How pretty it looks! A waiter strikes a match and the finale begins. Flames leap around a beautifully glazed duck or from atop a trembling souffle. The flame dies, but the impression lingers. Quelque chose lambee, (something flambeed) the cynical restaurateur will confess, is better draw than a floor show.
Inpired, the customer tries to repeat the feat at home. Disaster. In the dinning room, as guests watch with the intensity of spectators at the Antomy Lesson by Rembrandt, the flame sputters and dies. In the kitchen the flames explode, threatening to burn the ceiling.
I retain a vivid of an early attempt to flambe a dessert. As the ice cream gradually turned to soup and burned matches collected on the surface, my elegant creation came to resemble the bleak panorama of a burnt forest on a winter's day. Since then, I've learned some elemental steps that take the uncertainty from a process that can be as useful as it is appealing.
First, the choice of alcohol. Those high flames you see in restaurants often are caused by a high-octane source. Use 151-proof rum or a similarly supercharged liquor and the flames burn bright. They don't do much for flavor, however. Quality counts if you care about taste. Use brandy or whiskey you are willing to drink.
Equally important is the amount of alcohol and when you add it. Often a carefully crafted restaurant sauce is ruined by the addition of too much liquer in the dining room. Whether the alcohol is poured in early to a stew-type recipe for flavor and to burn off grease, or just before serving, it should not be used liberally and it should be burned off completely. (Sometimes, of course, a small amount of brandy or another liquer is added to a sauce or to fruit without being flamed.)
To achieve this, it is essential that the alcohol be hot, or be heated. In the kitchen, the easiest and safest method is to pour the alcohol into a small saucepan or a large ladle, hold that over the flame until the liquid nears the boiling point, then tilt the container so the liquid moves to the edge nearest the flame. It will catch before it spills. This particularly important when alcohol is being added to a sauce or another liquid. Pour on directly, unlit, and chances are it will intermingle and fail to flame when a match is applied.
To insure a complete burn-off of the alcohol, the food should also be over a heat source. Gradually pour on the alcohol, then gently shake the platter or pan until the flame dies. A dish coming directly from the oven, a dessert souffle for instance, provides its own heat beneath the liquid. Shaking, however, will help distribute the alcohol more evenly.
To flame food in the dining room, use a metal serving ladle or small sauceboat large enough so the alcohol is well below the rim. Heat the alcohol in the kitchen or over a chafing dish heat source away from the table. Have someone else strike the match and pour carefully. The flame will not go out quickly if the alcohol has been properly heated, so there is no need to rush.
There is also a semi-flaming technique that proved very popular in a French hotel where I worked. Dried herbs, branches of thyme and rosemary, were planted in racks of lamb fresh from the oven. As a waiter stood by, the herbs were ignited. The flame died quickly, but as the platter was whisked through the dining room, it left a trail of light but wonderfully aromatic smoke.
Here are two flammable recipes. STEAK AU POIVRE (4 servings) 4 strip, club or Delmonica steaks 4 to 6 tablespoons black peppercorns 6 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1/3 cup brandy, Cognac preferred 1/2 cup heavy cream Salt to taste
Crack ("bruise") the peppercorns on a cutting board or a counter with the bottom of a frying pan or a rolling pin. Coat each side of the steaks with cracked pepper. Leave them for at least 30 minutes. Heat 4 tablespoons butter and the oil in a frying pan large enough to hold the steaks in a single layer. Cook the steaks as desired (allow about 4 minutes on a side for rare,) salting and basting after turning them.
Remove steaks to a plate. Pour off cooking grease, return steaks to pan, pur on brandy and flame. Shake pan until flames die, then transfer steaks to a serving platter or plates and keep warm. Add cream to pan and reduce quickly over high heat. When sauce has thickened slightly, adjust taste with salt and a touch of brandy, remove from heat and incorporate final 2 tablespoons of butter with a whisk. Pour sauce over steaks and serve at once. JACQUES PEPIN'S BANANES FLAMBEES (6 servings) 6 large, ripe bananas 1 stick (1/4 pound) unsalted butter 1/3 cup sugar Juice of 1 1/2 limes Juice of 1 lemon 1/4 cup water 1/3 cup good quality rum
Trim the ends of the bananas (although ripe, they should not be soft) and cut a single slit in the skin of each from tip to tip. Place bananas on a cookie sheet or in a roasting pan and cook in a preheated 400-degree oven for 15 minutes. (Then skins will turn black.)
This may be done ahead. Leave bananas is skin at room temperature until serving time. Using a chafing dish or large frying pan, melt butter and add sugar, lime and lemon juices and water. Cook over high heat until the mixture becomes a caramel color. Remove bananas from their skins and add them to the sauce. Turn the bananas in the sauce to coat them. Pour in the rum, shake the pan and ignite (or heat and ignite rum and pour it over bananas). Shake pan over heat until flames die. Serve bananas topped with sauce (over ice cream, if you wish).