- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2003

The holidays are here, and that calls for a bit of drama from the hostess. When I’m entertaining or feeling festive with the family, I tend to make the French classics that are finished with a dousing of spirits and a flourish of flames. They include a handful of flaming “Continental cuisine” restaurant dishes popular in 1950s:

Steak au poivre: This entree is among the most famous in the French classic culinary repertory, but it isn’t at all complex. Beef tenderloin is sauteed in a butter-oil mixture. Because butter burns at 250 degrees and oil burns at about 450 degrees, combine them half and half for the best cooking temperature. The flavors of black pepper, cognac and cream make an alluring coating to the tender steak.

Steak Diane: This is a cousin to steak au poivre in which strip or sirloin steaks are pounded thin and seared. Shallots, Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, demi-glace, lemon juice and seasonings blend to make the sauce. Ignited Madeira flashes the finale. The dish was invented by a maitre d’hotel in Belgium in the 1920s for a customer named … guess what?

Cherries jubilee: This dessert always has a holiday feel, no matter how last-century the concept. About 2 pounds of stemmed and pitted (or not) sweet cherries are poached in simple syrup (one part sugar, two parts water) until hot, not cooked. Most of the syrup is drained off (I save the syrup for another use), and the cherries are kept warm. About six tablespoons of kirsch, cognac or Armagnac are heated in a small container. It is poured over the cherries and ignited. After the flames subside, the boozy fruit is served plain or with ice cream.

Crepes suzette: Back in my single days, a date took me to dinner at a fancy French restaurant. He suggested that I try the crepes suzette. “Hmmph,” I said after tasting them. “I can make better than these.” When he took me home, I promptly went to the kitchen and mixed up crepe batter. What with the resting of the batter, we were well into wee morning hours before the Grand Marnier was torched. My parents were somewhat alarmed. (Dad, after all, was a volunteer fireman), but the dessert was excellent. Funny, I never dated that guy again.

Usually, flambeing is easy, dramatic and safe, but if the hood filter hasn’t been cleaned in ages, it could result in a grease fire. As a fire precaution, flambeing or not, why not remove your range hood filter and give it a sudsy wash? When you’re ready to flambe, here’s how to do it:

Make sure your hair is pulled back and your sleeves rolled up. Warm the dish to be flambeed. Warm the alcohol (usually cognac or a fortified wine such as Madeira) in a small pan or container in the microwave oven. Pour the alcohol over the warm food and ignite it using a long kitchen match. Gently shake the skillet or pan over the hot burner until the flames die out. Much of the alcohol, not all by any means, will burn off.

Classic steak au poivre

This recipe is from “Steak Lover’s Cookbook” by William Rice (Workman).

2 filet mignons (about 6 ounces each), cut 11/4 inches thick

11/2 tablespoons black peppercorns

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Coarse salt

2 tablespoons cognac

⅓ cup creme fraiche or heavy whipping cream

About 30 minutes before cooking, remove filet mignons from refrigerator and pat them dry. Coarsely crush peppercorns in a mortar with a pestle or in a pepper mill, and spread them on a plate. Coat the beef on both sides with crushed pepper. Set aside at room temperature.

Melt butter and oil in a large heavy-bottomed skillet with a long handle. (I use a medium-size cast-iron skillet.) When very hot, add the filets. Cook until seared and well-crusted on one side, about 4 minutes. Turn and cook the second side 4 minutes more for medium-rare or 5 minutes more for medium. Baste filets with pan drippings, and salt them after turning.

Remove skillet from heat. Transfer filets to a plate, and pour off the fat. Do not wash or wipe out the skillet. Return filets to the skillet. In a small saucepan, heat cognac over medium heat. When it boils, pour cognac over the filets. (Make sure your hair is tied back and sleeves rolled up before you do this.)

Carefully light cognac with a long kitchen match. It will flame up momentarily. Gently shake skillet over the hot burner until flames die out. Most, but not all, of the alcohol will burn off. Transfer steaks to 2 plates or a platter, and keep warm.

Add creme fraiche or whipping cream to skillet, and bring to a boil, scraping bottom with a wooden spoon to deglaze the meat juices. Gently whisk sauce until it has thickened slightly, about a minute or so. Salt to taste. Pour sauce over filets, and serve at once. Makes 2 servings.

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