3.15.2014

The Case of the Disappearing Desserts

No, this isn't a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mystery. But, along with the mysterious disappearance of Steak Diane last week, I noticed quite a few things that have disappeared from restaurant menus, and I wanted to find them.

Crêpes Suzette. Bananas Foster (still offered at at Brennan's in New Orleans). Cherries Jubilee. Baked Alaska. Pêche Melba.

Though each is quite tasty in its own right, all have been pushed aside for the ubiquitous flourless chocolate cake. It is so unfair. Not that I don't love flourless chocolate cake, mind you... Now, here's a little history on each of these desserts just for fun...

There are two versions of the story as to how Crêpes Suzette got its name. One claim is that it was created from a mistake made by a fourteen year-old assistant waiter Henri Charpentier in 1895 at Monte Carlo's Café de Paris. He was preparing a dessert for the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII of England, whose guests included a beautiful French girl named Suzette. The young Henri claims to have accidentally set the orange liqueur aflame, and thinking all was ruined, almost gave up. But he tasted it, liked it, and served it on crêpes to the Prince of Wales, who loved it and asked the name of the confection. "Crêpes Princesse" was the name given in honor of the Prince (the gender had to match the gender of the crêpes), at which point the Prince, acknowledging his beautiful young dinner companion, asked "Will you please change the name from Crêpes Princesse to Crêpes Suzette?"

The other, if less romantic, version is that the desert was named for Suzanne Reichenberg by the chef of the Restaurant Marivaux. Reichenberg, an actress who used the stage name Suzette, was in a production at the Comédie Française in which she, in the role of a maid, had to prepare crêpes onstage during a performance. Chef Joseph, the advising food stylist, added the flambéed touch to draw the audience's attention, and appropriately named them for her.

Bananas Foster was created in 1951 by Chef Paul Blangé at Brennan's Restaurant in New Orleans, Louisiana. He named it for Richard Foster,  the New Orleans Crime Commission chairman - Foster was a friend of Owen Brennan. (Note: He was not the "Crème Commission Chair" - although talk about a dream job!) The desert is still served at Brennan's and, like the crêpes, it is flambéed table side.

We head back across the pond for the provenance of Cherries Jubilee, a dessert made with cherries and Kirschwasser, which is subsequently flambéed (what is with the pyromania?), and commonly served as a sauce over vanilla ice cream. The recipe is generally credited to French chef Auguste Escoffier, who prepared the dish for one of Queen Victoria's Jubilee celebrations, though it is unclear whether it was for her Golden Jubilee in 1887 or Diamond Jubilee in 1897. I’d have served it at both!

One dessert that I still see on menus in Tucson is Baked Alaska. Yep, again with the flaming! This cake – an ice cream and meringue mound – is a birthday favorite among children. And what loving parent wouldn't want a tabletop conflagration amid lots of screaming children? The name 'Baked Alaska' was coined at Delmonico's Restaurant in New York by its chef-de-cuisine Charles Ranhofer in 1876 to honor the American acquisition of Alaska ten years earlier.

Of these desserts, only Melba wasn't a flamer... although, the soprano diva, Nellie Melba may have had an incendiary temperament. Pêche Melba was also invented by Escoffier at the Savoy Hotel, London, in the 1890s to honor the Australian soprano, Nellie Melba (most recently portrayed by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in season four of Downton Abbey). Melba was performing in Wagner's opera Lohengrin at Covent Garden. The Duke of Orléans gave a dinner party to celebrate her triumph. For the occasion, Escoffier created a new dessert, and to display it, he used an ice sculpture of a swan, an image from the opera. The restaurant’s ice swan carried peaches which rested on a bed of vanilla ice cream, all topped with spun sugar. In 1900, Escoffier updated the dessert for the opening of the Carlton Hotel, where he was head chef. He omitted the ice swan and topped the peaches with raspberry purée. Mark suggests that, had Miss Melba been singing in Götterdämmerung, this too might have been a flambéed dessert.

My thanks to Wikipedia (yes, I actually had to use the real Wikipedia for this one!) for lots of great, fun information. My apology to Nellie Melba: In the recipe below, I use sliced peaches (the ones that I preserved last summer) instead of a halved peach. And, as strawberries just came into season here, I used them instead of raspberries, which Wikipedia and Markipedia agree is just fine.

Here's to finding more missing food!

~ David

Pêche Melba

vanilla ice cream - your favorite kind
poached peaches in vanilla syrup (recipe HERE)
strawberry sauce (recipe follows)
sliced and toasted almonds

6 ounces ripe strawberries
2 tablespoons sugar

To make the strawberry sauce, chop up the strawberries and put onto a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the sugar and and let cook 5-10 minutes until strawberries are soft. Taste for sugar and add more if necessary, cooking a few minutes longer to melt the additional sugar. Let cool, then press through a mesh sieve into a bowl. For a finer texture, they may be puréed.

To serve, place a scoop of ice cream in a coup glass, top with peaches, a spoonful of strawberry sauce and some sliced almonds.

This recipe makes enough strawberry syrup for four to six servings.

34 comments:

  1. Oh my god I love this post! We have a funny story around peche melba - for some reason one summer our family decided to apply the words 'peche melba' to the song 'arkansas'. We sang it ALL. SUMMER.LONG. then when we went to south of france the next year and there are guys on the beach who sell fresh begneits and peche melba.... well, we went nuts and ate a lot of peche melba. Delicious - thank you for bringing this hilarious memory back - sharing this with my mom now :) Cheers! ahu

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    1. Thanks, Ahu - those are two really sweet stories! I hope your mother enjoys it, too! :) Yeah, this makes me wonder if anyone put the words "flourless chocolate cake" to the words of a song...

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  2. Growing up in Scotland in the 70s, I remember all these desserts as being the popular desserts and still have Mrs. Beeton's Cookery book with the recipes for all of these, I'm sure. I have yet to make a Baked Alaska, but I assure you, I don't care if it's out of vogue, it's still on my "to-make" list! Great post, David!

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    1. I also really want to make a Baked Alaska - so much fun, and think of all the fun you could have with different flavored ice creams! I will have to check out Mrs. Beeton's Cookery Book, Christina - I bet it is full of gems!

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  3. Dear David, of course, I love your post! I really appreciate all the food history/information about all these lovely desserts - it is so much fun learning about the facts behind the foods we enjoy (but you already might have guessed that I love these kinds of posts). Noe Pêche Melba is a favorite at our house but since I did not take the time to preserve some perfectly ripe fresh peaches when they were in season, my dear family will have to wait a few weeks before enjoying this lovely French dessert again. "Gut Ding will Weile haben!"
    Such a joy reading your post and admiring all the wonderful pictures. And let me not forget to compliment you on the very pretty plate with the peach design! It actually looks like it is part of my collection of vintage fruit plates - have you noticed how we seem to agree on a lot of things...?!
    Ich wünsche euch ein wunderschönes Wochenende!
    Liebe Grüße aus Bonn,
    Andrea

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    1. I am so glad you noticed the plate and spoon, Andrea! The plates were my mother's wedding china - and the spoon belonged to Mark's grandmother.

      I think the next time I put up peaches, I will do them in halves so I can make a real Pêche Melba! Yes, "Gut Ding will Weile haben!" My friend used to always say that when waiting for spring to arrive.

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  4. Wow, how interesting! I can't remember the last time I had crepes suzette... but have never heard of the banana dish! Such a fun post, many thanks!

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    1. Liz - Bananas Foster is a dish of bananas cooked in a sauce made from butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, dark rum, and banana liqueur. It is then flambéed and put over vanilla ice cream. And it is delicious!

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  5. Oh no! I'm blushing now. Not just from the phrase Peach Melba either. I hope you don't think my new post is ubiquitous! GREG

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    1. Ah, Greg - I am embarrassed, especially as I do, indeed, love a good flourless chocolate cake. I love your topping for the cake, especially - great to add some crunch and texture!

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  6. Here I was thinking that you consulted Mark about these facts! Very interesting facts, mind you. The last time I had baked Alaska was in the Hamptons, and a couple of years before at a hotel located near the Sydney Opera House. It's nice to come across these classics every now and then.

    One of the first desserts I learned in cooking school was Crêpes Suzette. Now I have Barbra Streisands' "Memories" playing in my head.

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    1. It is fun to think back to all these classic desserts. But, if I can't sleep tonight because I have Barbra's voice in my head singing "Memories," I will blame you, John!

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  7. This is one of my favorite posts. A real trip down memory lane with lots of history I was unaware of. Maybe a dinner party of previously popular foods would be fun. You've got the background music! Thinking of salads, the wedge salad seemed to be off menus, too, until recently. I, too, loved the plate and spoon.

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    1. Susan - yes the wedge is back, but the Waldorf? There are so many forgotten foods - I love your idea of a resurrection dinner party. But, with all the missing foods, it would need to be a series!

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  8. Loved reading this, brought back memories of my mother serving crepes Suzette at her dinner parties when I was a little girl and everybody ooohing and aaaaahing when they were lit. I also enjoyed reading about Escoffier: I just started a novel about him and look forward to perhaps reading about the mentioned meals more in depth.

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    1. A novel about Escoffier? What is the title? I am going to need to read this! Maybe it will go into more detail about these stories. Thanks, Fiona, for letting me know about that.

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    2. It is called "White Truffles in Winter" by N.M. Kelby. Just started it, so cannot give you more detail yet...

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    3. Thanks, Fiona - I will check it out. I love reading about chefs. Have you read The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pépin? I really enjoyed it a lot.

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  9. How yummy! I've never had anything melba. I'm going to make this on Sat. xoxo

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  10. Love the informative post David! But like I said in the FB post, things always find a way of coming back. I do agree with you though, nothing bugs me more than the medicare restaurant desserts, if I see one more lava cake I'll scream. I wouldn't mind if they were good, but they are simply awful half the time. I also hate that big cookie with ice cream on top. We have a place in Boulder here at a nice more expensive place, and they have good desserts. Though I have to say that my sticky toffee pudding is better :)
    Your peche melba is beautiful and I think you're on your way to bringing it back.

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    1. I think you hit the nail on the head, Nazneen - most restaurant desserts are ho-hum at best. Funny, I just saw the huge cookie with ice cream on the menu yesterday! Have you posted on your sticky toffee pudding? I may need to check that out...

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  11. David, I love the history, the beautiful plate, and a delicious Peach Melba!

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    1. Thanks, Valentina! I am glad you enjoyed all that history! :)

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  12. Great post, David! I seriously think you could turn this into a series for a magazine.

    Peaches are my favorite fruit - I remember when you preserved these last year. I still need to make your peach cobbler with the cinnamon rolls on top!

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    1. Maybe a series for a detective magazine? :)

      Peach season is almost here - I think I will be canning a lot of them this year!

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  13. David, Love this post! Funny how some food goes out of favor. My father-in-law was a steward for Holland America lines many years ago, where he learned to make Crepes Suzette. Years later he would make them almost every Thanksgiving! He was quite talented.
    Peach Melba has always been one of my favorite desserts…haven’t made it in years. I think I have just been inspired! Great post…thanks for sharing!

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    1. What great fun to have Crêpes Suzette for Thanksgiving each year! What other specialties did he share with you?

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  14. I looove crepes suzette but that's because I love crepes. I didn't know any of the other desserts you are mentioning simply because they are not known in Greece. We have different types of desserts that are very traditional and preferred so we in turn have our own "forgotten" desserts :) Would love to try this one! It looks great David.

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    1. I love crêpes, too, Magda - and I don't know why I don't make them more often - they are so easy and make for both an elegant dinner or dessert! Are you going to start to revive some missing Greek desserts?

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  15. With apologies to Dame Nellie, I actually prefer the look of your Peach Melba to the previous ones I've tried (they still do appear occasionally on Aussie restaurant menus but you're right, it's no longer 'in fashion'!). The poached peaches sound fabulous! Loving your research into these dissappearing wonders David, I agree that it's rather sad for beautiful desserts such as these to be passed up for the perpetual chocolate cake or fondant (which, by the way, so many restaurants get entirely wrong).

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    1. I think you are right, Laura - it isn't just that newer deserts are ubiquitous - it is simply that they aren't well made. Glad you enjoyed reading about the disappearing desserts!

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  16. Food has such interesting history! I think home preserved fruit is many times better than their fresh counterparts, unless very much in season. I'd take your peach melba anytime David! Love the markepedia comment, I can even imagine the situation. Crepes suzette I don't like much, but I can eat as many bananas foster as I can!

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    1. I can't wait for peach season again, Paula, so I can make another batch of your peaches in lavender syrup! I think this time, I will poach some halves for future Melbas!

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