants were first seen as glamorous.
Tableside flambéing reached a golden era in 1930s through the 1960s, according to Paul Freedman, a professor of history at Yale University and the author of “American Cuisine and How It Got This Way.”
He relates the pageantry of flambéing to medieval banquet traditions, when princely court dinners might have included fire-breathing peacocks and pyrotechnic boar’s heads. Tableside service was a necessity in court culture, he said, because noisy, smelly medieval kitchens had to be placed at a distance from banquet halls, and meats were carved ceremoniously before the lord and lady and their guests.
“In the 20th century,” Freedman said, high-end tableside service “evolved into a kind of theater, and flambéing was the epitome of that.”
This kind of thrilling opulence is evident in dishes like steak Diane, with its Worcestershire and Cognac-imbued sauce, and café brûlot, an after-dinner libation with brandy, citrus peel and spices made famous at Antoine’s in New Orleans.
You can bring the thrill of those dishes into your own kitchen, without setting off smoke detectors, as long as you follow a few critical safety precautions.
First, move all flammable objects, such as paper towels or matches, for example, out of range. Set out a heavy pot lid that fits your pan, as well as your kitchen fire extinguisher.
Make certain to turn off the burner before adding the alcohol to the pan. Then, standing back, use a long-handled stick lighter or a long match to ignite the spirits. Note that the spirits ignite more readily when they are warm or hot rather than cold, and higher-proof spirits, over 100 proof, are easier to light than the standard 80-proof spirits. When it’s time to extinguish the flames, or if they ever get too high, place the lid over the pan or pot to smother the fire in seconds.
Never pour the alcohol into the pan directly from the bottle, or the bottle may ignite and explode. And just in case, once you’ve measured out the alcohol you want to use, move the bottle a few feet away from the stove.
With a little care, you’ll have a spectacular Valentine’s Day dinner destined to set your beloved’s heart — but not your kitchen — aflame.
Recipe: Cherries Jubilee
By Melissa Clark
Although this classic recipe was named in honor of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the method of sautéing cherries with butter, sugar and a splash of Cognac or kirsch probably predates those festivities. Flambéing the mixture helps cook off some of the alcohol and singes the cherries, adding a gentle caramelized note. But you can skip that step and just add an extra 2 minutes to the simmering in Step 5 after adding the Cognac. Serve this warm over ice cream, pound cake or both.
Yield: 2 to 4 servings
Total time: 15 minutes
- 1 small orange
- 4 cardamom pods
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 to 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, to taste
- 8 ounces fresh sweet cherries, pitted (about 1 3/4 cups)
- 2 tablespoons Cognac or brandy
- Ice cream or pound cake, for serving
1. Finely grate about 1/4 teaspoon zest from the orange, then halve the fruit and squeeze out 2 tablespoons juice. Place the cardamom pods on a cutting board and use the side of a chef’s knife to lightly press on them, bruising them.
2. In a medium skillet over medium heat, combine butter, sugar, cardamom seeds and pods, and orange juice. Gently stir the mixture until the sugar dissolves, 2 to 3 minutes.
3. Add the cherries and orange zest to the saucepan. Cook cherries until they become tender and release their juices, 2 to 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave the pan on the stove.
4. Pour Cognac or brandy into a big metal ladle capable of holding 2 tablespoons of liquid, or a small saucepan. With a stick lighter or long match, carefully warm the brandy by gliding the flame directly over the liquid (stand back as you do this). When the brandy is warm enough, it will ignite with blue flames. Immediately pour the flaming brandy over the cherries and allow flames to burn off, about 30 seconds to 1 minute.
5. After the flames have died, turn the burner to medium heat and reduce the sauce until it begins to thicken, 1 to 2 minutes. Add a tiny pinch of salt to taste and spoon warm cherries over ice cream or cake.
Recipe: Steak Diane
By Melissa Clark
A classic recipe, steak Diane dates to the 1930s, when it was prepared tableside at restaurants with much fanfare. The piquant sauce, a mix of cream, Cognac, shallots and Worcestershire, is speedy and simple to make from the steak’s pan drippings. Flambéing the Cognac adds drama, but you can skip that step, and just let the Cognac simmer for 2 minutes to cook off some of the alcohol. Use any cut of steak you like. Even chicken breasts or pork tenderloins will work in the heady, creamy sauce. Serve with a simple salad alongside, if you like.
Yield: 2 servings
Total time: 15 minutes, plus 15 to 30 minutes’ resting
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 (12- to 16-ounce) boneless steak, such as filet mignon or strip steak, about 1-inch thick
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon neutral oil, such as grapeseed or safflower
- 2 tablespoons minced shallot or red onion
- 1 teaspoon tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons Cognac or brandy
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon fish sauce (optional)
- Minced chives or parsley, for garnish
1. Sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides of the steak and set aside at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes.
2. Melt the butter and heat the oil in a large skillet set over medium-high. Pat the steak dry with a paper towel. Increase the heat to high, add the steak to the pan and sear until well browned, about 2 minutes. Turn and sear on the other side and cook until done to taste, 1 to 4 minutes longer. If your steak is thick enough, insert an instant-read thermometer in the center to test the temperature: Rare is 125 degrees; medium rare is 135 degrees; medium is 145 degrees. When the steak is done, move it to a cutting board and tent with an overturned bowl or foil to keep warm.
3. Add shallot to the pan and sauté until golden, 2 to 3 minutes on medium-high heat, stirring once or twice. Stir in the tomato paste, mixing well and letting it deepen in color, about 1 minute.
4. Turn off the heat and add the Cognac to deglaze the pan. Using a long match or stick lighter, set the Cognac on fire, standing back and taking care. Let the flames burn out, then turn the heat to medium-high and cook until the Cognac is almost evaporated, 1 to 2 minutes.
5. Stir in the cream, mustard, Worcestershire and fish sauce, if using, and cook until thickened, about 1 to 2 minutes. Drizzle the warm sauce over the steak — you can slice beforehand if you wish — and garnish with black pepper and herbs.
Recipe: Café Brûlot
By Melissa Clark
In this classic after-dinner drink popularized in New Orleans, sweetened brandy is spiced with cinnamon, cloves and citrus peels, then set ablaze so that the aromatics can caramelize and some of the alcohol can burn off. The flame is dampened with strong coffee, then the whole thing topped with whipped cream. If setting a drink on fire makes you nervous, skip that step and just let the Cognac mixture simmer for 5 minutes to infuse before adding the coffee. You won’t get the singed flavors, but it still makes a tasty, bracing beverage.
Yield: 2 servings
Total time: 15 minutes
- 1/3 cup Cognac or brandy
- 1 tablespoon Grand Marnier or Cointreau
- Zest of 1/2 orange, removed with a vegetable peeler
- Zest of 1/2 lemon, removed with a vegetable peeler
- 2 teaspoons light or dark brown sugar, plus more to taste
- 4 whole cloves
- 1 (2-inch-long) cinnamon stick
- 1 cup strongly brewed coffee
- Ground cinnamon and whipped cream, for serving
1. In a small saucepan, combine the Cognac, Grand Marnier, orange and lemon zests, sugar, cloves and cinnamon stick. Heat over low, stirring, until the sugar dissolves, about 1 minute.
2. Turn off the heat. Using a stick lighter or long match and standing back a bit, carefully set the Cognac on fire. Let it burn for 30 seconds to 1 minute to singe the citrus peels and cinnamon, then pour the coffee into the pan to douse the flames. Stir well, then taste and add more sugar, if you like.
3. Strain the coffee into mugs and serve topped with whipped cream and ground cinnamon.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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