I have been told that the first sentence I ever strung together was a command, accompanied by a baby-fisted pound on my highchair tray. “MO BAKE!” I called out gleefully, but with all the authority of a general commanding his troops. “MO BAKE!” again when it didn’t yield quick enough results.
A half-century later, I am still asking for more bacon. If it is not with the same joyful certitude that it belongs on my plate at every meal, it is only because I have learned a bit of the addict’s shame.
Once when I was 12, my elderly neighbor asked me to keep an eye on her house while she was out of town. Along with her keys, came the invitation to make myself at home. I immediately did that by cooking the entire pound of Swift’s Premium Bacon I found in her fridge and eating it in one go. The lingering scent of unvented bacon smoke still emanated from her little lace kitchen curtains when she returned a week later. I was never asked to housesit again.
Truly, I would eat bacon at every meal if I could. And because I can’t, it has become a guilty pleasure to be indulged furtively by grabbing a few extra slices from the brunch buffet or eaten with excuses attached, as I explain to my un pork-frenzied family that a certain recipe just calls out for a little smoky flavor to kick things up a notch.
For many years I could keep the bacon thing in check with these moderate rewards. Even during those funky post college years of existentialist quandary, when eating potato chips and ice cream for dinner in search of succor and questionable sustenance, I didn’t overdo the bacon. But then one night I discovered Candied “Crack” Bacon, and it’s been an all out jones for my favorite food ever since.
It was the middle of the 1990’s when Martha Stewart was still Queen. I was working a party as the event photographer. As usual I parked my extra cameras with a brick of tri-x film under the bar where I could reload when I needed to. The caterers, Martha devotees, had prepared pretty little trays to serve the social X-rays I’d been hired to glamorize. On one tray sat a perfect grid of shimmering lacquered brown squares. “Taste this,” one of my favorite waiters whispered, allowing me to defile the perfect arrangement. And with my first mouthful of caramelized brown sugar amplifying the salty, fatty, bad boy goodness that is bacon, I was transported from being a mere bacon lover to a crazed bacon junkie.
I practically grabbed my friend’s lapel. “Where did this come from? And how do I make it?” He smiled knowingly. “It’s better than crack,” he said while artfully splaying crabmeat-filled snow peas on a platter. “Watch me pass the bacon,” he laughed. “Even Nan Kempner can’t say no.” Nan Kempner was the most elegant woman in the room, but she was almost invisible she was so thin. It was she, in fact, who inspired Tom Wolfe to coin the term “social X-ray” in his famous novel Bonfire of the Vanities. And yes, she did eat a piece of crack bacon. All of it! If I had listened very hard at that moment, over the tinkle of ice in glasses and the kiss kiss hellos and the click of my camera, I might have heard the little baby that was once Nan Kempner before she was too thin, the little ghost baby of a social x-ray, calling after a waiter with a tray “Mo Bake! I’m hungry!”
It took me a while to figure out how to replicate the recipe. But it’s so easy to make, I wonder why I never had it sooner. Martha Stewart’s hors d’oeuvres book contains her version. But a multitude of other cooks have also discovered candied bacon and shared their recipes on the internet. One of my favorite demonstrations is included in David Liebovitz’s recipe for candied bacon ice cream. That, I believe is the heroin of bacon. I’ll see you in rehab.
1 lb. thick cut bacon
1 cup brown sugar
Variations: Add cayenne pepper, Dijon mustard or fresh cracked black pepper to the sugar and salt if you want a bit more bite with your pig and sugar high.
There are a number of ways to candy bacon. You can use maple syrup instead of brown sugar. Regular sliced bacon rashers will yield a perfectly nice accompaniment to a plate of eggs, but a thicker slice is necessary if you are serving these as hors d’oeuvres. I also like the intensity of bacon flavor and chew that thick cut bacon gives.
Martha Stewart likes to flatten her bacon between parchment paper sandwiched by sheet pans. If you put a weight on the top pan, the bacon will be perfectly flat, easy to slice into squares and as meticulous as she is. In the above link to candied bacon ice cream, David Liebovitz cooks his on a baker’s silpat in the oven. Some folks like to lay bacon on a rack in the oven. The easiest way to candy bacon is in a skillet on the stove. Just cook a few pieces, drain, and then put cooked bacon back in the pan with a few tablespoons of brown sugar and cook over low heat until caramelized.
The recipe I am giving you is for an oven-cooked variation. I don’t use a rack, even if that makes the process a little less messy, because by immersing the bacon in the sugar and fat while it is cooking, you get a thicker glaze.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees
2. Line a sheet pan with tin foil
3. Put brown sugar onto a plate
4. Coat bacon on both sides with sugar
5. Place bacon on sheet pan so that each piece is not overlapping
6. Cook for about 10 minutes until bacon is bubbling
7. Remove bacon to a plate, drain bacon grease from sheet pan and return bacon to pan.
8. Sprinkle more sugar onto bacon
9. Sprinkle a little kosher salt on bacon if you are adding it.
10. Cook in oven for another few minutes until sugar has caramelized and bacon is cooked.
11. Remove bacon to a plate to cool. It will crisp up a bit.
Cut in squares with a very sharp knife if you are serving as hors d’oeuvres. Or eat them all by yourself in your jammies. They keep well for a day in a Tupperware container in the fridge. Heat for a minute or two in the oven to freshen them up before serving.
The Elvis: Grilled Peanut Butter and Candied Bacon Sandwich
While I am happiest eating my candied bacon in its purest state, if it has been a particularly hard day, the addition of peanut butter is more comforting than a stiff drink. Grilled peanut butter and bacon sandwiches are unsung genius. Maybe even sung, as Elvis loved them and usually added a sliced banana to his. He might have even batter fried them after that. Please don’t go that far. I’ll worry about you. But you can add the banana if you wish.
2 slices sandwich bread
Butter at room temperature
Spread peanut butter on a piece bread
Lay two slices candied bacon on top and sliced banana if you are using.
Cover with other piece of bread.
Slather butter on both sides of sandwich
Grill over medium heat until bread is brown and peanut butter is warm.
Candied Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato Salad
Here’s a twist on my favorite lunch counter sandwich. It is basically a chopped-up BLT. I even included the mayo, which is an element I’d miss if it weren’t on the bread.
1 head Romaine lettuce
1 cup cherry tomatoes
4 strips candied bacon
2 pieces toast
You can mix this salad in a bowl, but it is pretty if you compose each portion on plates.
Wash and dry lettuce, chop into bite-size pieces.
Slice cherry tomatoes in half
Cut candied bacon into small pieces
Toast bread, spread mayonnaise on one side.
Cut bread into small squares.
Assemble salad on plate.
Dress with your favorite vinaigrette.
Note: Chipotle mayonnaise is a nice twist. If you don’t have a favorite vinaigrette recipe, here is a good start: Mix 1 part red wine vinegar, 3 parts olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, a bit of Dijon mustard and fresh garlic. Whisk and you’re there.
Photos and text Lisa Barlow 2011 except Nan Kempner (New York Times) and Martha Stewart (Martha Stewart Living) and Crown (random internet).