By Marcia Pilgeram
I have my standard kitchen utensils and cookware, and I’m hard pressed to be lured into the superfluous gadgetry for sale in urban kitchen and gourmet shops. I did, however, just find something I couldn’t live without: reusable grilled cheese bags for the toaster. I kid you not.
As a kid, I sure could have used these handy helpers. I was a budding young chef in the midst of one of my earliest cooking creations — attempting to boil sugar and water to the hard-ball stage for divinity — when I scorched one of my mother’s copper-bottomed Revere pans so badly it never again looked the same (she continued to make me look at the bottom of that pan through adulthood). As punishment, Mom banned me from using the oven or stovetop unless she was present.
Well, I was not a 9-year-old content with a peanut butter sandwich, and my culinary creativeness reached a “eureka” moment when I came up with an idea of brilliance to top all: I would make a grilled cheese sandwich in the toaster. I put a lot of thought into the process and was smart enough to realize the cheese might ooze down, so I laid the toaster on its side and carefully placed my cheese filled Wonderbread into the toaster and pushed down the lever.
Things were looking good until the cheese began to melt and ooze horizontally. I hadn’t counted on that. Nor the internal fire from the buttered bread. I hadn’t counted on that, either. Fortunately for me, the house didn’t catch on fire — though my mother later shared that that was always her biggest fear — and I was smart enough to unplug the toaster before I began the laborious process of scraping charcoal-like cheese from the heating elements. If only I’d had one of those bags…
I have had a few close calls since then, too. My son-in-law, Russ, still threatens to display the items I have scorched while cooking at his and my daughter’s house. I have a few of my own, too, mostly towels and potholders from stovetop and oven mishaps but also a few singed table linens. I do love a good flambé presentation.
The term flambé is a French word meaning “flamed.” It makes a dramatic show and it also adds a distinctive flavor from the alcohol used for ignition. The higher the alcohol content, the better it burns (and better the chance to meet with disaster). Flambé lessons that I have learned include: less is more, and there’s a reason that 151-proof rum comes with a warning and a caged (safety) top.
Some of my favorite foods to ignite tableside include the classics: saganaki (opa!), steak Diane, cherries jubilee, bananas Foster, crêpes Suzette, baked Alaska and, of course, flaming plum pudding, which has been popular since the Victorian Era. I’m not sure who came up with the dazzling idea of adding alcohol and flames to food, but I think it adds an extra element to any dinner party.
My own small children loved the presentations and now my grandchildren love them even more (don’t worry, the alcohol cooks off). The littles especially love bananas Foster and, on a good night, right before their eyes, I can theatrically ladle the bananas and syrup, along with flames, into individual serving dishes. Bananas Foster is a favorite of mine, and it can be served over ice cream, pound cake or lost bread — in France, it’s known as pain perdu, as stale bread is used for what is essentially French toast.
I always associate this dish with New Orleans, where it was created more than 60 years ago at Vieux Carre, one of the original Brennan family restaurants, on Bourbon Street. I’m not sure if it was created during Mardi Gras, but now, during Mardi Gras week in NOLA, you’ll find it served up and fused with doughnuts, coffee cake, cupcakes, ice cream and even cocktails. After the traditional king cake, it’s the most frequently served dessert during the festivities.
During Mardi Gras, there are lots of bananas Foster recipes to be shared and just as many warnings, cautions and caveats about proper flambé techniques, such as keeping a fire extinguisher handy and keeping hands, arms and eyebrows away from the flames.
I must admit that I have singed a few body parts over the years, though I have become much more prudent in my technique and have remained relatively scorch-free for a number of years now.
My Moscow gang is coming up for our weekend of Winter Carnival activities and I was thinking of whipping up a batch dessert — right after our lunch of toaster bag, grilled cheese sandwiches. When I mentioned it to my daughter, Ryanne, she offered to bring her collection of “mother-scorched linens.” Ouch. Anyhow, totally unnecessary, I still have plenty of my own.
*One of the best compliments I ever received was when someone said my bananas Foster were as good as the ones served at Brennan’s!
Don’t attempt to pour flaming sauce into individual serving dishes until you’ve had some practice. Slightly heating the rum makes a better flame. Sometimes, I add a little Galliano to the pan, with the butter and sugar. Be careful!
2 ounces unsalted butter
½ cup light brown sugar
¼ tsp cinnamon
1 ½ ounces dark rum
2 bananas (per recipe)
Combine butter, sugar and cinnamon in a low-profile frying or sauté pan. On medium heat, stir to combine and lightly swirl the pan.
As the sauce starts to cook and bubble a bit, peel the bananas, cut lengthwise and add to the pan. Cook the bananas, continue to swirl, until they begin to soften and are nicely coated with the sauce. Tilt back the pan slightly to heat the far edge. Once hot, carefully add the rum and tilt the pan toward a flame (burner or long lighter) to ignite the rum.
Once the flame dies out, pour sauce and bananas over ice cream or lost bread.
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