FOOD: FIRE IT UP!New Orleanians love dazzling celebrations – flambeaux at Carnival, fireworks on the Fourth and flambéed desserts on special occasions. Fortunately for us, and for visitors to our city, our more formal restaurants still light up the final course of a special dinner, a proud tradition in the French Quarter.

It’s surprising that our most distinctive dessert is not made of Ponchatoula strawberries or Plaquemines Parish oranges, but of a fruit that was merely passing through.

Bananas were en route through our port in such quantity back in the 1950s, that famed restaurateur Owen Brennan challenged his chef Paul Blangé to create a spectacular banana dessert – and that he did.

The French chef came up with a simple recipe composed mostly of sugar, spirits and bananas. However, the crowning glory came when a match was struck and the rich and decadent sauce went up like a mini-bonfire, just inches from the diner’s white tablecloth. As Brennan’s restaurant is prone to do, it named the creation after a person: Richard Foster, a frequent customer whose business was Foster Awnings and who was an official on the New Orleans crime commission.

Today, Brennan’s is said to flame 35,000 pounds of bananas per year while the international reputation has placed the dish on menus far and wide.

“It’s a simple dessert, but it’s a powerful simple,” says executive chef Lazone Randolph, who has cooked at Brennan’s for 41 years.
Randolph has flamed many a serving himself.

“I’m way up there in the line of preparation,” he says. “I know for sure I’ve done over 100,000 [servings].” He cooked bananas Foster for the inauguration of President Reagan, in England for an international sporting event, and at the Republican national convention in the Superdome.

The key, he says, is starting with ripe bananas. How do you describe a ripe banana? One that is starting to spot, he says. Then, you cut off the tips because they are bitter. After that, “it’s all about timing.”

Well, timing and attention. “We never leave these unattended.” For good reason – in 1975, Brennan’s closed for six months after the flaming dessert started a fire. That’s good advice for the home cook who should use caution if cooking near draperies or other flammable materials.

Adding to the magic of the French Quarter – often thought to be due to voodoo, pirates and ghosts – is the showmanship of skilled waiters as they dazzle tourists with an assortment of flaming desserts. One of my favorites, cherries jubilee, is not as popular on menus as it once was. Like bananas Foster, it was served over vanilla ice cream. Crêpes Fitzgerald has moved to the forefront with cream cheese-stuffed crêpes blanketed in a fresh strawberry sauce spiked with orange or cherry liqueur. Baked Alaska is still a house specialty at Antoine’s and Arnaud’s, and is often personalized for special occasions. Probably the oldest flaming dessert in the world, crêpes suzette, holds its own at several local restaurants. It was first served to the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, in 1898, and named for a friend’s daughter at his table at Monte Carlo’s Café de Paris. It was the result of a mistake, when a young waiter accidentally set the dessert on fire with no time to redo it. Not to worry. The prince loved it and the waiter, Henri Charpentier, went on to become a famous chef. Not the least of the grand finales in New Orleans is a drinkable one – café brûlot, the flaming orange peel-enhanced coffee that makes the perfect ending to a special meal.

What better dessert to serve during the holidays than a flaming one? A tableside performance will complement crackling fires in winter or bring in the New Year with fireworks at the table. All it takes is a chafing dish and a can of Sterno [canned heat], but just remember to flame the dessert away from the heat by removing the pan from the flame when igniting. Do not flame near fabrics or any other flammable objects or stand too close to the pan. It’s safe to use long fireplace matches when lighting the sauce. If you have never prepared bananas Foster, you may be surprised by its simplicity.

6 bananas
1/2 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup dark rum, divided
1/3 cup banana liqueur
Vanilla ice cream

Slice bananas lengthwise and in half. In a chafing dish set over Sterno, melt butter. Mix brown sugar and cinnamon and stir into butter until sugar is melted. Add 1/4 cup of rum and banana liqueur. Cook for several minutes until brown and syrupy. Add bananas and cook a few minutes more, until the bananas are soft and beginning to brown. Add remaining rum, let rum heat, but do not stir. Remove from fire, tip the pan to the side and, with a long taper match, ignite the sauce. Baste the bananas with the sauce. When the flames subside, spoon the bananas over ice cream in bowls. Spoon sauce over bananas and serve immediately. Serves 6.

2 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup water
Pinch salt
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1 cup flour
Vegetable oil for cooking

Cream Cheese Filling:
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, at room temperature
6 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur

Strawberry Sauce:
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
3 pints strawberries, cleaned and halved
1/4 cup strawberry- or orange-flavored liqueur

To make the crêpes, beat the eggs. Beat in the milk, water, salt and butter. Then add the flour gradually until mixture is smooth. This can be done in a blender, mixer or by hand. Let mixture stand for about 20 minutes. When ready to cook, stir again and measure 2 tablespoons batter for the first crêpe. Brush a crêpe pan or small non-stick skillet lightly with oil and heat to very hot. You may want to use two pans at once. Cook each crêpe separately, swirling the batter around to make a thin pancake. Cook until bubbles form and the underside is brown. Flip and cook other side, which should brown only slightly and be used as the inside. Each side takes less than a minute. Cool crêpes on paper towels. (Crêpes can be made in advance, separated by sheets of wax paper and frozen.) Makes 16 crêpes.

To make the cream cheese filling, combine all ingredients. Fill 16 crêpes with 2 tablespoons of the filling by placing filling on one side of crêpe and rolling up. These can be made ahead of time and placed in the refrigerator.

To make the strawberry sauce, melt the butter over medium-low heat in a chafing dish set over Sterno. Add sugar and stir until mixed. Add strawberries and cook for several minutes. Remove pan from flame. Add liqueur and give it time to heat without stirring. Tip the pan and light with a long taper match. Stir until flames go out.

To serve, place room temperature filled crêpes on plates, two per serving. Pour warm strawberry sauce over. Serves 8.