I woke up this morning with my eyes bright and alert for the first time in a week. My brain was free of the cobwebs that a cold and flu had ridden it with. I opened the front door and the world had changed around me. Snowflakes had been falling silently while I was asleep and wrapped the world in a blanket of white. I went back inside and grabbed my camera, which had been lying untouched for days. I must have presented quite an amusing sight – in my pajamas and winter coat clicking away with a grin on my face.
Back inside, as I got out the bacon for breakfast, there was something else on my mind. Cookies. My cookie countdown had suffered a minor setback on account of my cold, but there is nothing that aids recovery better than cookies. Or bacon. Adding bacon to the cookies just seemed like the right thing to do.
Bacon-based desserts seem to be the latest trend. The first I heard of it was the now-famous Humphry Slocombe’s bacon ice cream. While this innovative ice cream shop tops my list of must-visit places (incidentally it comes before the pyramids of Egypt, judge me if you must), I was not really sold on the idea – something about mixing bacon with dairy still irks me. But as I read more about chefs all over introducing not just bacon, but other traditionally savory ingredients into the sacred dessert turf, previously ruled almost unequivocally by sugar and chocolate, I became more and more intrigued. My previous experiment with a Lemon-Basil Panna Cotta had been a success. So why not bacon?
Anyone who has ever drizzled maple syrup over their bacon knows what these chefs are talking about. When you think about the perfect marriage between sweet, salty and smoky, adding bacon to dessert no longer seems bizarre or an exercise best left to the devices of experimental pastry chefs; it seems more of a logical conclusion. Any baker worth his salt (excuse the pun) knows the secret ingredient, which if missing will render even the best cookie or caramel or chocolate dessert flat, like a black-and-white photogrph without depth. Most desserts need that base note of salt to cut through the one-dimensional sweetness – I knew this (by accident) even when I had just started baking. You see, at that time, most dessert ingredient lists called for unsalted butter but few had that important ‘pinch of salt’. Try finding unsalted butter in a grocery store in India. Salted was all I had to work with and to me, it seemed to work better. (It was only later that I realized that recipes call for unsalted butter because the percentage of salt varies widely from one brand of butter to the other and because unsalted butter was deemed ‘fresher’. I felt vindicated when a master pastry chef seemed to agree with my salted butter theory.)
So there I was, cookies on my mind and bacon in my hand, breakfast effectively forgotten. I knew it had to be shortbread – no other cookie, in my opinion, showcases butter better, and the crispy bacon would be the perfect foil to its sandy texture. But I needed something else – something that would elevate the sweet-salty match I was going for. A cookie infused with the wonderful aroma of rosemary, a herb strong enough to stand up to the bacon, seemed to be the perfect answer.
I candied the bacon (yes, I just used ‘candied’ and ‘bacon’ in the same sentence) in the oven with brown sugar, a technique I picked up from my salted-butter-teammate, David Lebovitz. (Of course, he does not know that such a team, or I exist, but let’s not quibble about that.) While the bacon cooked and reminded me that I had skipped breakfast, I stirred together butter, sugar, vanilla and rosemary with a spatula (such high-tech operations before breakfast!). The bacon was calling out to me and it took all my will power to resist and make sure that all of it went into the bowl. A gentle mixing of flour, a little hand trickery to form cookie balls and 25 minutes later, the buttery fragrance of freshly baked cookies swirled about in the kitchen. The cookies yielded and crumbled at the slightest pressure of my teeth, the rosemary cut cleanly through the butter and fat, and the bacon was all I had hoped it would be – crispy, sweet, salty. I had crossed the great bacon-for-dessert divide forever, and I’m sure I’ll never look back.
5 strips bacon
2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 sticks (8 oz or 240 gm) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 sprig rosemary, finely chopped (I use sharp kitchen scissors to snip them finely)
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1. Preheat the oven to 450°F (200°C). Line a heavy baking sheet with a silicone mat or aluminium foil, shiny surface down.
2. Lay the strips of bacon on the foil and sprinkle the sugar evenly over the strips.
3. Bake in the preheated oven for approx 12 minutes. Halfway through, drag the strips through the syrupy liquid that has accumulated and turn them over. Keep an eye out and make sure they don’t burn. Bake until they are a dark mahogany color.
4. Remove from the oven and cool completely on a wire rack.
5. Lower the oven temperature to 350°F (175°C) with the racks in the upper and lower thirds. Lightly grease 2 heavy baking sheets and line them with parchment paper.
6. Blend butter and sugar in a bowl with a rubber spatula until creamy. Add the vanilla and rosemary and mix until well incorporated.
7. Chop the cooled bacon to small bits and blend it in the butter mixture.
8. Sift flour over the butter and blend gently with the rubber spatula just until incorporated. (The dough will be slightly crumbly.)
9. Flour your hands well and form the dough between your palms into 1-inch balls, pressing and shaping the dough to stick together. Gently flatten and lay them on the baking sheets, spaced 2 inches apart.
10. Bake in the preheated oven until the edges are golden, about 20-25 mins, switching the baking sheets halfway through for even baking. Cool on the sheets for 5 mins, then cool completely on a wire rack.