Let the sparks fly

Special to The Times

MAYBE it’s the corks popping, or the televised countdown, or the anticipation of all those fireworks lighting up the skies as the year ends by increments all over the world. Whatever the reason, we seem to want something a little flashier than usual for New Year’s Eve. Something dramatic. Something sparkly. So when you’re planning what to serve your guests as you wait for the year to click down, consider using actual fire. A fire in a saute pan, to be exact, or the largely forgotten art of the flambe.

Flambeing food is a spectacular, showy event -- a crowd pleaser for all ages. Adults remember campfire games or an aunt’s recipe for steak Diane; kids think Mom’s secretly been moonlighting with the circus.

But the fireworks aren’t just visual: Flambeing actually benefits the food, adding complexity to a dish and altering the flavor profile in wonderful ways.


So get out the party hats, pass the Mumm’s and usher everyone to the table for the final dinner of the year with some added pyrotechnics. Dim the lights, and over thinly sliced filet mignon, ignite a pan of caramelized portabello mushrooms. Pour flaming cherries over individual molten chocolate cakes. Sprinkle cinnamon over a pan of blazing apples and watch it sparkle as you ladle them over a waiting plate of crepes. Forget Times Square. You’ve just invented your own fireworks -- with flavor that sparkles as much as the light show.

The igniting of food for show can be traced to the 14th century, when it arrived in Europe courtesy of the Moors, who had -- not coincidentally -- also reintroduced the art of distillation. Of course you can probably date the original flambe a lot further back than that: 50,000 years or so, to the origins of domestic fire and cooking itself, which probably involved a convenient bolt of lightning or a handy forest fire.

More recently, people flambeed things in Parisian restaurants at the turn of the century and at Brennan’s in New Orleans in the 1950s. They still love to light food on fire in the long banquet halls of cruise ships and in glitzy Las Vegas restaurants. Historically it was done for dramatic purposes, often at tableside by Gallic waiters in immaculate dress, the dish ignited for suitably impressed diners who enjoyed the skill, the perceived danger, and most of all the showmanship of it all. The waiters retreated to their kitchens, their eyebrows intact. The guests tucked in to their cherries jubilee. Nothing burned down.


A happy accident

AS with most great inventions, modern flambeing was discovered by accident. In 1895, at the Cafe de Paris in Monte Carlo, a teenage waiter named Henri Carpentier was preparing crepes for the future Edward VII of England when he set fire to the pan of cordials he was heating. Worried about serving his guest promptly, he presented the sauce anyway, finding that the burning brought the flavors together in a way he hadn’t anticipated. The prince loved the dish, which was promptly named “crepes Suzette” for his dinner companion. Thus began a long tradition of formalized lighting-things-on-fire: hence bananas Foster, baked Alaska, steak Diane.

It was a terrific party trick because not only did it look fabulous, it also looked difficult. But as any magician can tell you, most of the technique is in the illusion, the smoke and mirrors -- not in the trick itself. In flambeing, all you’re doing is igniting the flammable material -- the alcohol -- in the pan with a match. It burns off in less than a minute, taking a lot of the alcohol with it. A very simple process, but one that looks spectacular, especially if you dim the lights first and do it in front of your guests. You can further heighten the effect if you serve the sauce while it’s still burning or add cinnamon, which, since it’s ground from bark, ignites just like tiny bits of firewood.

But flambeing doesn’t mean simply lighting a dish on fire. Igniting a cup of Cognac and pouring it over a dish looks very pretty, but that’s not flambeing. Add the alcohol to the sauce, however, and ignite it inside the pan, and you’re changing the chemistry of the food, not simply pouring your grandfather’s good VSOP over an already finished dish. The flavors meld, making them deeper and richer, sweeter and less harsh.

This makes sense, if you consider the properties of sugar and alcohol and heat. Alcohol boils at 175 degrees Fahrenheit, while the boiling point of water is 212. Sugar, in turn, caramelizes at 320. Igniting a pan that has all of these ingredients makes for a complex chemical reaction, one that has a number of very specific effects on what it is you are cooking, especially as the surface temperature of the burning alcohol reaches temperatures above 500 degrees. The water evaporates, the alcohol burns off, the sugar caramelizes in the intense heat, and the flavors recombine and intensify in ways that would not happen otherwise. When you add other ingredients, such as protein, even more complex reactions occur.

Because the alcohol reacts with the other ingredients, explains Harold McGee, author of of “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” “it not only burns, it participates in the transformation and gives a different spectrum of products.” This alters the flavor the alcohol gives to the dish, transforming it from what he diplomatically calls “slightly medicinal” to something smoother and less bitter. In other words, you want the bourbon or Calvados or Armagnac in your caramel sauce to bring out the hint of cloves, of late fall apples, of black pepper -- not leave the whole thing smelling like a whisky bar.


A matter of proof

JUST how much alcohol is burned off depends on the technique and the duration of the cooking. Simmering dishes for two or more hours burns off as much as 95% of the alcohol, according to McGee, while flambeing usually burns off only 25%, though this percentage also depends on how thoroughly you ignite the alcohol in the pan. The proof of the spirit used is also important. Beers and wines, which have a lower alcohol content, will not flambe (so don’t get any ideas about igniting that glass of bubbly), while spirits above 120 proof are so highly flammable that they are considered too dangerous. The best to flambe with are those that are about 80 proof. Not coincidentally, these are also the spirits and liqueurs that are often the most aromatic and distinctive, the Cointreaus and the aquavits and the Cognacs, and therefore those that elevate the flavor profile of the dish.

So, to get started, take out your saute pan and make your sauce.

Whether you’re caramelizing fruit to flambe or reducing mushrooms and demi-glace to torch, the key is to cook down the ingredients so that you don’t have too much liquid in the pan you’re going to ignite; otherwise the alcohol becomes diluted and it won’t properly flambe.


When it’s showtime

WHEN the sauce is reduced and syrupy and bubbling, it’s time to set the stage. Plate your dishes, seat your guests, find your matches and dim or turn off the lights. Then take the sauce off the heat and pour in the alcohol.

Ignite the pan immediately and, as it burns, gently swirl the contents of the pan around. By swirling the pan you’re allowing all the raw alcohol to burn off -- this gives your audience a good show and allows you time to bring the pan to the plates, but it also caramelizes the entire dish and blends the flavors in the process. If you’re adding cinnamon, this is the time to do it. Sprinkle the shaker directly into the side of the flame and watch as the sparks rise up, swirling and eddying in the air currents as they burn. It’s quite a show, and you can ignite as much cinnamon as you like, but bear in mind that the amount of cinnamon you add will be the amount in your sauce.

As the flames subside, spoon the sauce onto the waiting plates. Take a bow. Oh, and now that the coast is clear, you can let the rabbit out of your hat too.



Play it safe

IGNITING food in the familiar, controlled environment of your kitchen is a surprisingly safe experiment if you follow a few basic, yet very important, rules.

* Get organized. Know what your ingredients are and when you are going to use them. Have everything ready before you add the alcohol and light the match.

* Make sure you have proper ventilation, enough room, nothing nearby that can easily catch fire (an errant scarf, a bowl of dried flowers, your hair). Don’t wear dangling sleeves.

* Be careful to use the correct amount of each ingredient called for in the recipe: You are, after all, making dinner, not assembling Molotov cocktails.

* Have the lid for the saute pan handy -- you can smother the flames with it if you need to. Also have a fire extinguisher nearby -- every well-equipped kitchen needs one anyway.

* Before adding the alcohol, be sure to take the pan off the heat.

* When you’re ready to flambe, use a long fireplace match, not a regular kitchen match or lighter.

* Make sure you’ve cleared the path to the table of objects, running children, jumping dogs.

-- Amy Scattergood


Flavor in a flash

DOES flambeing really add more flavor to a dish than simply adding a spirit and cooking it down? We were determined to find out.

In The Times Test Kitchen, we prepared two identical batches of caramelized apples, up to the point of adding a spirit, in this case bourbon. Then we ignited one batch, letting the flambe flame until it died out, about 20 seconds. We simmered the other apples until the raw alcohol cooked off.

The difference was striking: The dish that had been flambeed was deeply flavored, nuanced and balanced. We could taste the flavors of the bourbon, but not the alcohol.

The dish that wasn’t flambeed tasted simply of plain caramel sauce; the sauce was thicker and a bit cloying, more like candy, with little flavor nuance. The flambeed version tasted caramelized, which is a more complex flavor than simple caramel.

One taster remarked that the flambeed dish was for adults, the other for kids.

-- Amy Scattergood


Caramelized apples with cinnamon crepes

Total time: 50 minutes plus 30 minutes soaking time

Servings: 6 (2 crepes each)

Note: The crepes are adapted from a recipe by James Peterson.

Cinnamon crepes

1 cup flour

5 large eggs

1 1/4 cups milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

7 tablespoons melted butter, divided

1. In a blender, blend the flour, eggs, milk, salt, sugar cinnamon and 6 tablespoons melted butter. Let the batter rest for at least 30 minutes; it may be refrigerated for up to 24 hours.

2. Heat a small nonstick saute pan over medium heat. Brush the pan with a thin layer of the remaining melted butter. Ladle in about a quarter cup of batter to cover the pan with a thin layer, tilting the pan to coat it as quickly as you can (as you would making a thin omelet). Cook for about a minute. Using a thin rubber spatula -- or your fingers -- lift up the crepe and flip it over. Cook the other side, for about 30 seconds, and remove it from the pan. Place the crepe on a plate.

3. Continue to make crepes, placing a piece of parchment paper or wax paper between each one as you stack them on the plate.

Caramelized apples and assembly

1/4 cup dried currants

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons Bourbon, divided

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1/2 cup brown sugar

4 large Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, quartered, each quarter cut into 4 pieces

Ground cinnamon in a shaker


1. Soak the currants in 2 tablespoons Bourbon for 30 minutes.

2. Melt the butter in a saute pan over medium-high heat until frothy. Add the brown sugar, apples and currants. Increase the heat and cook, stirring gently until the apples turn golden brown and caramelize and the mixture is thick and syrupy, about 8 minutes.

3. Remove from the heat. Pour the remaining one-fourth cup Bourbon into the pan.

4. Ignite the mixture, sprinkling cinnamon over the flames.

5. To serve, fold the crepes into quarters and place 2 on each plate. Divide the apples among the plates and serve warm.

Each serving: 630 calories; 10 grams protein; 61 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 37 grams fat; 21 grams saturated fat; 262 mg. cholesterol; 286 mg. sodium.


Flaming cherries over individual chocolate cakes

Total time: 40 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: The cake recipe is from Marcus Samuelsson’s cookbook “Aquavit.” Gather and measure the ingredients for the cherries and the cakes before starting. Prepare the cake batter; begin cooking the cherries when the cakes go into the oven.

Chocolate ganache cakes

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus 1 tablespoon to grease the ramekins

Unsweetened cocoa powder, for dusting

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (use Valhrona or Callebaut)

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, in chunks

2 large eggs

2 large egg yolks

2 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sifted cake flour

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease 6 (4-ounce) ramekins with the 1 tablespoon softened butter and dust with cocoa powder; tap out excess. Melt the chocolate and butter in a double boiler or in a bowl over hot water, stirring until smooth. Remove from the heat.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, yolks and sugar until well combined. Whisk in the melted chocolate mixture. Sift the cake flour over the mixture and fold in.

3. Divide the batter among the ramekins. Arrange the ramekins on a baking sheet and bake for 5 to 6 minutes. Rotate the pan and bake an additional 4 to 6 minutes, until the edges look set and have pulled slightly away from sides but the centers are still slightly liquid. Do not overbake.

4. Invert the cakes onto plates immediately and serve with the cherries.

Cherries and assembly

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon orange zest

2 cups water-packed canned or jarred cherries, drained

1/4 cup Cointreau or Grand Marnier

1. Melt the butter in a medium saute pan. Add the sugar and stir over medium-high heat until the sugar melts and begins to turn color and caramelize, 4 to 6 minutes. Add the vanilla, zest and cherries and cook until reduced and syrupy, about 5 minutes.

2. Remove from the heat, add the Cointreau or Grand Marnier. Ignite the cherries and pour over chocolate cakes either while still aflame or after the flame dies out.

Each serving: 508 calories; 5 grams protein; 45 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 33 grams fat; 19 grams saturated fat; 194 mg. cholesterol; 33 mg. sodium.


Steak au poivre with portabello sauce

Total time: 25 minutes

Servings: 2

Note: Demi-glace is available at specialty food markets. The sauce may be spooned over the steaks either while still ignited or after the flame dies.

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

1 teaspoon whole pink peppercorns

1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

2 filet mignon steaks, about 8 ounces each (1 1/4 inch thick)

1 tablespoon canola oil

2 tablespoons minced shallots

2 cups sliced baby portabello (cremini) mushrooms

1/4 cup dry red wine

1/4 cup demi-glace

1/8 cup Cognac

Watercress lightly dressed with vinaigrette (optional)

1. Crush the peppercorns in a plastic bag with a mallet or in a mortar and pestle. Combine with the salt and rub the filets with the mixture.

2. Heat the oil in a saute pan over high heat until just smoking. Sear the filets for 3 to 4 minutes per side (for rare) and let rest on a cutting board for 5 to 10 minutes.

3. Add the shallots and mushrooms to the same pan, with a teaspoon of oil if necessary. Saute over medium-high heat until the vegetables color, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat, then add the wine and the demi-glace. Return to the stovetop and cook over medium heat. Simmer 3 to 5 minutes to reduce slightly. Cut the steak thinly on a diagonal and fan out on a plate with the watercress.

4. When the liquid is reduced, remove the pan from the heat and immediately add the Cognac. Ignite and gently swirl the pan. Spoon the sauce over the steaks and serve.

Each serving: 616 calories; 59 grams protein; 18 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 28 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 142 mg. cholesterol; 986 mg. sodium.