Maple. Bacon. Muffin. Yum.

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Maple bacon munchable.

Maple bacon munchable.

Maple and bacon go together like… well, maple and bacon. Just saying those two words together conjures up pastoral images of a smokehouse out in the woods of rural Vermont (or Québec, if you happen to be a Canadian like me), nestled among a stand of sap-producing trees, each with its own bucket. Heck, people even cure bacon with maple. So naturally, I was curious about how to make a portable (and edible) vehicle for conveying these two great tastes that taste great together.

I started with Maple Bacon Cookies, but try as I might (several batches), I couldn’t quite get the balance right. I tried making them with maple sugar (very expensive), with maple bacon liqueur, with enough maple syrup to turn the cookie dough into something resembling cake batter. In every case, the maple flavour seemed to get swallowed up like an extra in a Tarzan movie, disappearing irrevocably into the quicksand of the dough.

So I abandoned the project temporarily. And yet, the problem nagged.

One afternoon, I thought I might try my hand at a maple bacon muffin, rather than a cookie, and I came across an interesting recipe on littleleopardbook.com. This author’s version called for a streusel topping, which I knew I didn’t want, but I was curious to try the muffin itself. Not bad, but it suffered from the same problem I’d had with the cookies; not enough maple. Another blogger suggested using maple extract, but the local grocery had only imitation maple flavouring — that was right out — and online bakers reviewing the various extracts available through Amazon frequently experienced The Case of the Disappearing Maple Flavour. One product in particular looked interesting, but it had only three reviews, and at $4 per oz. (it was $9.89 + $6.60 shipping for a 118 ml bottle), I decided to go a different route for the time being.

If the maple flavour was being swallowed up on the inside, why not put it on the outside? So for the next pass, I added the requisite amount of maple syrup to the batter, but I also fixed upon a post-bake maple glaze to ramp up the taste.

I also opted to use the grease left over from the cooked bacon as part of the shortening for the recipe. Instead of the 1/2 cup of oil that the original had called for, I substituted approximately 1/4 cup of rendered bacon grease (all I had from cooking 1 lb. of applewood smoked bacon) and topped off the measuring cup with canola oil.

Those two little tweaks turbocharged the flavour, and turned my “grrrrr” into “grrrrreat.”

One last tip: If you have access to it, No. 2 or Grade B maple syrup is — perhaps somewhat counterintuitively — preferable to what is commonly sold as Grade A. It’s darker and has a more pronounced flavour. Vermont’s maple syrup producers, in a typical case of grade inflation, have recently decided to reclassify all commercially available maple syrup produced in the state as Grade A, with descriptors on the label to distinguish the varying colours. What was Grade B is in the process of being rebranded as “Grade A Dark With Robust Taste.” New York state has opted in on this scheme as well, and it seems like most other maple syrup producing regions will be on board by the end of 2015. Or maybe not.

Incidentally, many websites and blogs will imply — or even declare! — that Vermont maple syrup is the ne plus ultra of sap-derived products, but I will humbly (and with some degree of national pride) suggest that while Vermont’s state flag sports a pine tree, the Canadian national flag displays the maple leaf. Caveat emptor. But no matter where your maple syrup came from, by all means use real maple syrup and not that imitation chemical Frankensyrup. That abomination’s only legitimate application is as a weak adhesive, suitable for sticking papers together. You might save a few cents, or even a couple of bucks, but life is short, and some corners were meant not to be cut.

Batter up.

Batter up.

MAPLE BACON MUFFINS [Gluten-Free Version] (makes 12 muffins)
Ingredients
1 lb./.45 kg crispy cooked bacon, crumbled
2 cups/250 g flour (I used gluten-free Cup4Cup)
3 tsp/12 g baking powder
1/2 tsp/4 g salt
1/2 cup/120 ml milk
1/2 cup/120 ml mix of bacon grease and vegetable oil
1 egg
2/3 cup/160 ml pure No. 2/Grade B/Grade A Dark With Robust Taste maple syrup
1/3 cup/75 g dark brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C. In a small bowl, combine dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt) and whisk together. In a larger bowl, whisk together the milk, oil/bacon grease, and egg, then add the syrup and sugar and whisk until the sugar is pretty well dissolved. Gradually add the dry ingredients, stirring as you add. No need to get super fussy about getting every little flour lump out, just give it a good quick mix and make sure that all the flour is coated with the liquid. Stir in crumbled bacon. Pour into paper cupcake liners or directly into a pre-greased and floured cupcake pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from cupcake pan onto cooling rack and allow to cool for 15-20 minutes before dipping in Maple Glaze (see recipe below).

Fit to be dipped.

Fit to be dipped.

MAPLE GLAZE
Ingredients
1/4 cup/60 g unsalted butter
1/2 cup/120 ml pure No. 2/Grade B/Grade A Dark With Robust Taste maple syrup
1 cup/112 g sifted confectioners’ sugar

You may not need this much glaze, so the important thing to remember is the butter-syrup-sugar ratio: 1-2-4. And if you want a “glazier” glaze, up the maple syrup just a bit. It’s less opaque and even more chock full of maple goodness.

As for the prep, you can heat the butter and syrup in a pot on the stove, or just pop them in a microwave-safe container to melt the butter (about 60-90 seconds on high should do the trick). Whisk in the powdered sugar and set it in the fridge to cool. When the surface has hardened (15-20 minutes), it’s ready for dipping.

Celebrating Celeriac with a Superb Soup [Vegan]

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Celeriac, before and after a trim.

Celeriac, before and after a trim.

If there is an uglier vegetable on the planet Earth than celeriac (Apium graveolens variety rapaceum), I have yet to find it. Fortunately, much as beauty is only skin deep, in the case of this magnificent and underappreciated vegetable, so is ugly.

While celeriac itself doesn’t grow very deep — maybe six inches or so beneath the surface of your average garden plot — its roots in food history are deep indeed. In Book V of Homer’s Odyssey, it’s described as a component of Calypso’s garden, albeit in the Greek it is referred to as selinon. In one passage, Hermes admires the environs of Calypso’s cave, festooned with grapes, violets, and wild celery before stepping inside to beseech her to let Odysseus go and finish his journey back to Ithaca. But that’s another, much longer, story.

In ancient times, and for much of their early history, both celery and celeriac were regarded more as medicines than as foodstuffs. Pliny the Elder claimed that the so-called helioselinon was “possessed of peculiar virtues against the bites of spiders.” He also suggested that it could be used to revive sick fish. But by the 17th century, it was being cultivated in France, and by the 18th, it was being used in England for soups and broths.

Fast forward to today: soups and broths! For your consideration, here’s a soup that contains not just one, but two of the planet’s least photogenic vegetables (the latter being parsnips), along with a little ginger (no beauty contest winner itself), some onion, tarragon, and lemon thyme.

CELERIAC AND PARSNIP VELOUTÉ WITH GINGER AND LEMON THYME

Ingredients
48 oz./1.42 litres vegetable broth
2 large celeriac roots, peeled and roughly cubed
3 large parsnips, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon (or more, to taste) fresh ginger root, finely chopped
2 tsp./1.2g dried tarragon (it’s what I had at the time; fresh is good too, but use less)
4 sprigs fresh lemon thyme
1 carrot, cut into “coins” (optional)

Before you get all huffy, this is not technically a velouté, inasmuch as it is not thickened with a roux and cream, but it resembles one in texture. If you just want to call it soup, you have my blessing.

Cleaning the celeriac is best done with a very sharp knife, and it may be treated the same way you would strip off the rough outer skin of a pineapple; ideally, you’ll get off all the brown bits underneath the skin, but don’t make yourself crazy (or whittle the vegetable down to half its original size) getting there. Chopping the peeled celeriac is a bit of a chore, and may require rocking your knife back and forth a bit to get through the dense root. Alternatively, you can use a cleaver, if you have one. The parsnips should be scraped with a vegetable peeler, much like carrots, then chopped. As for the ginger, I started with a segment that was about the size of my thumb and scraped off the peel with a spoon before mincing it as finely as my admittedly mediocre knife skills would permit.

Once the prep is completed, making the soup is a snap; basically, you just dump all the ingredients into a big pot, bring it to a boil, and back it off to a simmer for about an hour to soften up the veggies and give the flavours a chance to blend. Then remove the thyme sprigs (which will have shed their leaves), and transfer the soup, in batches, to a food processor, blender, or Vita-Mix. [IMPORTANT NOTE: Do NOT clamp down the lid on your food processor/blender in such a way that steam cannot easily escape, or you will run the risk of both scalding yourself and decorating your walls with hot soup. I leave the top plug out of my Vita-Mix’s “Action Dome” and drape a tea towel over the opening to allow steam, but not solids, to egress.] Alternatively, the soup can be processed in situ with an immersion blender. Process until smooth.

Perhaps not the root of all soups, but it is a soup of all -- well, almost all -- roots.

Perhaps not the root of all soups, but it is a soup of all — well, almost all — roots.

You might note that salt is not a component of the ingredients list, and that’s because the vegetable broth I used (I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t have any vegetable stock of my own lying around) contained 570mg of sodium, presumably in the form of sodium chloride, which was plenty salty for my taste. Your taste (and your broth) may vary.

To finish the soup off, I sliced a small carrot on a hand-held mandoline, arranged the carrot “coins” into a small “flower,” and sprinkled a few leftover thyme leaves on top. I might drizzle a few drops of olive oil on it as well next time, but it’s by no means necessary. Serves 6-8 (easily!) as an opening course.