In the 1960s, the word “flambé” on the menu meant instant elegance. Most any restaurant with aspirations to the title “fine dining” offered a dramatic tableside presentation of Crepes Suzette or Baked Alaska set aflame to the accompaniment of “oohs” and “aahs” around the dining room.
To revisit the glory days of flambé, I went directly to the queen of 1960s cuisine, Julia Child.
"The French Chef Cookbook" (Bantam Books, $17.95) was first published in 1968 and offered the recipes demonstrated in the black-and-white episodes of The French Chef, Child’s ground breaking educational (as public broadcasting was known in those days) television series, which debuted in 1963.
Show 26 of The French Chef was devoted to dessert crepes – crepes with orange butter and almonds, crepes with apples and macaroons and the crème de la crème, Crepes Suzette; all of them flambéed.
Child credited chef Henri Carpentier of the Café de Paris in Monte Carlo as the creator of Crepes Suzette. She said he had been asked to dream up an especially fine dessert for a party of English royals.
“Young Henri remembered a dish of fruit-filled crepes his grandmother used to make; he substituted orange butter for the fruit, flamed his crepes in brandy, and thereby created the legend which is now part of the repertoire of every chef from the shores of Montezuma to the wilds of Hohokus, New Jersey,” she wrote.
Flaming soufflés starred in show 52, Steak au Poivre was flambéed in show 94 and show 121 featured a swordfish dinner for four in half an hour with Bananas Flambées for dessert. Flambé was not just a flash in Child’s pan.
"From Julia Child’s Kitchen" (Alfred A. Knopf, out of print) was published in 1970 and featured the recipes from the color episodes of The French Chef. Flaming dishes of crepes were still in fashion: Crepes Flambées Sainte Claire with apricots and cognac and, my favorite, Crepes a la Pagoda en Flammes with walnuts, kumquats and kirsch.
In the late 1980s, Child was still playing the showman, flambéeing Crepes Suzette yet again and offering a recipe for a giant apple crepe finished with a flash of bourbon in her book, "The Way to Cook" by Julia Child (Alfred A. Knopf, $39.95).
Crepes Suzette may not be on many menus these days, but offering something flambéed still provides a certain level of sophistication when entertaining. Decatur resident and avid entertainer Deborah Moses Houston says her “quickie flambé” recipe always wows her guests. “It's simple. Soak a sugar cube in whiskey, then perch it atop a scoop of your favorite ice cream and light. Flash! Instant elegance!” she said.
To achieve that instant elegance, the alcohol must be at least 80 proof (40 percent alcohol). Houston’s little trick works because the flame from the match or lighter heats the alcohol just enough to set it ablaze.
The reason for the flames is to eliminate the raw taste of the alcohol and leave just its flavor behind. Although most of the alcohol burns off, you want to use something you wouldn’t mind sipping with your dinner or dessert, so no grain alcohol here.
And don’t discount what all those 1960s restaurateurs knew: A little showmanship goes a long way. For those with ambitions beyond sugar cubes, we offer recipes for a flambéed appetizer, an entrée and a dessert.
How to achieve the drama without setting yourself or your house on fire, adapted from "The Way to Cook" by Julia Child.
Clear the space around the dish
If you’re flambéeing on the stove, be sure the space nearby and above is clear. If you’re going to flambé at the table, have a large heatproof tray to catch any spills or flaming particles.
The food and alcohol must be hot
The food must be bubbling hot when you add the alcohol or it won’t light. If you don’t think your food will be hot enough, heat the alcohol in a separate pot and pour it in. Or heat it, flambé it in the pot and then pour it over the food.
Never pour from the bottle to the dish
Child says flames can leap up from the dish to the bottle, which can then explode. Pour the alcohol into a measuring cup or ladle and then from that into the dish.
Practice, practice, practice
Child encourages a little flamboyance in your performance as a master of flambé, but reminds her readers that practice makes perfect. A little rehearsal time will go a long way in making sure everything comes off beautifully.
It’s important to remember that you’re playing with fire here. Be sure there’s nothing flammable above or around the pan, and turn off the burner when you’re ready to light the alcohol. Most important: Never add the alcohol to the skillet directly from the bottle. Pour the alcohol into a measuring cup and then pour into the pan from that. Once ignited, you’ll get a large flame, and then a smaller blue flame that will burn for several seconds. Gently shaking the pan or stirring the sauce will expose more alcohol to the flames, reducing the raw alcohol flavor in the finished dish.
Pan-Seared Greek Cheese
Hands on: 10 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Kasseri is the soft-textured Greek cheese made of sheep’s milk that is traditionally used for this dish. You can find it at the Buford Highway Farmers Market, DeKalb Farmers Market and at Greek or Middle Eastern grocery stores. On Greek menus, you might find this appetizer listed as saganaki, which is actually the name of the frying pan in which the cheese is cooked. You can substitute a skillet. Freezing the cheese keeps it from melting too much when fried and flambéed. Shouting “Opa!” when the alcohol begins to flame is entirely optional.
1 pound Kasseri
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup cognac or ouzo
Cut cheese into 1/2-inch thick slices and freeze for at least 30 minutes, up to 2 hours.
When ready to cook, sprinkle flour on a plate. Remove cheese from freezer and place each wedge in the flour, lightly coating each side.
In a large cast iron skillet, melt butter over medium-high heat until it sizzles but is not brown. Add cheese slices and sauté quickly on both sides. Do not overcook or cheese will melt and stick to skillet.
Add lemon juice and cognac to the skillet. Keeping your face well away from pan, carefully ignite the cognac by touching a fireplace match or butane torch lighter to the pan’s edge. Once the cognac has ignited, baste the cheese until the flames die. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 374 calories (percent of calories from fat, 72), 20 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 30 grams fat (17 grams saturated), 91 milligrams cholesterol, 717 milligrams sodium.
Frambroise Flambées au Rhum or Raspberries Jubilee
When I couldn’t find fresh cherries for Cherries Jubilee, I decided to try the same method with raspberries. After all, there are many variations of flambéed fruit including Bananas Foster (bananas and rum), Mangoes Diablo (mangoes and tequila) and Pêches Louis (peaches flamed in whiskey). You can adapt this recipe back for cherries by simply substituting fresh or frozen cherries for the berries here.
Raspberries can range from tart to sweet, so taste yours and begin with more sugar, up to 3/4 cup if the raspberries are on the tart side. Serve these raspberries over ice cream or as a sauce for dessert crepes.
Hands on: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
1/3 cup or more granulated sugar
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
Juice of 1 lime or lemon
1/2 cup dark rum, divided
1 pound fresh raspberries
In a large skillet, stir the sugar over medium-high heat until it melts and lightly caramelizes, about 5 minutes. Remove pan from heat. Stir in butter, lime or lemon juice and 1/4 cup rum. Caramel will harden. Return pan to medium heat and heat until caramel is completely melted, about 3 minutes.
Turn off burner; add raspberries and remaining rum. Keeping your face well away from pan, carefully ignite the rum by touching a fireplace match or butane torch lighter to the pan’s edge. Baste the raspberries until the flames die. Pour over ice cream or crepes and serve immediately.
Adapted from "At Home with the French Classics" by Richard Grausman (Workman Publishing, $14.95).
Per serving: 377 calories (percent of calories from fat, 38), 3 grams protein, 58 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 17 grams fat (8 grams saturated), 31 milligrams cholesterol, 15 milligrams sodium.
Hands on: 15 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
Steak Diane is an indulgence worthy of the most elegant special occasion. Since you’re splurging anyway, buy the meat from a butcher and ask her or him to do the trimming and pounding for you. This recipe will multiply up just fine if you’re serving more than two.
2 (8-ounce) tenderloin filets
1 tablespoon green peppercorns
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 cup beef stock or bouillon
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup cognac, port or Madeira
Trim steaks of all fat and gristle and pound between sheets of wax paper until they are 1/4-inch thick. Use a rolling pin to crush peppercorns. In a small bowl, mix crushed peppercorns with soy sauce and olive oil, then rub over both sides of each steak. Roll each steak like a rug from one of the small ends and place on a plate. You may prepare ahead to this point by covering and refrigerating the steaks up to 4 hours in advance.
In a 1-cup measuring cup, mix stock with cornstarch and mustard. In a small bowl, combine shallots and parsley.
When ready to serve, place a large cast iron skillet over high heat. As pan heats, add oil and 1 tablespoon butter. Butter will foam and then begin to brown. Unroll the steaks and immediately sauté the first side, 30 to 40 seconds. Turn with forks and sauté on the other side 30 to 40 minutes. The steaks will barely color and remain lightly springy to the touch. Rapidly roll them up and place on a clean platter.
When steaks are cooked, add remaining tablespoon butter to the skillet, then stir in stock mixture, shallots and parsley. Cook for 30 seconds, then add Worcestershire and lemon juice. Stir together; return steaks, still rolled, to the pan. Turn off the burner and pour in cognac. Keeping your face well away from pan, carefully ignite the cognac by touching a fireplace match or butane torch lighter to the pan’s edge. Baste the steaks until the flames die. Spoon the sauce over the steaks to serve.
Per serving: 630 calories (percent of calories from fat, 59), 53 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 40 grams fat (16 grams saturated), 157 milligrams cholesterol, 358 milligrams sodium.
Adapted from "The Way to Cook" by Julia Child.
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