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.

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