The French word brûlot originally meant “fire ship.” Back in the days when all ships were made of wood, it was a reasonably common military tactic to fill an old ship with combustible materials, set it alight, and, when it was really roaring, send it out among the ships of one’s enemies, hoping that they would catch fire, which they often did. While brûlot can still refer to a fire ship, it came in time to refer to another combustible material in flames, this time brandy.
It is the flaming brandy definition of brûlot, of course, that gives us café brûlot, that sensational showstopper of New Orleans origin, where flaming brandy is the big attention-getter. There are a number of tales regarding the invention of this theatrical beverage, including one story that involves the pirate Jean Lafitte. However, somewhat more reasonably perhaps, the venerable restaurant Antoine’s, founded in 1840 and the oldest restaurant in New Orleans, lays claim to the invention. Whichever tale is true, the drink was being served at Antoine’s by the 1890s.
Many of the oldest restaurants in New Orleans came to serve café brûlot, largely because it is such a crowd pleaser. It involves a few pieces of traditional equipment and a flare for drama. A large silver bowl is the centerpiece. Orange peel (taken off all in one, long spiral), lemon peel (in strips), sugar, and whole spices are soaked in a generous amount of brandy. In supporting roles, one needs a silver ladle fitted with a grill, to strain out spices and peel, and a silver coffee pot filled with hot, strong coffee. The brandy is warmed and then set alight. The server brings out the silver bowl, using the silver ladle to pour streams of flaming brandy through the air, as well as on the tray, the table, and anywhere else it will amuse and astonish onlookers. After a couple of minutes of pyrotechnics, the hot coffee is poured into the flaming brandy, which douses the fire. (You don’t want to burn off all the alcohol, after all.) The fragrant coffee is ladled into cups, the little grill on the ladle holding back the spices and peels.
I first enjoyed café brûlot at Galatoire’s, which, at just over a century old, is not as ancient as Antoine’s, but is still one of the grandes dames of New Orleans dining. I loved the experience, but I immediately recognized a couple of limitations for making this at home, especially during the holidays. First, not everyone has a silver punch bowl, ladle, and coffee pot. Second, carrying around a large bowl of flaming brandy presents some definite risks. No one wants to end the evening having to break out the fire extinguisher. The recipe that follows avoids these problems, which means it would be possible to serve it at the end of a nice meal at home, even if you have flammable decorations up everywhere. Enjoy.
Café Brûlot—sort of
8 cups strong coffee
4 cinnamon sticks
peel of 1 lemon
peel of 1 orange
3 Tbsp. brown sugar
1 cup brandy
Add cinnamon sticks and peels to coffee and simmer 10 minutes. Dissolve sugar in brandy and pour into hot coffee immediately before serving.
Note: Some versions add whole cloves; some skip the orange peel. Vary to suit your taste.
Copyright ©2009 Cynthia Clampitt