As days get shorter and nights get long in the coming fall and winter, both professional chefs and home cooks with a little moxie and flair for the flashy can illuminate special meals with the distinctive technique of flambé.
Flambé, a French word meaning “flame,” neatly describes the cooking procedure of igniting a food dish soaked in high proof alcohol.
“You can flambé pretty much anything,” said Julie Smoragiewicz, chef and owner of Yak Ridge Cabins and Farmstead on Cosmos Road south of Rapid City. “If you’re cooking with alcohol, and want the flavor but not the alcohol content, you burn it off and are left with the flavor of the spirit.”
Creating a burst of flame to finish a dish has been practiced for centuries, appearing in European cookbooks during the mid-1800s, and even mentioned in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” as the Christmas pudding is brought “blazing” in to complete the midwinter feast.
Smoragiewicz explains that the type of alcohol and its flavor varies with the dish being made (though best options are with 40% alcohol, or 80 proof.)
“There are different options depending on the desired flavor,” she said. “Whiskey adds a stronger, more robust flavor; sherry is a little more delicate; and vodka adds almost no flavor.” Her favorite is cognac, a smooth, aged brandy which she believes adds a “bit more sophisticated, richer flavor.”
Both savory and sweet cuisine can be flambéed. Smoragiewicz makes a seafood bisque en croute using a sherry cognac. Jeff Slathar, pastry chef at the Colonial House Restaurant and Bar in Rapid City serves steak diane, which is flamed with brandy, as a main course for the restaurant's flambé menu.
For desserts, “flambé will finish the sugar content more rich and flavorful,” Smoragiewicz said.
“Bananas Foster, made first down in New Orleans, is a popular flambé dessert,” Slathar said. He thickens brown sugar and butter together over heat, adding a little fresh ground cinnamon and nutmeg with crème de banana liqueur, and cuts bananas into the sauce. “We flame it with Myers Dark Rum,” he said, “and serve it over homemade crepes with ice cream.”
Crepes Suzette — “a classic midcentury dessert”, according to Smoragiewicz — is a classic and classy dessert that will amp up breakfast for those used to regular pancakes. To accompany his homemade crepes, Slathar makes a sauce with orange and lemon zest and fresh lemon juice, which is then “flamed with brandy or triple sec for extra flavor.”
The flambé technique takes some practice — and precautions.
“Before flambéing for the first time, have a fire extinguisher handy if making an oil-based dish, or water for an alcohol-based dish, because you are playing with fire,” Smoragiewicz said. She recommends not wearing loose sleeves or scarves, and also tying back long hair. Children should stay at a safe distance.
To flambe, sauces are heated in a shallow pan. “The trick to flaming is to tilt the pan so it leaves a little ridge of alcohol on the edge of the pan,” Slathar said. “The sauce gets really hot there.”
Slathar then suggests lighting this ridge with a long barbecue or stick lighter.
“If you are working on a gas stove top, tilt the sauté pan until the alcohol in the sauce meets just the tiniest bit of flame on the range,” Smoragiewicz said.
“And be prepared for some high flames, up to two feet, depending on the ingredients,” Slathar said.
One can’t be too cautious, said Smoragiewicz, who advises the home chef to “step back, and don’t lean over the pan,” instead holding it at arm’s length.
Slathar suggests showing off the skill at table, because “flambé makes a more unique presentation made on a cart, rather than in the kitchen.” Meanwhile, experimenting with ingredients can add to the experience.
“For desserts, I typically try to feature fruit that is in season, and match it with a complementary alcohol,” Slathar said. “With flambé, you can be creative.”
Smoragiewicz summarizes that through this impressive yet simple technique, a chef can achieve culinary nirvana and impress the guests with style and concentrated flavors.
“When you flambé, it’s not only fun, but you get the pure sense of the flavor of the spirit in your food, not just an imitation flavor like in a bottle at the store,” she said.