Thursday, November 11, 2010

Experimentation: Bacon Candy

My newest fixation is cupcakes. I love the individual portions, the fun ways to frost them, and how much flavor you can bake into each bite. Oh, not to mention the joy on peoples’ faces when they see them in the cake stand on the counter. Anyone entering my house knows that baked goods that appear in the cake stand are free for the taking, and very few are shy about it.

The one flavor I’ve been really wanting to make is maple-bacon. (I subscribe to the theory that everything is better with bacon.) But I haven’t been completely satisfied looking at the recipes for the cake, frosting, and bacon candy, so I decided that I would take matters into my own hands and create something I was happy with. Thus began a day of experimentation, starting first with the bacon candy.

I wanted to try various methods of making the candy, so I started by cooking bacon first. Given that the bacon would be used in candy, I used a good, high quality bacon: Wellshire Dry Rubbed Center Cut (all natural, raised without antibiotics). I like the heft of the pieces and it has a good flavor (it is both thick sliced and applewood smoked). It is available at Whole Foods and you can order it online (for about $2/lb cheaper).

I took 6 slices of the smoked bacon and cut each in half. I decided to slow bake (300 degrees) the pork strips to get an even cook and to preserve the flat shape of the bacon. I remember reading about baking bacon on Cooking for Engineers, although he used a much slower oven and put the bacon on racks. It seemed to be a good way to get the bacon just right for the candying. Baked at 300 degrees on a baking sheet took about 50 minutes. I did turn the bacon about two-thirds of the way through, but I do not think this is strictly necessary. What I got at the end of the cooking process was a flat, evenly colored, chewy piece of bacon. No burnt or overly crisp edges. Perfect for making bacon candy.

My first experiment involved melting 1/3 cup of raw turbinado sugar in a small saut̩ pan to make a dry caramel. I started this on a low heat but because turbinado sugar is larger and harder granules than plain old granulated sugar, it did not melt readily. I turned up the flame to med-low to get a melt. Once there, I turned the flame to low and dropped in 2 pieces of the bacon. Turning them once and cooking for about 30 seconds, then taking the pan off the heat. I removed them to a parchment-lined baking rack to cool. (Note that if you cook on too high of a heat or for too long, your caramel will become burnt Рso watch very carefully.)

Second, I made a dry caramel with granulated white sugar and did the dip, 30-second cook method. This caramel was much thinner than the turbinado sugar, but yielded a heavier caramel coat.

Third: brown sugar two ways: I packed brown sugar on one side of two pieces of bacon and put them in a preheated sauté pan. I let them cook on low until the sugar had melted on top and then flipped the bacon to cook the sugar in. I also tried this a second way by dredging one piece of bacon in brown sugar, packing it on both sides (which is a bit difficult to do). I then put it in the preheated pan, cooked until the sugar melted and then flamed the gas up high to really melt the sugar good onto the bacon.

Fourth: I heated maple syrup to a light boil and sauteed two pieces of bacon for 30 seconds.

Fifth: Ditto #4 but with molasses.

Once all was said and done Mr. B and I did a taste test. Great way to start the morning, I might add.

The white sugar caramel completely encased the bacon into a hard shell. It was stiff as a board but did cut fine with kitchen shears. It was crunchy and stuck to the teeth with a lot of chewing needed to get to the bacon flavor. Mr. B thought this tasted like caramel corn. Too much sugar/caramel for my liking.

The turbinado sugar caramel was darker than its white sugar counterpart and not as thick on the bacon, but just as hard. It cut fine with kitchen shears and had more depth of flavor. Not quite as crunchy as the white sugar caramel and I really liked the flavor and the way it would hold up as a garnish on a cupcake.

The two-sided brown sugar was also a favorite. Both single- and double-sided brown sugar bacon were slightly overcooked due to the candying method. The edges got crispy and they looked the worst by far. But they cut easily and were crispy and crunch with more bacon flavor than sugar. This could be a very good method if the bacon started out slightly undercooked to compensate for the fact that a second cooking period occurs.

The maple syrup and molasses were both sticky—the maple more so. Given that, they would not work as a garnish. But the molasses was the best looking by far, shiny but not hard. The maple flavor was OK but not great, while I loved the molasses flavor, albeit found it too strong for the cupcake purpose.

The consensus is that either a turbinado caramel or two-sided brown sugar candy coat should be used to make the bacon candy for the garnish.

One experiment down, two to go (cupcake batter and frosting).

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