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 table-side 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.”
The chef James Tracey flambéing bananas Foster at Monterey American Brasserie in Manhattan. “Everyone loves the show,” he said.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times
But even more essential to him is the exquisite taste that the flames impart.
Bananas Foster (or other desserts like 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,” Mr. 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?
Recipe: Cherries Jubilee
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 a thousand 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,” Mr. 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” thatso 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 table-side 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 Mr. Barr, adding that this was the moment when chefs and their restaurants were first seen as glamorous.
Table-side 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. Table-side 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.
Recipe: Steak Diane
“In the 20th century,” Mr. Freedman said, high-end table-side 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.
Recipe: Café Brûlot
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.
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