Danish classics: Æbleflæsk, redux – Maple-candied bacon and Gewurztraminer-poached apples
My friend Malene took a trip to the US and Canada not too long ago, and as the good friend she is, she returned bearing gifts! When facing the challenge of picking up a gift for her favorite foodie, she did what I would have most likely done myself – asked herself the simple question: what would annoy him the most?
Well, her being in Canada and me being a foodie, the answer was more simple than you’d think: maple syrup! Yes, I’m terribly sorry, Canadian friends, I love you, but until now I simply have not been able to stomach one of the pillars of your society: maple syrup… And Malene knew that quite well. So what did she do but to start asking around: “I have this friend who thinks he doesn’t like maple, what should I get him?”
Apparently a somewhat impartial jury agreed that the products from Canadian Maple Delights would be the best choice, so into their store the young lady went, picked up some products and eventually returned home, beaming brightly at me, bearing this little care package:
“You say you don’t like maple,” she said smiling, “now here’s your chance to turn it into something good. I believe in you. Now get to work! “
“You’re a brat and I like it,” I shot back, ”I’ll play your game, you rogue, challenge accepted!”
Childhood tricks: Making the medicine go down
Of course, taking a product you just plain don’t like and making it palatable to yourself and others poses somewhat of a challenge. How do you take something you don’t like the taste of and make it tasty?
Well, for inspiration, I thought back to my early childhood where I remember my mother taking things I violently objected to eating, such as critically important antibiotics, and pairing them with something I most certainly did want to eat, such as strawberry yoghurt. In doing so, she probably not only saved my life, she also taught me an important lesson: horrible things, such as bitter medicine or maple syrup, can become quite desirable when mixed with less horrible things such as, uh, sweet strawberry yoghurt.
My strawberry yoghurt eating days have long since passed, but the same principles, I reckoned, might well still apply: mix the bad with the good and you’ll have something that is, at the very least, less bad, and at best quite good! Now, the bad component of the equation, I already had at hand; maple syrup. As for the good? Well, I know of few things in this world that are better than bacon. And that’s how the idea of maple-candied bacon popped into my mind!
Candied Bacon?! – Are you kidding me?
Now, I do realize that mixing sugar and bacon may well seem a little odd at best, but there’s method behind my madness. Well, scratch that, there’s precedence behind my madness.
While maple-candied bacon may be somewhat of a new invention, candied bacon has been around for a while. And if I’m not very much mistaken it came from the wonderful nation that also gave us such beautiful culinary abominations as BBQ nachos, steak and eggs for breakfast and deep-fried hotdogs on a stick. I’m talking, of course, about the United States of America.
I first came about the concept of candied bacon back in 2012 during a trip to New York City. It was summer, early July to be exact and Burger King had jus launched their now infamous Bacon Sunday: soft-serve vanilla ice cream, topped with caramel sauce, chocolate, crumbled bacon and a small rasher of candied bacon.
As could probably be expected, one of my orders of business upon touching down in the city that never sleeps was eating it on a dare. To be honest, it was surprisingly interesting, even tasty treat, that showed that bacon could work in a sugary application, but it was also an abomination by any definition of the word, and certainly more so when enjoyed during a late morning heat wave with temperatures soaring into the upper 90’s in Midtown Manhattan.
Interestingly enough, later that very day, following a mildly uncomfortable sugar/bacon crash around noon, my friend Emelie and I were heading out for dinner af culinary alchemist Wylie Dufresne’s now sadly closed NYC playground WD~50. And (what are the odds?) during said dinner, for the second time that day, candied bacon was on the menu. This time in a much more elaborate, Michelin-starred, stomachable and less sweet application featuring such diverse contrasting elements as “French toast” and brown butter ice cream.
Having candied bacon at the hands of a master like Wylie intrigued me and showed me that the strange mix of salty and sweet had untapped potential. I’ve since often thought about making my own candied bacon, but have never got around to it. This time, though, with maple syrup in hand and thinking back at these fond food memories, I knew my time had come, and I devised a plan for creating maple-glazed bacon as a culinary challenge for my dear friend. If you mess with me, I figured, I’d mess with you.
Maple-candied bacon, a how-to
- 1 pound of quality bacon, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons quality maple syrup
- 50 grams of brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon maple mustard (can substitute dijon mustard)
- a sprinkle of salt
- a sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon chipotle powder
- Preheat oven to 175C
- Mix all ingredients except bacon together in a large bowl until a thick semi-dry mixture forms
- Add bacon to bowl and mix/toss thoroughly to coat every rasher with the maple/sugar glaze
- Line a baking tray with a sheet of parchment paper and place the glaze-coated bacon rashers down one by one on the tray - touching is okay, but make sure they don't overlap
- Place baking tray in the middle of the oven and cook for about 20 minutes, then turn the bacon over and cook for another 10-15 minutes
- At the end of the cooking process, bacon should be crispy, dark brown and caramelized but not burnt
- You may have to adjust your cooking time but keep an eye on things, the sugar will eventually burn!
- Remove from the oven and leave on a wire mesh or similar to cool for about five minutes, then transfer to a piece of parchment or similar
- Serve at room temperature
Adequately describing the taste of candied bacon is a bit like trying to adequately describe the one word that comes closest to summing it up: juxtaposition! In case you’re wondering, I’m trying to say its not easy. First and foremost, we’re obviously talking a smoky flavor profile and a spicy one at that. The spices used in curing the bacon really power through with a bit of a help from the chipotle used in the glaze. At the same time, it’s obviously got a candied and sweet flavor profile owing to the relatively large amounts of maple syrup and brown sugar used in the glaze – but it’s not a sickeningly sort of sweet namely because the sweetness is balanced by the meatiness and smokiness of the bacon. With a combination of flavors ranging from spicy over smoky to sweet, it’s sort of like BBQ, but then again not really because the flavors and the smoke are much more intensified than the slow-cooked flavors you get in proper BBQ.
It’s one of those things, really, where you’re better off cooking it yourself than you are listening to me trying to describe it. And while you’re at it, cook up a large batch, won’t you? Since the resulting “pork candy” is neither entirely sweet nor entirely savory, it lends itself to a host of applications from snacks or appetizers over side dishes to desserts. It is, as stated, pretty intense and flavorful stuff so whatever you do, use it sparingly.
As for what I wanted to do, my mind was set pretty much from the beginning: I wanted to do a dessert dish as bacon in desserts is about as familiar to the average Dane as snow in July (which hasn’t happened since 1903, I hear). Since I was already getting absurdly sidetracked in my methodology and had started messing with the norms, I wanted to twist things up even further by making my bacon dessert into a new twist on a century-old savory Danish classic: Æbleflæsk, or Pork And Apples if you will.
Æbleflæsk (Pork and Apples): a Danish Classic
Æbleflæsk (roughly pronounced: Able-flask) literally translates into “apple pork” and is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, known dishes in Danish culinary history, dating back several centuries. It is made by frying cured, sometimes smoked, pork belly and then mixing it with sliced apples which have also been fried and caramelised in a bit of sugar and butter.
The dish was traditionally served on sturdy rye bread as a savory, not sweet, winter-month lunch item meant to provide a quick, cheap and filling meal as well as an abundance of calories for hard-working peasants, using cheap and readily available ingredients; cured, preserved pork and apples from the fall harvest which, if stored correctly, would last well into the winter months. In modern day society, the dish may sound a little strange to outsiders, but before you scoff, I submit for your approval the American classic pork chops and apple sauce, a hugely popular dish drawing on much the same combination of porky and sweet.
To modern Danes, on the other hand, the dish remains a comforting winter classic and a supporting pillar of our food culture. Today, the dish is most commonly eaten as part of large, traditional family Christmas buffets, but can sometimes, especially amongst elder generations, be found as a common year-round lunch item. However consumed, it remains a predominantly savory dish, not a sweet one. Well, not until now anyways.
Æbleflæsk, Redux: Messing with tradition
If the dish is such a comforting classic, then why mess with it in the first place, you may ask. Well, uh, the way I see it… Æbleflæsk has always been a traditional part of traditional Danish Christmas fare and as much as I love original recipes, I have over the years grown a little bored with eating the same Christmas preparations in abundance over and over again. So, with love and respect to grandmothers the land around and our proud culinary traditions, this, to me, was reason enough to throw things up a bit. And create a new spin on an old classic:
As far as I know, the pork component of Æbleflæsk was traditionally played by cured, salted, but non-smoked pork belly, but today bacon has pretty universally become the norm, so I figured it okay to let my pork component be played by my freshly made maple candied bacon. The apples, however, are a completely different story.
Depending on how one cooks one’s Æbleflæsk, the apple component is usually played either by a semi-sweet apple sauce/purée or by noticeable chunks of apples, fried and lightly caramelized in a bit of sugar and butter. Both, in my book, are acceptable in the savory version of the dish, for my sweet version, though. I wanted something a little sweeter, a little more over the top and, well, I just wanted more.
One idea that pretty quickly jumped to mind was poached apples. One of my all time favorite desserts is pears poached in white wine. Why, I figured, not use apples instead of pears and have the apple component of my dessert abomination played by sweet, syrupy, poached apples? Yes, why the hell not? It was now only a matter of finding the right wine…
Sweet Riesling is a rather popular choice of wine for poached fruit dessert purposes, but I wanted something a little more… spicy and full of character. Candied bacon does pack quite a punch from the spices used in the cure, the smoke and, well, the chipotle that I invited to the party. It needed a wine, I figured, with a bit of depth and spice to it. But which? The answer to my question came in the form of a flashback to a conversation I had with my buddy Steffen when I was introducing him to an Alsatian Gewürztraminer Grand Cru during a tasting event that I helped my friends over at vestergaardwines.dk pull off a month ago. “It’s a mighty fine wine,” Steffen said jokingly at the time of introduction, “but does it pair well with bacon?” – “I suppose I’ll have to find out at some point,” I said at the time, and looking at it now, it looked as if time to try had come.
Now, Gewürztraminer is a bit of an odd wine, it’s a white wine that’s both floral, sort of sweet, acidic and peculiarly spicy. Quite unlike anything else, really. It is often served with rich cheeses, spicy dishes or fatty foods such as paté or the ever so controversial Foie Gras. Now, considering these facts, it should work well with the fatty and spicy aspects of the bacon, but what of the smoky and sweet elements? The sweetness, I figured, would not be much of a problem. I’d simply adjust the sweetness of the poached apples to match the sweetness of the bacon and the wine. As for the smokiness? Well, I figured the tartness of the apples long with the acidity in the wine and its spicy profile would help cut through the smokiness of the bacon. I get these hunches every now and then and I’ve long ago learned to just go with them and hope for the best, they usually play out for the better.
So, off to work I went creating the apple component of my Pork And Apples dessert:
I grabbed a bright, red, crisp and acidic apple which I peeled and sliced thinly. The slices I dumped into a sauté pan along with about half a bottle of late-harvest Gewürztraminer with a bit of age to it, a vanilla pot split in half lengthwise and a few tablespoons of sugar… Just to… Well… You know, make sure it was sweet enough!
I put the heat to it and brought the wine to a gentle simmer and cooked the sliced apples for a few minutes. I then evacuated the apples, hit them with a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice (for an extra pinch of acidity and to prevent browning) and set them aside. The poaching liquid, I really put some heat to and reduced it down to a thick, golden, sweet and spicy glaze which I, after declaring it awesome, poured over the apples to impart an extra bit of flavor.
I left the apples to soak in the glaze for a good few hours to really soak up some extra flavors and sweetness, then carefully plated up a few slices per plate along with two rashers of maple-candied bacon and a scoop of orange/white chocolate mousse that I threw into the mix for no apparent reason on a bit of a hunch.
And there I had it: Æbleflæsk, redux – A Danish classic turned upside down! Ready to submit to the approval of my friend Malene and her co-judge Emelie.
I was, to put it mildly, a bit concerned about how it would all turn out. But as I’d soon see, my concerns would quickly be put to shame. For whatever reason, the combination of apples, bacon, gewürztraminer and white chocolate played absolutely beautifully together to create a match pretty much made in heaven. Who’d have thunk?!
If you’ve never had bacon in dessert applications, there’s probably no easy way of explaining how and why this just works. Candied bacon, in a peculiar kind of way, is the swing state of the culinary election. If paired with a savory side, it will turn into an off-sweet meaty treat, if paired with sweetness, the sweetness will turn predominant and the umami-like, spicy meatiness take an interesting back seat.
In this particular case, I paired the bacon with two very sweet elements which enhanced the perfumed sweetness of the maple syrup/brown sugar glaze all while allowing for the spicy/smoky notes of the bacon to playfully cut through and prevent the overall impression from becoming sickeningly sweet, all while adding an unfamiliar yet curious savory and meaty punch that was, indeed, surprising, but not entirely out of place.
I… Well, in the immortal words of The Who: I Can’t Explain! You should go try it out for yourself and experiment a bit. It doesn’t have to get entirely as weird and controversial as my attempts above, but candied bacon does have a million uses (give or take!), including appetizers, cheese platters, French toast, breakfast or maybe in desserts paired with chocolate, caramel or ice cream. There are a great many experiments to be made and a few surprising culinary combinations to be marvelled at.
What do YOU reckon would be a great candied bacon application?