Happy 241st!

July 4, 2017 will be America’s 241st birthday.

The Fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays for a lot of reasons.  It’s near the start of summer, so the extra day off feels good.  The kids are out of school for the summer, so you can spend the time as a family.  You get to celebrate the birth of our nation, and we usually celebrate with barbecues, picnics, and other outdoor activities.

It’s the perfect summer holiday!

I decided I wanted to do something special for this year’s holiday, so I started researching on-line.  What do you get someone for their 241st birthday?

I should have known:  bacon.

Hey, don’t yell at me, I’m only the messenger here.  You can look it up yourself:  http://lmgtfy.com/?q=why+is+bacon+the+perfect+241st+birthday+gift%3F

With that settled, I just needed the right medium,  What dish would be made better with bacon, that is suitable for a barbecue, picnic, or other get-together?

Candied Bacon Crusted Citrus Icebox Pie!

If you aren’t familiar with Icebox Pies, they were quite popular in the 50s and 60s, a simple dessert that was present at nearly every church social, ladies lunch, or family feud.  They’re simple to make, tasty, tart, with a crunchy graham cracker crust.  Really, what’s not to like?

For our purposes, we’re going to toss out that graham cracker crust, and create a new one, comprised entirely of candied bacon.

Here’s the shopping list:

1 1/2 lbs. of thick cut bacon

3 14-oz. cans Eagle sweetened condensed milk

3 8-oz. bars of cream cheese

1 1/2 c. lemon juice (fresh squeezed is best)

Citrus fruit, for zesting (see note)

1 c. fresh blueberries

1 pt. fresh raspberries

8 oz. white chocolate

Pantry items – brown sugar, smoked paprika, chipotle pepper powder, cooking spray, silicone star mold(s)

To start, preheat the oven to 385 degrees.  This is a bit cooler than usual for baking bacon, and it will take a bit longer, but hotter temps will burn the brown sugar.

We want caramelization, not charcoal.

So 385 it is.

Cover two cookie sheets in aluminum foil.  You don’t have to do this, but it saves scrubbing them afterward. I’ve done it both ways–trust me, you want to cover them in foil.

Place the bacon on the cookie sheets, as shown.

In a small bowl, mix together 1/2 c. brown sugar (light, dark, pure of heart, it doesn’t matter), 2 t. smoked paprika, and chipotle pepper powder to taste.  Now here’s the thing:  if you were just making candied bacon–which you can using this recipe, and it will be DELICIOUS!!!–we’d use only a bit of the chipotle powder.  Gentle heat, paired with smoke and sweet, makes for a great piece of bacon.  But for this recipe, we’ll be turning that tasty bacon into a crust for a sweet, tangy citrus pie.

We can amp up the heat, as the richness of the pie filling will help smooth it out.

Be generous with the chipotle–maybe a full tablespoon.

Mix the spices until well-blended, and spoon them onto the raw bacon, giving each piece a generous line of spice.  You don’t have to fully cover the slice, as the sugar will melt, and spread.  Just get a healthy stripe of spice on each bacon piece.

Place the bacon in the oven.  Set a timer for 20 minutes.  Watch carefully!

Your oven is different than mine.  Yours may be a bit hotter, or not.

Your bacon could be cut thicker than the bacon I used.

You may like your bacon medium rare (freak!).

The point is, I can’t tell you when your bacon will be done.  There’s other factors at work here.  The bacon will go from crispy caramelized candy, to burnt garbage in about 90 seconds.  That’s your window of success.

Watch the bacon.  If you are cooking it in two sheets, rotate the sheets after 12 minutes or so, so the bacon cooks evenly.

If you burn it, start over.  It will not work in this recipe.

After 18 – 22 minutes, you should have a cookie sheet or two covered in crispy, gooey, porcine fabulousness.

Working carefully, as the caramelized spices are roughly the same temperature as the surface of the sun, get the bacon off the sheets, and onto a suitable draining station.  Normally, a plate with a few folded paper towels would work.

Not here.

When the caramel cools, it hardens.  When you try to take the bacon off the paper towels, the bacon, caramelized spices, and recycled bleached paper products will have melded into a single entity.

This entity does not taste good.  But I cannot stress this enough–thoroughly drained bacon is key to this recipe.

Find another method.  Maybe a cake drying rack (coated ones work well, and don’t stick), perhaps parchment paper, it’s your choice.

Here’s what’s important – you have to get as much fat as possible off of the bacon.  Grease will not improve the flavor of the pie.  In fact, it will make it taste pretty horrible.

Drain the bacon, pat it dry, rub it with Dawn dishwashing liquid (DO NOT REALLY DO THIS.  DO NOT WASH YOUR BACON IN DAWN, OR ANY OTHER DISHWASHING LIQUID), take it to the shop and run it through the degreaser (DITTO.  DO NOT DO THIS.), or just give it a good scrubbing with Lava soap (DO I NEED TO SAY IT AGAIN????!!!!).

Drain the bacon, and chop it finely.

Lightly spray a 13 x 9 glass baking dish with Pam.

Or, if you shop at Wal-Mart, with Pat, their generic cooking spray.

Lightly!  We don’t want grease, just a bit of lubrication for the sticky bacon.

Sprinkle, spread, and/or spackle the bacon evenly on the bottom of the baking dish.

Just the bottom–leave the sides alone.  You want a reasonably substantial bottom crust for the pie, and just doing the bottom of the dish decreases the difficulty factor by half.

Once that is done, start zesting your citrus.

No, that’s not a euphemism.

Here’s where you can inject a bit of creativity, based on your group’s taste.

Most recipes call for lemon zest.  You’ll need 3 or 4 lemons.  If you do this, the resulting pie will be very tangy, with a bright citrus punch.

You could use lime zest.  You’ll need 4 to 4 limes.  If you do this, the resulting pie will border on sour, and the flavor will be a bit more complex.

You could use Meyer lemons (as if!), key limes (no!), or organic artisan-raised ugli fruit (ugh, hipsters).  Have fun shopping at Whole Foods.

Or you could use oranges.  You’ll need 2 big ones.  If you do this, the resulting pie will be sweeter, with an almost floral note.

Or some combination of the above.  The point is, by changing only one ingredient, you can make the pies taste completely different.  Which is pretty cool.

After you decide which citrus to zest, get zesting.  You’ll need 3 tablespoons of it.  Mince it to dust.

In a large bowl, combine the 24 ozs. of cream cheese, the contents of the 3 cans of sweetened condensed milk, and the 1 1/2 cups of freshly-squeezed lemon juice.

Side note – yes, you can use the bottled stuff.  The pie will not taste as good.  All of the freshness and zing will be lacking.  Let your conscience be your guide.

Beat this mixture until very smooth.  If you are using a stand mixer, with a 4-horsepower motor, this won’t take long.

If, like me, you are using a hand mixer so old it is actually covered in age spots (No joke, see the pictures.  There’s glue residue from an old label, and some brown spots that will not wash off.  Ever.  I think this mixer may have been my mom’s at some point.  I think she got it as a prize for selling the second-most cookies in her Brownie troop.  That old.), it will take longer.  Much longer.

If you are mixing the ingredients by hand, the smooth mixture and your first social security check should arrive about the same time.  Assuming you’re under 40 when you start.

Don’t mix the ingredients by hand.

Once the mixture is silky smooth, simply pour it over the bacon crust in the prepared baking dish.

Smooth the top with a spatula, or lacking a spatula, a concrete trowel.  Or lick your thumb repeatedly, and use it to smooth out any bumps on top of the pie.  Do not let family members see you do this.  For some reason, it freaks them out.

Your cat, on the other hand, will find this process fascinating, and will probably like you more afterward.

Once the top is completely level, gently place your creation in the bowels of your refrigerator, and close the door.

Let that pie sit in the dark for 4 – 6 hours.  Give it time to think about its life choices, and how it ended up in a refrigerator somewhere in the Midwestern U.S.

Or Canada.

Let the cheese, milk, and citrus work out their differences themselves, and become a TEAM!

And by TEAM, i mean the pie sets up.  The filling hardens, so you can slice it.

As that magic is happening, give yourself a pat on the back, coach.  You’ve done good work today.

Now get ready to decorate.

A flag design seems obvious, as the pie is nearly white, and rectangular in shape.  And it’s the 4th of July, so let’s go for it.

There are at least two ways to do this.

The first way is complicated, time-consuming, difficult, science-y, and, in the hands of an unskilled decorator (me), delivers results worthy of a starring role in the “worst effort” Pinterest thread.

You can read about the first way in the postscript, after the pictures of the finished product.

Don’t do the first way.

The second way is quick, simple, and results in an easily-recognizable output.

Place the white chocolate in a glass measuring cup, and place the cup in the microwave.  Microwave on high for one minute or so.  Carefully remove from the microwave, and stir.

Is all the chocolate melted?

No?

Back in the nuke, for another 20 seconds or so.

Now?

Cool.  Stir it until smooth, and no lumps remain.

Pour the melted white chocolate into the silicone star molds.  My mold had big, deep stars, so I only got 10 stars.  Your mileage will vary.

Let the chocolate cool for a while.  Don’t put it directly into the ‘fridge.  It makes the chocolate angry.  Let it cool on the counter for a while.

Once the chocolate has hardened, turn it out of the molds.  Discard (eat) any stars with broken points, bad behavior, or Cs on their report cards.

Place the rest in the refrigerator till needed.

In the meantime, take the pie out of the fridge.  It should have set up nicely by this point.

If you see a ring of yellow grease around the edges of the pie, you did not sufficiently drain the bacon.  I don’t mean to be rough on you here, but that pie will not taste good.  It’s ruined, and you have to start over.  I’m not kidding.  Stop here, throw it out, and save yourself the trouble.  Better than serving something everyone hates.  You don’t want your pie to be legendary for the wrong reasons.

If you properly drained your bacon, the edges of the pie will look just like the center:  cream-colored and set.  The consistency should be like a good key lime pie.

Grab the pint of red raspberries.  Pick them over, so there’s no rotten or moldy ones hiding out, then rinse thoroughly.

After the berries have dried, lay similar-sized berries in a row across the bottom long edge of the pie.  That’s the first stripe of your flag.

Now, if you want to be authentic, you can figure out how to make 13 stripes in the 9″ of pie you have on that side.  That means each stripe must be just less than 3/4″ wide, so sort your berries accordingly, and get to work.

Or you can realize that no one is actually going to fly this flag, so an authentic 13 stripes is probably an unnecessary level of detail.

And don’t even get me started on the 50 stars.

Speaking of which, pick over, rinse, and drain the blueberries.  Using the berries, outline a 3 1/2″ square in the top left side of the pan.  That’s where your stars will go.

Pull the stars out of the fridge, and place them in a pleasing pattern within the confines of said blueberries.  How many and what pattern is up to you.  Go nuts.

Once the stars are in place (you can push them down a bit to set them), fill in the remaining space in the square with the blueberries.

Once the blue square is done, add the remaining red stripes to your flag.

Step back and take a look.  Tweak your design, if necessary.  Fill in any obvious holes in your pattern.  Straighten the stripes, or the edges of the blue field.

When it meets with your approval, place it back in the refrigerator.  That’ll help set the berries in place, and ensure smooth slicing when serving.

That’s it.  You’ve created the perfect dessert for America’s 241st birthday.

How does it taste?  Well, the filling is rich, creamy, sweet and tart.  The fresh berries add a pop of additional flavor, and a textural note.  The candied bacon crust adds salt and smoke, another element of crunch, and heat from the chipotle.  It cuts the richness a bit.  Overall, it’s delicious.

Enjoy the barbecue.

 

POSTSCRIPT – How can I get a perfect flag design on this pie, without resorting to fondant, artificial colors, or unnatural chemical additives?

I know, I’ll use fresh strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries to make a puree, and then I can paint the puree on the pie.

That’s what I tried to do.

I took fresh berries, pureed them in a food processor, then strained the puree through a strainer to remove all the seeds.

I heated the puree till just boiling, then added a bit of lemon juice (to hold color and taste), a small pinch of sugar.

I tried dipping a basting brush in the puree, and painting a stripe on some wax paper.  This was a failure; it simply did not work.

Thinking, I grabbed some gelatin, reheated the puree, and added a tablespoon of the unflavored gelatin.

I thought about using more gelatin, but I didn’t want fruit leather.  I would be too tough to slice, and displeasing to eat.  So I just used the one tablespoon in each batch of puree.

I whisked the mixture till velvety smooth, and poured out onto wax paper on the kitchen island.

I did this for both the strawberries (stripes) and the black and blue berries (the blue field).

I let the two batches of puree set up overnight.

The colors were good.  The gelatin provided a nice sheen.  The red puree was a bit pinker than I would like, but certainly serviceable, and the blue was dark enough to work well as contrast against the white chocolate.

I used a paring knife to neaten the puree into two nice clean rectangles.

I cut the blue into four squarish shapes, quadrilaterals, if you must know.

I slowly and carefully cut the red puree into long stripes.

Once that was done, I used the knife to raise a corner of the stripe.  I picked it up, wax paper and all, then inverted it onto the pie.

I used kitchen shears to snip the ends to length, so the stripe fit the pie.

I did the same with the blue rectangle, placing it in the top left corner of the pie.

I then peeled off the wax paper.

That’s when it went off the rails.

The puree had the consistency of jelly.  The jelly and the paper did not part company smoothly.

Rather, some stayed on the paper; some stayed on the pie.

I scraped the runaway puree off the wax paper, and carefully tried to fill in the holes left in the design on the pie.

Trying to create neat, sharp edge lines with loose jelly is an exercise in frustration.

I did the best I could, but this is really not my forte.

The results were, to quote Cher Horowitz, “a full-on Monet.  From far away, it’s OK.  But up close?  It’s a big old mess.”

I sucked it up, threw out the puree, and used a slender spatula to scrape/lift the stripes and blue field off of the pie, then smoothed to cover any remaining jelly.

I then went with the second method above.

I think the mistakes were not using enough gelatin.  There has to be a happy medium between jelly and jerky, one that would make it easy to work with.

I think the wax paper might have been a mistake.  Maybe the hot puree melded with the paper a bit, making clean removal difficult?  Perhaps a silicone sheet, like the one sitting unused in my gadget drawer, would have worked better?

What do you think?  What went wrong with this plan?

Biscuits & Gravy & Love

It’s 5:30 a.m., and Hana Nrecaj is making biscuits.

Starting with all-purpose flour, buttermilk, and other ingredients she won’t divulge, she mixes the dough. Forgoing the use of measuring cups or spoons, she mixes it “until it looks right”, then turns it out into a floured pan for a gentle kneading. Too much kneading, she cautions, and the biscuits will be too dense.

Hana’s in the back room of her restaurant, the recently-opened Biscuits & Gravy, located just off Ford Road, in Canton, Michigan. The restaurant has been open for less than two months, and Hana has been making the biscuits every morning. It’s a labor of love.

It’s been this way for most of her life. Hana and her husband, Joseph, have been in the restaurant business for over thirty-five years.

Born in Kosovo, Hana and her family came to the United States in 1971. They settled in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, just north of Harlem.

Eventually, the family settled in Michigan, where Hana met Joseph. The Albanian families had known each other in Kosovo, and things moved quickly.

The Nrecaj’s celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary on February 5th.

They started working in the restaurant business at Ever-Joy Burgers, a slider emporium located at the intersection of Evergreen & Joy Roads in Detroit. While I don’t know for sure, I’m guessing the building looked a bit like this:

Together with a partner, they opened for business on April 5, 1982. Like most restaurant openings, there were a few bumps along the way. In this case, after cleaning all night for the opening, Hana went into labor, about a month early. Joseph drove her to the hospital, where their youngest daughter, Vera, was born.

Although she didn’t tell me so, I think Joseph gave her the rest of the day off.

For the next two decades, they opened, closed, bought, and sold restaurants in Michigan and Florida. Sometimes with partners, sometimes alone. Almost always open all night. They were rehabbing a restaurant in 2001. 9/11 happened right before their opening.

It was a tough time to open a restaurant. Joseph had a stroke. They moved to Florida, hoping the warmer climate would help his recuperation.

The girls were older, and Roza opened a restaurant, The Morningstar Cafe. Roza ran the restaurant; Hana brought her work ethic, and her recipes. They kept the 140-seat restaurant full, and they were NOT open 24 hours.

However, Roza missed her Corporate job, and she returned to Michigan after three years.

Hana tried other jobs in Florida, but none really worked out. She loved to cook, and missed her daughters (Vera was also in Michigan). Hana and Joseph moved back to Michigan in 2015.

After a year, they started looking for space. In a strip mall off of Ford Road, Moo Cluck Moo was closing, and the cozy space seemed right.

They opened on April 10th. Hana runs the kitchen, and Roza and Vera are there to help on the weekends.

It’s a family business in every sense of the word.

The menu is a single large sheet: breakfast on one side, lunch on the other.

Everything is homemade, except for one thing – the chocolate cake.

For breakfast, the obvious choice is the restaurant’s namesake. For $5.50, you get two giant biscuits, smothered in sausage gravy. The biscuits are large, with a crisp exterior, and an interior with a wonderful crumb. They are among the best I’ve tasted.

The sausage gravy features a tasty sausage, one with plenty of sage and spice. There are irregularly-shaped chunks of sausage in the gravy, reminding you that you are eating food made by a person, not a machine. The gravy itself heavily flecked with black pepper, and the overall taste is that of home, comfort, and love.

The portion is large – the picture shows a half-order, available for $4.

Roza is a fan of Eggs Benedict, and you can see her influence on this portion of the menu. I have tried two of these, and suspect they are all delicious.

The Southwest Benedict has chorizo patties, poached eggs, and one of the best sauces ever, a chipotle hollandaise. The hollandaise isn’t kidding around – there’s some serious heat in it, so beware. But overall, this dish is so good it should be illegal.

The French Benedict is a direct Roza creation, a flaky croissant topped with ham, Swiss cheese, poached eggs, and hollandaise. Once you taste this, you’ll wonder why it’s not on every brunch menu. The nuttiness of the Swiss cheese plays against the saltiness of the ham, the richness of the egg yolks, and the bright citrus of the hollandaise to make a flavor profile that is more than the sum of its parts. I will caution this is a rich dish.

Pancakes are giant, bigger than dinner plates, in stacks of three, which will easily serve two. For $6. Breakfast for two adults for six bucks. Amazing!

The pancakes can be ordered with berries, nuts, Nutella, and other toppings for a small additional charge. As you can see in the photos, it’s money well spent.

The pancakes feature a buttermilk batter, and they rise a bit while cooking. However, the pancakes are griddled in a bit of butter, creating a crispy crust on the outside. It’s a different textural element, and a bit unique.

Omelettes seem more normal sized than the other menu items, although they are stuffed to bursting, as you can see.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the breakfast meats. While I already described the sausage, the bacon is worthy of discussion as well. Why? Because it’s great bacon. While almost all bacon tastes good, great bacon is something else, a lovely mixture of smoke, salt, and porky goodness. In the picture, you can see Russell par-cooking a bunch prior to open. He finishes the bacon to order–on the grill, not by dunking in the fryer, like some other restaurants. You can definitely taste the difference.

One final thing – note a few things in the picture below. Russell is wearing gloves as he handles the food. Notice the stove next to the grill, neatly wrapped in aluminum foil. This makes cleaning easy, and keeps the stove much neater. Clearly, cleanliness and sanitation are important here. You can also see how fresh the vegetables are that are cooking on the grill. These are all signs of a quality operation, and a cook that knows his craft.

At some point, I”m going to have to flip over the menu, and start trying some of the lunch items. Knowing how good the bacon tastes, the BLT, with a griddled biscuit (!), seems an obvious place to start.

However, the breakfasts are so good, it might be a while before this happens.

During the month of June, you can get 10% off your food bill at Biscuits & Gravy. Simply tell them you saw this article, and the pictures of the lovely Hana and Roza, on I Write for Food, and they’ll take 10% off your check.