Monday, January 16, 2012

Bacon and Date Scones

Medjool dates, pitted
Let's face it, just about everything natural in this region has gone and died or lies dormant until the weather decides to swing sometime after the Ides of March. So it's time to get creative, get bold, and try something that is unapologetically in your face awesome in the good fight of warding off the volatile cold weather. Rolling through Salem's Milk and Honey, there were a few nice looking heads of lettuce, some mushrooms, lots of basil, but nothing really inspiring at the moment. Then, I glanced over past a few potatoes and hot house tomatoes and there they were. Jumbo Medjool dates... dried and packed in a little plastic container, about a pound or so of them for about two bucks. Sold.
But what to do with dates? I don't know. Eat them? Mix them with yogurt and honey? What goes with dates? They're so sticky and sugary... it would take a real blast of salty and smokey to produce something memorable. Smokey and salty? Did someone say bacon? A quick search on epicurious on the words bacon and dates quickly produced a recipe for bacon and date scones. The ingredients were limited, and the steps a little bit cumbersome, but definitely doable.
So, due to lack of a couple ingredients, we had some substitutions to the original recipe. Here are the ingredients I used:

10 ounces thick-cut, smoked bacon slices
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
3/4 cup coarsely chopped pitted Medjool dates
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled (really frozen) unsalted butter
2/3 cup whole milk

So to start out I mixed all the dry ingredients in a large bowl with a whisk, and set it aside. At this time, I also prepped the dates by pitting them, and roughly chopping.
Bacon, still tender, rough chop
The next step is to pay proper attention to the bacon. I purchased some very nice applewood smoked, thick-cut bacon from Milk and Honey. This bacon has a wonderful smokey smell and a great texture from being so thick. I fried up the bacon in batches in a large frying pan, being careful to remove them from the pan before they reach that typically desired crispy stage. You want the bacon to be cooked through, but not crumbly. Also, drain the fat from the pan after each batch into a suitable vessel. This fat is reserved for brushing over the scones right before baking.
After the bacon had been cooked, I went ahead and roughly chopped each stip into about 1/8 of an inch pieces. My preference for these scones was to get pretty big punches of bacon in each bite.
With the bacon and the dates prepped, it's time to start combining your special bits with the rest of the dry ingredients. So first, I started scattering the bacon pieces into the flour mixture, stirring with a rubber spatula. As soon as the first batch of bacon pieces was coated nicely, I went ahead and bit by bit added the rest, making sure to mix and have them evenly distributed throughout the mixture. The dates were a bit trickier. Since they want to stick together so badly, I would scatter them at far ends of the powder, making sure to separate the bits before throwing them into the bowl, and then mixing bit by bit in order to get each sticky piece properly covered with the flour mixture.
After all of the sweet and salty bits were incorporated, it was time to add the butter. This was admittedly a pain in the butt. You basically take a large grater, and start grating the butter directly into the flour mixture. Every few minutes you want to mix the frozen butter into the flour mixture using your rubber spatula, ensuring that it's not all just going to form a big clump of butter in the middle of the dough.
Scones, prior to baking
Finally, with the butter safely mixed into the dry ingredients and special bits, time to add your milk, and mix with the spatula until it starts to form a dough. Then, get in there with your hands. Knead for a few seconds until it feels like it has come together cohesively, and dump the dough onto a floured surface. I formed about an eight inch round, and proceeded to cut into 8 "pies."
The scones are then expected to firm up in the fridge for a couple hours. So place a piece of parchment paper onto a baking sheet, arrange your scones on the sheet, and cover with a big piece of plastic wrap. Two hours to go before baking time.... but with a half hour left, go ahead and preheat your oven to 400 degrees. By the time my oven heated up, it was go time for the scones.
I removed the scones from the fridge, discarded the plastic wrap, and proceeded to brush with the reserved bacon fat we were so careful to save earlier. Last step? Sprinkle each scone with a bit of sugar. The recipe says to use raw sugar, but I didn't have any on hand, so as it goes, regular sugar works just fine.
Bacon and date scone: heaven
The scones went into the oven and came out 18 minutes later. A toothpick in the thickest part of one of them came out clean, and they were finished. What a beauty to behold! They smell heavenly. The outside has baked up crisp, a wonderful crust housing all that calorie packed goodness we took such care to distribute throughout the pastry.
Fluffy, salty, sweet perfection
The first bite, however, truly revealed what a wonderful recipe this is. The slight crunch of the crust, enhanced by our extra care to brush with bacon fat and add sugar. The inside is ridiculously fluffy, steamy and soft. Much of the dates have actually distributed sugar throughout the dough, but every so often there is the gratifying chew of the sugary sweet jewels. Then there is the bacon. Bacon has so many great purposes. It pops up in unexpected places to enhance foods that you think had already become all that they can possibly be. This bacon still has integrity as a meat since we diced it into fairly large pieces, revealing just that right amount of chew. It's smokey and plays greatly with the sweetness of the dates. There is an added richness to these scones I haven't seen in your typical breakfast scones, but that richness in no way makes these fluffy treats leaden or heavy. They are downright pillowy inside.
I'd make these again. In times of war, these are peacemaking bacon and date scones. Maybe we'd have less wars or at least quicker wars if people went to the scones first in trying to negotiate a truce. At any rate, they were truly excellent, and again shows how well thought out combinations of salty, smokey and sweet always make for a home run.

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