Most of us like a glass of wine with dinner. It somehow makes a meal more civilized and enjoyable. Yet the real power of alcohol, especially for the cook, lies not in what it does at the table but what it does in the kitchen.
Like Salt, alcohol has the ability to bring out the flavour in food. Whether you’re cooking with wine, beer, or liquor, the alcohol in those beverages improves flavour perception in at least two important ways: by evaporation and by molecular bonding.
My favourite alcoholic beverage in the kitchen is brandy, a spirit distilled from wine that’s made from grapes.The two best-known brandies are Cognac and Armagnac. Both are distilled from grapes from specific regions in the south west of France and matured for several years in wooden oak casks. This process gives the finished spirit its characteristic brown colour (although some caramel colour and flavour may also be added). The best Cognacs and Armagnac’s should be treated with the respect their price suggests. Less expensive brandies are better candidates for cooking. Brandy is also made in Spain, Italy, Mexico, the US and other countries where wine is made. Pisco, from Peru and Chile, is another variety of brandy. Brandy has also been elaborated here in Mallorca by Bodegas Suau since1851.
To make brandy the wine is put into a distilling apparatus which consists of a simple boiler, topped by a metal hood to collect the vapours as they pass through the condenser and converted back into liquid, where the brandy is colourless and roughly 70% alcohol (140 proof). It is then aged in wood casks ("limousin oak," if Cognac) for a number of years, which gives it its distinct, dark amber colour. As it ages in the barrel, alcohol evaporates more quickly than water, allowing the strength of the liquor to lower as time goes on. After the set number of years of aging, the brandy is removed and adjusted to shipping strength (40-43%) with the addition of distilled water, as needed.
One way to cook with brandy is by flambéing your food with it. Flambé, which means 'flamed' in French, is a technique by which liquor is added to a hot pan, causing the alcohol to ignite. Chefs typically flambé just as their dish is finished cooking so that the sugars in the alcohol do not burn (the flame is caused by the alcohol and subsides in a few seconds). This is often done with red meat, but can be useful in the preparation of other foods as well. Any dish that is cooked at high temperature on the stove-top can be flambéed including crêpes, shellfish, and steaks. When flambéing with brandy, ensure that nothing flammable is near the pan and that the fan above your stove is turned to high. When your dish is almost finished cooking and the pan is hot, add one tablespoon of brandy to the pan and step back. A flame will immediately catch and your food will flambé for several seconds. Do not continue cooking at high temperature once the flame subsides, as the sugars in the alcohol will quickly begin to caramelize and burn.
Some recipes utilize brandy in sauces without flambéing. This type of sauce will always be cooked at low-medium heat because high temperatures will cause the alcohol in the brandy to ignite. For example, try sautéing shallots and bacon in butter, adding parsley, and finishing with a dash of brandy. The result is a delicious sauce for seafood.
Lastly, brandy can also be used in sweet dishes. Again, brandy and cream are a perfect combination. Try adding brandy to chocolate mousse or whipped cream for an even more decadent dish.
Remember that liquor imparts a strong flavour. You don't want it to overpower the other elements of a dish, so keep in mind that a little goes a long way.
Steak Diane with brandy and mustard sauce
Ingredients serves 2
2 sirloin steaks, about 200g each
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp olive oil
1 tsp butter
For the sauce
2 tbsp brandy or Cognac
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp Dijon mustard
½ tsp sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp snipped chives
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
1 tsp lemon juice
Sprinkle the steaks with pepper. Heat the oil in a non stick frying pan, and cook the steaks over a strong flame for 1-2 minutes on each side. Add the butter and cover the steaks with the juices the pan. Transfer the steaks to two warm dinner plates and season with sea salt.
Return the pan to the flame. Now, add the brandy or Cognac to the still-hot pan and carefully flambé the brandy. When the flame dies, reduce the heat and quickly add the butter, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, sea salt and pepper, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon for 1 minute, allowing the mixture to
boil and thicken. Add the chives, parsley, lemon juice and any juices that have gathered from the resting steaks, stir well and pour the bubbling
Sauce over the steaks. Serve immediately with potatoes and a green salad.
Simple Chocolate & Brandy Mousse
Ingredients serves 4-6
200g dark chocolate (70%)
3 egg whites
Roughly grate 50g of the chocolate and reserve.
Break the rest into small, even-sized pieces and melt in a bowl placed over a pan of simmering water. Take the pan off the heat but keep the bowl over the hot water and stir in the brandy. Don't worry if the mixture thickens - it will smooth out again later. Whisk the egg whites in a large bowl until they're standing in stiff peaks. Spoon in half the sugar, whisk again, then add the rest of the sugar and whisk until it looks thick and glossy like meringue. Whip the cream in a separate bowl. Take the melted chocolate off the pan and fold in a heaped metal serving spoon of meringue to loosen the consistency, then tip the chocolate into the meringue and fold in lightly but thoroughly. Now fold in the whipped cream, then two thirds of the grated chocolate.
Spoon the chocolate mixture into glasses or coffee cups. Chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours, or overnight if this is more convenient. Sprinkle with the remaining grated chocolate, then dust with icing sugar.