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Creating a flame using sugar cubes & alcohol


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#1 gfron1

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Posted 06 August 2008 - 06:44 AM

I need a flame in a dish I'm preparing, but I don't want smoke. The flame needs to be intense enough for me to put some pepper skin on it and not douse the flame. I'll be drying the skin first so there won't be much weight/coverage on the flame, and I can shred the skin if I need to. Yesterday someone said that they had seen a technique where a sugar cube was soaked in alcohol and lit. Has anyone heard of this? Or is there a better way of doing this. The flame will be put on the diner's plate so safety is a key factor.

Chef, Curious Kumquat, Silver City, NM


#2 Tri2Cook

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Posted 06 August 2008 - 07:19 AM

I'm not sure there is an absolutely safe way to have an open flame on a diner's plate but a cube soaked with alcohol will burn and if you use the right alcohol it will burn quite intensely. Maybe if you can get everybody to blow really hard to put out the flame as the sugar starts to melt you can get a cotton candy blizzard happening at the table. :biggrin:
It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

#3 Rehovot

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Posted 06 August 2008 - 07:59 AM

I need a flame in a dish I'm preparing, but I don't want smoke.  The flame needs to be intense enough for me to put some pepper skin on it and not douse the flame.  Yesterday someone said that they had seen a technique where a sugar cube was soaked in alcohol and lit.  Has anyone heard of this?  Or is there a better way of doing this.  The flame will be put on the diner's plate so safety is a key factor.

Yes, this is one way* to drink absinthe. And you get an abalone-shell-colored flame for, oh, about a nanosecond. But the flame isn't much, and the effect is anticlimactic if there's anything more than candlelight.
*Please note that I did not say the "right way," etc. :rolleyes:

Edited by Rehovot, 06 August 2008 - 08:00 AM.


#4 Lilija

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Posted 06 August 2008 - 09:45 PM

Hmm, but what if, instead of absinthe, you used Everclear...

I would be concerned about flaming sugar on any plate at my table, flaming sugar is no. joke.

#5 gfron1

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Posted 07 August 2008 - 05:24 AM

The flame will be in the bottom of a high walled bowl/vessel so its a bit more safe. I was also thinking everclear. I remember from my college days that stuff doing pretty amazing things. And I vaguely remember a friend pouring it on his hand and lighting it (children - do not try this at home).

Chef, Curious Kumquat, Silver City, NM


#6 Tri2Cook

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Posted 07 August 2008 - 06:45 AM

That's what I meant by "if you use the right alcohol". Some high octane stuff. Of course, if it's just for visual effect and to create a little aroma when you drop the pepper skin on it, it doesn't actually have to be a consumable alcohol.
It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

#7 paulraphael

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Posted 07 August 2008 - 07:22 AM

so what's the story? does the sugar just act as a wick, or does it actually burn? if it just wicks the alcohol, i don't see much of a problem. if the sugar burns, isn't there also the issue of a dessert with ... burned sugar?

#8 jgm

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Posted 07 August 2008 - 12:02 PM

An Italian restaurant I used to frequent always served a scoop of spumoni with a flaming sugar cube on top. We always just blew it out and ate the sugar cube along with the first spoonful of spumoni.

For what that's worth. . .

#9 mkayahara

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Posted 07 August 2008 - 01:58 PM

I've most often seen this in the context of tiki drinks, where 151-proof rum is usually used, though I imagine everclear would work at least as well. Just make sure you keep the bottle well away from the plate when you're lighting! :blink:

I'd love to know what the goal is here: visual effect? Producing an aromatic smoke? Something else entirely?
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#10 gfron1

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Posted 07 August 2008 - 03:26 PM

This will be part of a tasting menu where in this one course I want to place a "globe" (think small fish bowl) in front of the guests. On the bottom of the globe will be this flame on which I will place green chile skins to create that incredible roasting chile smell (a smell of the gods). Suspended above that will be the food - which I will conceal until the event since some eGers are coming to the dinner.

If push comes to shove I guess I could use a tea candle but I don't really want that big or strong of a flame.

Chef, Curious Kumquat, Silver City, NM


#11 Lilija

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Posted 07 August 2008 - 06:58 PM

I would be careful about having a flame resting on the bottom of a glass globe. I've had a candle burn down far, where the flame was sitting right on the bottom, and the whole thing shattered, exploding hot liquid wax, fire and glass shards all over.

I really don't want to sound like a naysayer, the whole thing sounds like a fantastic, and very dramatic concept. Maybe if you had it on something to insulate it from the bottom, like half of an eggshell, or something ceramic. Even a tea candle would be pretty cool, and a bit safer.

#12 Adam Balic

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Posted 07 August 2008 - 08:15 PM

You could use those compress charcoal/coal tablets that are used to burn resin incense in churches. They don't smoke or have a flame, but the whole point of them is that they are hot enough to burn an aromatic, like say your chilli skins. Safer then the sugar cube too.

If it was outside you could try to find some methane ice which would allow you to have a flaming "ice" cube effect......

#13 Smithy

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Posted 08 August 2008 - 09:33 AM

I think the sugar cube and alcohol idea has merit. I think that with the right alcohol, you'll be able to keep the sugar cube from igniting at all. I used to demonstrate the point of ignition temperatures by soaking a piece of facial tissue (we called it "Kleenex" even when it was another brand) in household rubbing alcohol and lighting it. The alcohol burned until it burned out but the tissue didn't catch fire, because the flame wasn't hot enough to ignite the tissue. Is there a spirit available that burns coolly enough to avoid burning the sugar but hot enough to char the pepper skins?

I'd like a bit more explanation as to why the sugar cube catching fire is such a safety concern aside from overheating the glass it's sitting on. (An insulating layer of some sort is needed there.) If it's contained in a small "fish bowl" the fire will be easy to smother by covering the opening of the bowl. What am I missing with the sugar cube? Won't it just caramelize and get charred and smelly?

You will need to put the sugar cube on something to protect the glass. Broken eggshells, clean pretty gravel or sand, something. If you use something that's flameproof then you'll add a slight extra bit of safety if you think it's necessary. I think you'll be able to smother the flame quite easily, and may in fact have trouble keeping the flame lighted down in that bowl.

Here's a last thought: No matter what, I think you'll have trouble balancing those pepper skins atop the sugar cube. If you put them atop a wick (as in a tea candle) you're likely to break the wick and put out the flame. Won't you need some sort of small grating to support the skin just above the flame?

It all sounds like fun.

Edited by Smithy, 08 August 2008 - 09:53 AM.

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#14 jgm

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Posted 08 August 2008 - 01:21 PM

I, too, like the idea of the flaming sugar cube. It may be necessary to practice with different sizes and shapes of vessels.

Why not set the sugar cube in a piece of fruit or very moist vegetable? For example, cut an apple in half. Put the cut side down, inside the vessel. Using tongs (or whatever), set the alcohol-soaked sugar cube into a small square you've cut in the apple. Light with a long match. The apple isn't going to burn, but it will insulate any heat from the glass. If an apple isn't to your liking, there are several other possibilities. A thick slice of cucumber?

Very interesting! Please post results, and pictures if you can!

#15 gfron1

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Posted 08 August 2008 - 05:07 PM

I'll definitely post results. This will be for Labor Day weekend. My plan for the skins was to have a wound wire holder (not really sure how to describe it - other than to say that it will be minimal, but hold the skins a bit above the flame). I think that should create the effect. I guess I'll have to go buy some high octane booze this weekend and start playing! Daquiris - here I come!

Chef, Curious Kumquat, Silver City, NM


#16 trekflyer

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Posted 12 August 2008 - 03:17 AM

the best thing i can think of for you... easiest and safest... is flammable jel. I've eaten table top smores at a number of places and this is what they use.

Gelled Alcohol (Sterno, Canned Heat, jelled alcohol) -

This is either methanol or ethanol trapped in a network of solid calcium acetate forming a gel. This gel is a little safer to use than liquid alcohol since there is less of a spill hazard. Unfortunately, most gelled alcohol stoves have small top openings and often don't get food hot enough to cook or bring water to a boil.

Sterno Jelled Alcohol

This fuel usually comes in a resealable can and may be the best choice for young and clumsy campers, since kicking it over is less likely to cause a significant fire hazard as would other liquid and gas stoves. Due to costs and limitations, it is not highly recommended for most long distance backpackers.

you can take the jel out of the can and put it in the container that you want

#17 gfron1

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Posted 12 August 2008 - 05:18 AM

Its been a while since I've used that stuff. Doesn't it have a smell? If you're saying other restaurants are using it, maybe not. I'll add it to my experiment list for this weekend.

Chef, Curious Kumquat, Silver City, NM


#18 Kayakado

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Posted 12 August 2008 - 11:30 AM

Thirty years ago I had a recipe for a ghost cake that called for lemon extract soaked sugar cube in an eggshell to be lit to give the ghost flaming eyes. it worked great and the kids loved it.

#19 jgm

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Posted 12 August 2008 - 02:21 PM

Thirty years ago I had a recipe for a ghost cake that called for lemon extract soaked sugar cube in an eggshell to be lit to give the ghost flaming eyes.  it worked great and the kids loved it.

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Lemon extract? Of course! The alcohol would burn. While I don't know if an extract would be appropriate for the project under consideration, in another setting, it might be ideal.

Of course, an extract of about anything could be made by soaking it in vodka or grain alcohol.

#20 gfron1

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Posted 17 August 2008 - 05:47 PM

I've done my first experiment. I took Everclear (I hadn't bought that in nearly 20 years!), and brown sugar cubes.
Posted Image
Then we read this from the bottle:

Caution!! Extremely flammable  Handle with care

So we grabbed the fire extinguisher. Then we read a bit more:

Caution: Do not apply to an open flame.  Keep away from fire, heat and open flame.  Contents may ignite or explode.

With that I grabbed the flame!
Posted Image
It burned very intensely. Plenty of flame for my purpose. In fact, it may have been a bit large. It burned for 90 seconds before it started to flicker and we doused it under a bowl.
I also wanted to test the exploding glass theory, so I put this candle holder over it. This is the one I would like to use if I can find 18 of them (one for each guest).
Posted Image
It didn't explode (although we hid under the table just in case. Here's the downside to sugar:
Posted Image
The smell started at about 45 seconds and wasn't very appealing. So then I just poured some in a bowl and lit it! Fire! Fire! Fire!
Posted Image
Oooh, me like pretty flame!

Then I realized, the vessel for the flame is irrelevant from a functional perspective. Yes, I can control the flame depending on what I put the Everclear in, but its going to burn whether I put it on sugar or on a mouse's ass. So that opens up some possibilities. What if I poured it in a vessel of green chile? It melted the sugar, so it would heat/cook the chile, but it would burn itself out before it caused mischief.

So that's it for tonight. More fun with flames tomorrow. And, I'll try my homemade vanilla extract which I used 151 rum in.

Chef, Curious Kumquat, Silver City, NM


#21 Kerry Beal

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Posted 17 August 2008 - 06:20 PM

I see that you can get the 95% Everclear in New Mexico. I'm envious.

How about diluting it a tiny bit and see how long your flame burns?

#22 gfron1

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Posted 20 August 2008 - 05:53 PM

Posted Image
Simply, soaked green chile with everclear, lit. Burned 90 seconds and released the chile smell at 45 seconds. Exactly what I need. More on this later :)

Chef, Curious Kumquat, Silver City, NM


#23 Smithy

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Posted 11 September 2008 - 08:43 PM

So, what happened? Did you go ahead with the flame? I can't find any reference to it in this thread on your recent tasting menu, or your associated blog entry. Enquiring minds, and all that...!

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#24 gfron1

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Posted 11 September 2008 - 09:18 PM

Oh - its in both. Look for the course called Tuna Tempura. It worked fine except I needed to feed more air to the flame to keep it lit longer. I'm working on a base that has air feed holes for my next menu. The base will also provide much needed stability to the tall glass.

Chef, Curious Kumquat, Silver City, NM