For me, it started this summer, when I was flipping through the 1961 edition of The New York Times Cookbook. Pears were in peak season, and I had just bought half a dozen from my neighborhood fruit stand. I came across a recipe for pears a la Bordelaise, which called for poaching pears in a spiced red wine syrup, then dousing the plated dessert in rum and lighting it on fire. It seemed an appropriate way to end a dinner in this trash fire of a year.
I knew about flambéed desserts, of course. I have strong memories of eating cherries jubilee at a seafood restaurant on the Jersey shore as a kid, watching my baby sister get a little tipsy at the table. Later, in my early 20s, I learned to make crepes Suzette while working at a French restaurant in New York City. I understood the magic touch that alcohol and fire can add to a dessert, but it had never occured to me to try it at home.
It turns out that flambéing desserts at home is incredibly easy, and very, very cathartic.
To flambé something is, quite simply, to add alcohol to a dish in progress and ignite the whole thing, often with a match. While a brulee merely brings fire to the exterior edges of the dessert, often with a blowtorch, flambéing, for a brief moment, consumes the dish in its entirety. It works for savory dishes, too — especially the throwbacks. In coq au vin, it’s cognac that serves as a fiery conductor; with steak Diane, a tableside classic in midcentury steakhouses, it can either be cognac or brandy. The classic desserts like bananas Foster and cherries jubilee use sweet liquors like kirsch, brandy, or curacao — and they’re some of the easiest to recreate in a home kitchen.
The flambéed dessert is all drama, a relic of the 1960s, when tableside service was de rigeur. It rose in popularity along with fine dining in the French style. And French cooking was also of increasing interest to America’s home cooks: Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, first published in 1961, was one of the most popular cookbooks of the 1970s following the publication of the second volume in 1970. A 2019 piece in the Guardian talks about how the rise of nouvelle cuisine in the early 1970s eschewed “the table-side theatrics of flambéing and carving” of classic French service for simpler, chef-driven presentations. By 1999, when William Grimes was writing about “The New American Service” in the New York Times, the lack of drama had progressed even farther: Servers were now there to educate and inform, not dazzle and entertain. At home, convenience cooking trumped spectacle, too. Some of the most popular cookbooks of the 1980s: the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, which contains a stunning number of recipes for hot dogs, and Barbara Kafka’s Microwave Gourmet, a cookbook that eschews fire in all its forms. In the last 20 years, an ever-growing interest in restaurant dining and food in general has coincided with American workers having less time than ever to dedicate to cooking. A diner might encounter throwback flambées at restaurants like the now-shuttered Beatrice Inn, but cook at home from a meal kit promising dinner on the table in 30 minutes.
The pandemic has ushered in a radical shift in our relationship to cooking: Many have turned back to time-consuming home-cooking projects to pass the time at home. As 2020 drags on, home cooking can still do more than just feed us; it can make us feel something. And lighting desserts on fire can do that.
Think, for example, of the way it feels when the marshmallow you have been meticulously roasting over a campfire accidentally catches. There’s a moment of pure thrill, an instant of terror, then you blow it out and eat it anyway. Some people even do this on purpose, chasing the fleeting moment when sugar and flame become one, the bittersweet flavor of char.
A flambéed dessert takes this feeling and amplifies it in two ways: with the addition of alcohol, and with the move to the indoors. Setting your marshmallow on fire outside is one thing, but a flaming dessert served indoors takes the thrill to another level. It feels a bit more dangerous, almost illicit. After a year of being largely confined to our homes, pulling off a flambé can bring a little bit of the restaurant experience to our kitchens.
Making flambéed desserts at home is straightforward, but not without potential pitfalls. In The Joy of Cooking, Irma Rombauer writes, “Flaming always comes at a dramatic moment in the meal, sometimes a tragi-commical one if you manage to get only a mere flicker.” These lackluster flickers are often the result of not having your ingredients at the proper temperature before attempting to ignite them.
If you’re making cherries jubilee, for example, which involves a simple sauce of flambéed cherries served over vanilla ice cream, do not (as my husband recently did) simply pour Amarena cherries in syrup straight from the jar over ice cream, add rum, and expect a dramatic presentation. Everything you’re working with, including the alcohol, needs to be heated to their flash point, the temperature at which they will ignite. Rum, for example, has a flash point of around 71 degrees Fahrenheit, while brandy will ignite at around 78 degrees.
Choosing the right spirit is important, too. Wine won’t flambé, because it doesn’t have enough alcohol. Everclear would be a poor choice because it has entirely too much, and is more dangerous than dessert should be. Forty percent ABV is generally considered to be the sweet spot when choosing a liquor for flambéing. Think: rum, cognac, tequila, most bourbons.
Remember, too, that the flavor of the alcohol you choose will be imparted into your dessert. There’s a reason that bananas Foster is traditionally made with dark rum, while crepes Suzette are made with triple sec or Grand Marnier. If you’re making a light, fruity dessert, choose something with complementary flavors. If you’re flambéing something more decadent, like a chocolate or caramel dessert, look for something with more body and spice that can stand up to heavier flavors.
Don’t feel obligated to play the oldies, either. The classic flambéed desserts are good, but they’re not the only ones. Though Pete Wells once wrote that “Peach Melba doesn’t get better when you set it on fire,” it doesn’t necessarily get worse, either. You can flambé your hot chocolate or your brownie sundae, if you want to. You can make a project of it and make a baked Alaska that you set aflame on New Year’s Eve, sending out this trash fire of a year in style.
Carina Finn is a writer, editor, and avid cookbook collector based in New York.