For The Turtle Restaurant's New Year 2015 celebration we are serving food that is scorched, flamed or otherwise on fire. The two dessert choices will be literally on fire. It gives me pause to do this on account of the tables clothes, the diners, the lawyers and clumsy waitstaff, however what is life without a little excitement and worry??
Anytime you see a food name with the word Jubilee attached it is usually means there's a Queen involved. A jubilee is an anniversary, a Diamond Jubilee is the 60th anniversary of a Royalty's accession. The Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria was celebrated on 22 June 1897. The fabulously famous restaurateur, chef and culinary writer August Escoffier created this dish for Victoria's Jubilee - hence the name Cherries Jubilee. I am using Bing cherries in a heavy syrup which we made flavored with a bit of cinnamon and citrus, poured over vanilla ice cream followed by high proof Kirschwasser or Cherry Brandy to which a match gives birth to flames. Needless to say this must be presented in a fire proof dish, lighted away from the customer so no table dressing, clothing or hair become involved in the operation. It is a delightful presentation of very simple elements to which diners are drawn like moths. There are many variations on this theme: Bananas Foster, Mangos Diablo, Peches Louis.
I wondered what proof alcohol must be for it to catch fire? Well prove it to me. Back in the day whiskey was tested for authenticity and alcohol content by pouring some over a small amount of gun powder. If the whiskey burned off and the powder ignited, it was considered "proof." That meant approximately 100 proof (49.5 percent rounded up). These days we know the temperature of the liquid can change the flash point or when the alcohol will ignite but not necessarily burn steadily.
It's not really the liquid burning. It's the alcohol vapors that catch fire. Higher proof equals more vapor, depending on temperature. Hold a match to 80 proof vodka at room temperature, and it won't catch fire. Hold a lighter's flame or a butane torch to it and it will ignite temporarily. This is because the lighter's flame is warming the booze causing pure alcohol to vaporize. If you carefully heat the vodka to a higher temperature, it produces a lot of vapor, and it can catch fire and burn vigorously. (Note: Do not do this at home. You can definitely accidentally blow yourself up. )
This scales down to low-proof solutions. For instance, in cooking, if you add wine to a hot pan, it will flame up spectacularly, despite being only about 12 percent ABV (24 proof). Conversely, even 100 percent pure ethanol will not ignite if the liquid is 55 degrees F or lower. Did you get that ? - high proof cold - will burn, low proof - hot will burn. So if I don't want my dessert to taste too boozy, I might want to heat the lower proof booze first before I light the dessert. In all cases stand way back, use a fireplace match of a long lighter, and have an extinguisher on hand.