Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Salty Sweet: Smoked Bacon Caramels


"Serving bacon for dessert, however, remains controversial. With sightings of bacon brittle, chocolate-covered bacon and bacon ice cream, bacon desserts have become the skinny jeans of pastry: trendy to a fault, saucy when successful, yet often ill-advised."

What can I say? The New York Times went right after me this week.

In an article about breakfast foods being adapted into desserts at high end restaurants, Julia Moskin espoused the glories of such dishes as oatmeal créme bruleé and "cereal milk" panna cotta with avocado puree -- both of which, if you ask me, seem somewhat questionable. Almost anything, she wrote said, could and should be adapted into a dessert. Except of course, bacon, which has apparently become so "in" that it's now "out."

I doubt Ms. Moskin could have known that I had a bacon dessert ready to post on the blog, but, all the same, I'm not apologizing. Because, sure, the bacon fad has passed by the high-end restaurants out there, but the move towards its use by adventurous home cooks is the next, natural step in how food trends and flavors pass down to the general public.

Every once in a while, a food trend will break out into the mainstream. It starts in high-end restaurants, moves to home cooks, gets down towards bistro cooking, and then, if it's really successful, breaks out into fast food. It's a fast process, too -- obscure flavors can become thought of as the norm in the blink of an eye. Don't believe me? Don't you remember how quickly the chipotle pepper became ubiquitous?

Today, there are two hip and happening flavors, each at different stages of the process -- salted caramel, nearing the end of the cycle (most recently seen as Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate at Starbucks) and bacon, made from scratch and used as dessert, a trend just now moving down to the home cook/bistro level. Trust me -- these days, more restaurants in Philly cure their own bacon than do a proper coat check.

Now, don't worry -- we're not going to ask you to make your own bacon today. But we do want to ask a question: What happens when the two flavors of the moment meet?

The answer, below.

Smoked Bacon Caramels
Makes about 50 candies

1 Cup White Sugar
1 Cup Honey or Light Corn Syrup

1 Cup Heavy Cream
6 Tablespoons (about 3 oz.) of Butter, room temperature
1 Tablespoon Pure Vanilla Extract

1/2 pound Bacon
Several large pinches of smoked salt (or fleur de sel)

[Editor's Note: You have to decide about whether to use honey or corn syrup for this recipe. I happened to have some very nice "comb-in" honey lying around, but corn syrup will sub out just fine here, and it's much cheaper. For that matter, if you're really in a tight spot, skipping both and using just sugar could work as well (if you do this, add a Tablespoon or two of water to get the melting process working).]

First things first. Bring on the bacon. You can use any bacon -- but good ingredients never hurt. This is Leona Bacon, supplied to us through our farmshare. The animals were raised by the nice people over at Keystone Farms in Troy, PA, which means, yes, this was still a living, breathing pig until about two weeks before it was delivered to us. Man, do I love the farmshare. Fry up your bacon until moderately crispy (it will become slighly chewier when it's added to the caramel).

While the bacon is cooking, add your sugar and either honey or corn syrup into a large pan or tall pot. You'll see why you need it to be large in a minute. I prefer using a wide pan, as it aids in the caramelization process. Stir or whisk until the sugar melts, and the pan's contents become entirely liquid.

Within a few miuntes, it'll look like this. Stop stirring and turn the heat to low.

At this point, we have to start taking the temperature of things -- literally.

This is our new toy, requested by the Pasta Burner. It's a candy/deep-frying thermometer. We'll be using it mostly for candy-making, and it's an invaluable for that purpose. In fact, I'd say that without a candy thermometer, you're going to have a very hard time making this recipe. The good news? They're cheap and widely available. You don't even need to go to a cooking store -- 99% of hardware stores carry these, and industrial models are just fine. Some are as cheap as five dollars. Ours was nine. If you pay more than fifteen, you're a sucker.

Start heating up your milk. Your stovetop should look something like this, if a little bit cleaner.

Once the bacon's cooked, transfer it to some paper toweling to drain.

Take an initial temperature test of your sauce -- right now, you're just making sure the caramel stays below 240 F, while establishing some nice color. The darker you let the color get, the more bitter and toasted the flavor of the caramel will be. If you like your caramels a bit sweeter, move on to the next step early. If you want it darker, go as long as you'd like -- just don't end up with a pan full of black sludge.

When you've gotten a color that you're happy with, you're going to want to quickly add in your heated cream. The reaction should be pretty dramatic. I could tell you about it, but why don't you watch for yourself:

That's why you need a big pan. Add in your butter a tablespoon at a time, whisking it in quickly to emulsify everything. Now, don't you wish you had actually made the butter recipe that appeared on this blog last month? You could have caramels made with your own butter and earn yourself some serious cooking cred in the process. I'm not just posting these recipes for fun, people -- they're actually useful.

Once the butter is incorporated into the caramels, you'll want to put your thermometer back into the pan. We want to get the caramels up to the "hard ball" stage, or 260 degrees F. It takes a while for the temperature to rise, but once it does, it goes fast. Keep a close eye, and pull it off the heat around 255 F (the caramel will keep cooking itself for a few minutes).

As soon as it's off the heat, stir in the vanilla extract and the chopped bacon.

Pour into a pan that's lined with well (and I really do mean well) buttered parchment or wax paper. If you have one of those silicon pads, even better. You'll want the caramel to be spread out to a thickness of about 1 inch. If it's 3/4ths of an inch, if it's an inch and a quarter, even if it's 6/8th of an inch, it's fine -- this isn't an exact science.

As it cools, we'll be adding yet another flavor element -- smoked salt. What you see below is wood-smoked salt -- easily found at Whole Foods (in the cheese department), it's one of the few things in the store that won't cost you an arm or a leg. A small container (enough to last you months) will run you about three or four dollars. One whiff of the stuff and most people fall in love. It's a brilliant addition to many, many dishes. Sprinkle one or two large pinches (to taste) over the cooling caramels while they're still tacky.

After about an hour of sitting out at room temperature,the caramel should be cool enough to handle gingerly. Flip it over onto a cutting board, remove the paper lining, and salt the other side. Cover the slab with plastic wrap and cool in the fridge until firm but not hard (about another hour).

Remove the cutting board from the fridge. There is an outside chance that the caramel slab may have leeched out a bit of congealed butter -- this is really an aesthetic issue more than anything else. Take a clean towel and wipe the slab down if you're really concerned about it. Chop the caramels into 1 inch x 1 inch / 1 inch cubes.

And that's it! The Pasta Burner and I like keeping a little bowl of these around the house for guests, so we wrap them up in squares of parchment or wax paper, which makes them look like old-fashioned commercial candies. They should be eaten at room temperature, but if you anticipate them lasting over a week -- and trust me, they're so good, they won't -- then you should store them in the fridge, where they'll last for up to a month.

A few photos:

These really are remarkable little treats -- sweet, savory, smoky, meaty, packed with sugar and umami alike. Who cares if Julia Moskin says they're going out of style? I've never been happier to be un-hip.

Music: Suzanne Vega -- "Caramel (Live at West 54th)"


  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Wow, that looks amazing. We are going to have to try making some soon!


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