Bacon With Dessert?
"Bacon maple? There's actual bacon in that cupcake?" an incredulous visitor blurts out after scanning the selections at More, a sleek modern cupcake boutique in Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood.
Owner Patty Rothman, who offers a variety of baconinfused cupcakes - sweet bacon maple, savory BLT, and a brand-new, bacon-apple-cinnamon - was hoping for just this reaction.
"Everybody in food is pushing the envelope," says Rothman. "It's bacon, everybody loves bacon."
It seemed like an odd flight of fancy when Vosges Haut- Chocolat in Chicago first created the Mo's Chocolate Bar studded with applewood bacon early last year. But this combo of swine and sweet has caught on, and now desserts that pair bacon with chocolate, maple, and bananas are flying out of high-end kitchens across the country.
And it's not just American chefs: Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream served with Pain perdu (a.k.a. French toast) is a standout on the $200 tasting menu at The Fat Duck in Bray, England, where well-heeled foodies go to experience chef Heston Blumenthal's molecular-tinged cuisine.
"More than anything else, I think this is 'The Year of the Pig,'" says Erik Van Kley, sous chef of Le Pigeon in Portland, Ore.,which serves a Honey- Apricot Cornbread Pudding draped with Neuske's bacon. "There are two camps of cooking: molecular and real grassroots cooking. Both camps are turning to the pig."
With chefs buying whole pigs to make their own sausage and salumi, featuring Kurobuta pork belly as an entre, and planning all-pork dinners, it's no surprise that bacon - the most quintessential taste of pork - should wind up on the dessert plate. It sounds weird at first, but just as the combination of salty and sweet makes Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and kettle corn so appealing, bacon's natural saltiness pairs well with sweet foods.
Searching for a dish that would sum up the meat-heavy menu at their restaurant, Animal, in Los Angeles's Fairfax District, young Food Network chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo settled on Chocolate Bacon Bar. Served in a pool of salt-and-pepper creme anglaise, the dessert features layers of dark chocolate, peanut ganache, and semisweet chocolate with crunchy feuilletines (crispy flakes) crowned by chocolate mousse, milk chocolate pieces, and house-made bacon. They created it for an over-the-top menu served at a performance art event.
Even at the traditional Gramercy Tavern in New York City, an all-pork New Year's Eve menu crafted from an entire Virginia pig led pastry chef Nancy Olson to her Milk Chocolate Tart With Bacon. "Chocolate goes really well with something salty and crunchy, and bacon adds its beautiful smoky character to it as well," says Olson, who recently rotated the dessert off the menu.
Other chefs see the charm of retranslating the comforting flavors of breakfast in their own bacon desserts. Chef Vera Tong found inspiration for her bacon dessert at Dovetail on New York's Upper West Side in the American breakfasts made by her Hong Kong-born mother.
"My mom made, or tried to make, French toast and bacon. She would try her best in exposing us to different things," says Tong. "She would bust out the Wonder Bread and soak it in eggs, and it wasn't right but we as kids appreciated it."
Tong later attended culinary school and turned her nostalgia for those flavors into a sophisticated yet homey Banana Bread Pudding With Bacon Brittle. She cubes bread and soaks it in frangipanie almond cream and bakes it until it's toasty. To make the bacon brittle, she renders bacon until it is crisp, chops it, and folds it into hot sugar syrup, just like making peanut brittle. The bread pudding is covered with fresh banana slices and anointed with vanilla rum ice cream, maple bacon sauce, and her bacon brittle.
How have Tong's customers reacted?
"I got a couple of marriage proposals; they were just kidding," says Tong. "Sometimes you just want breakfast for dinner."
Tai Kim was already experimenting with exotic ice creams flavored with saffron, Grape-Nuts, or rose water at Scoops, his trendy Los Angeles shop off Melrose Avenue, when he decided to try his hand at bacon ice cream.
"A friend of mine went to a restaurant where they have bacon pancakes and bacon caramel syrup. And then she says to me, 'You should make a bacon ice cream,'" Kim says. His repertoire now includes Chocolate-Bacon, Bacon- Caramel, and a Bacon Peanut Butter-Banana ice cream, an ode to a few of Elvis Presley's favorite things.
His classically made ice creams have just a hint of bacon's smoky flavor; Kim infuses the cream with fat left over from cooking up a batch of smoked bacon. He says that adding meat to the ice cream would make it soggy, so he gives the bacon away to friends.
As beloved as bacon is, pork desserts probably wouldn't go over very well at ordinary restaurants, says Brian Wansink, author of the book "Mindless Eating." It's the novelty of seeing it on a high-end dessert menu that's seductive.
"The restaurants that use bacon on their menus are not Edna's Diner," says Dr. Wansink. "The foodies there say, 'You know, I've had normal bacon, but there must be something about this that's very different.' They're playing toward a crowd that is there because they're foodies."
Of course, breakfast for dessert isn't for everybody.
"I would definitely sample it, but I wouldn't buy it," Ricardo Miyares, an entrepreneur from Miami, decided after tasting the Bacon Maple cupcake at More in Chicago. "The maple frosting ... I'm not crazy about it."
But on the patio outside, as his five friends shared chocolate and Red Velvet cupcakes, Zack Smith sat thoughtfully eating his Bacon Maple.
"I'm the type of person that finds the most interesting menu items," says Smith, who is pursuing a master's degree in marketing at Northwestern University. "I'm really enjoying the savory and sweet combination."
Van Kley, the sous chef of Le Pigeon, says he was dubious when his boss Gabriel Rucker dreamed up Honey- Apricot Cornbread Pudding with bacon as they wrote a menu before the 2006 opening of the indie restaurant on Portland's east side. "When he first told me about it, I thought he was out of his mind," says Van Kley. "But our dessert works just like breakfast does. It really is simply like a good breakfast: sweet and salty."
Le Pigeon's patrons are so devoted to the Honey-Apricot Cornbread Pudding - served with a generous scoop of maple ice cream - that it's earned a permanent place on the dessert menu along with their profiteroles with foie gras ice cream.
"Actually we will not remove it from the menu," says Van Kley. "We've accepted the fact that we can't. It's a destination dessert. We've had people in our restaurant from New York specifically to eat this dessert."