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Why Do We Like to See Food on Fire?

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Why do we like to see our food in flames?

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Flambéed dishes -- and drinks -- mix primal fury and campfire comradeship with old-school elegance, that taken-up-a-notch flair (or, more accurately, "flare") that tells us we are having something special, something we are probably not making for ourselves. Being served a flambéed dish or drink proves that someone cares so much about us (or is so scared of us) that they are willing to not only feed us but also entertain us, at risk of burning down the house.

"Through the use of pyrotechnics, you get this amazing energy that carries through to the rest of your dining room," explains Devon Boisen, executive chef of The Terrace Room in Oakland, CA. "It's warming. It's flashy," explains Boisen, who is renowned for setting desserts on fire.

"Everyone likes to go toward bright shiny things. And everyone's got an inner pyromaniac."

Or do we all have inner Neanderthals, crouched around that prehistoric flame? Before the invention of metal, our ancestors had no pots, pans, forks, foil, or flame-proof skewers: nothing to protect or divide from the flames whatever they were cooking. Our apelike ancestors watched flames lick, lap, shrink and scorch their food, knowing somehow that this was good. Was there a prehistoric word for "caramelize?"

Most modern cooking methods deprive us of this spectacle, invisibly transforming food from raw to "done." On some primeval level, do we miss the flaming haunch?

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An as-yet-unnamed cocktail (depicted above) at Picán: A Taste of the South in Oakland, CA includes tequila, coffee liqueur, Mexican mole bitters and flames. Picán also serves the pre-Prohibition Café Brulot, comprising Benedictine, Booker's bourbon, fresh cream and flames. The world's most famous flaming cocktail is Spanish coffee, a Triple Sec/Kahlúa/coffee/151-proof rum conflagration born not in Spain but in Portland, Oregon's oldest restaurant, Huber's Cafe.

Not only do flaming drinks reawaken our primal pyromania -- they also suggest miracles and magic: Liquid ... on fire?

"Why do I like doing flambée?" muses Julie Harris, a talented Santa Barbara, CA home chef. "It's fun. It's showy. It provides a guaranteed 'ooh and ahh' moment.

'The first time I tried flambée, I was scared. I lived in a little wooden cabin. ... It's funny that I enjoy flambée so much now, because when I was little -- actually up through my teens -- I was afraid to light a match. I guess since my house didn't burn down the first time I tried flambée, I've gotten over the fear of it actually being fire. I think of it more as effect, not fire. Fire is scary. Flambée is fun and impressive.

"My first flambée attempt was Cherries Jubilee for my boyfriend on Valentine's Day," Harris remembers.

Although I always tied my long hair back when cooking or baking, I didn't tie my hair back for the flaming part of the Cherries Jubilee because I wasn't really cooking: I was serving. Besides, what kind of romantic effect could I create with my hair tied back? ... When I bent down to nervously light the dessert, I quickly stood up and turned my head.  Unfortunately, the tips of my long hair got caught in the licks of flame.

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"There is nothing more off-putting than the smell of burning hair ... By the time I tried flambée again, I had wisely cut my hair."

She started with level-one flamers, such as Crepes Suzette and Bananas Foster, then worked her way up to the four-alarm stuff.

"By far the most appreciative and enthusiastic flambée audience I ever had was a group of my son's friends. There is something about flames and 13-year-old boys. ... I was a goddess -- magician? -- that evening. I still remember with delight the look of wonder in all their eyes as the flames slowly poured out from the ladle and went all around the giant mound that was a Baked Alaska."

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Photo by Kristan Lawson

No story about setting food on fire would be complete without a nod to that currently flaming fad: creme brulée. I caught the CB fever last weekend at the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, where executive chef James Waller included his own spoonfuls-of-heaven version in a cooking demonstration with a breathtaking view of the bay. (See recipe below.)

Stand back!

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As depicted above, Carlos Yturria -- award-winning mixologist at E&O Asian Kitchen in San Francisco -- enjoys making a fiery Scotch-sugar-water cocktail called the Blue Blazer. (That's "blazer" as in flames, not in jackets.) It's an historic cocktail, invented in a San Francisco saloon during the 1860s by Jerry Thomas, renowned as his era's most famous bartender. Yturria relishes honoring his predecessor, an American pioneer who brought his liquid pyrotechnics from coast to coast.

It's good to get primitive sometimes. Anyone got a match?

Crème Brulée

Serves 12

3 c heavy cream
1/2 vanilla bean - split
9 egg yolks
1/2 c + 4 T granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Stir together cream and vanilla bean in saucepan; bring to boil and boil for one minute. Remove from heat; steep 10 minutes. Remove vanilla bean. Mix remaining cream, egg yolks and 1/2 c sugar in a saucepan. Temper this mixture with the warm heavy cream/vanilla-infused mixture. Set aside and let cook so air bubbles escape. Pour into cups and set in water bath; bake 45 minutes. Before serving: Cool cups completely. Sprinkle with 4 T sugar and caramelize top with a torch. Serve immediately.

Blue Blazer photograph courtesy of E & O Asian Kitchen. Picán photograph taken by Anneli Rufus. Posed figurine images created by Anneli Rufus and photographed by Kristan Lawson. All images used with permission.

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