Friday, April 30, 2010

Maple Bacon Sugar Cookies

I am an animal lover through and through. I grew up eating little meat, and have been vegetarian to varying degrees at certain times of my life. While I am not currently vegetarian in any sense of the word, I am, and have always been, extremely squeamish.

The summer before my senior year of high school, I got a job as a pantry cook at a restaurant in Woodland hills, where I made salads, apps, desserts, and even fresh bread and pasta. It was a lot of work, and the only part of the job I really minded was brutally ripping the legs off of the large, boiled shrimp that went on one of our salads. I'd usually try to bribe one of the prep cooks to do it for me. It was around that time I realized that I'd better go into pastry, and leave the savory kitchen to those who didn't mind hacking up giant, bloody slabs of beef or tearing apart a chicken carcass with their bare hands.

That seemed like a brilliant plan -- until I got another job at Crave Bakery, which worked out of a communal kitchen in the Dogpatch. The steel table adjacent to ours belonged to Taylor of Fatted Calf charcuterie. While my co-worker and I cut gluten-free brownies into dainty shapes, we would watch Taylor butchering an entire pig four feet away.

The few times I've spent in Europe, where they are a lot more frank about where meat comes from (i.e. living beings) I've inadvertently slipped back into passive vegetarianism, quailing at the sight of a still-affixed fish head staring up at me from my plate, dead fowl hanging grotesquely from the ceilings of asian markets, or the photo of a pair of darling little piglets in the window of the butcher's.

These days I very rarely cook meat myself, preferring someone else to do the dirty work and enable me to pretend that those strips of bacon are made from plant matter, rather than from the aforementioned darling piglets. Having a veg boyfriend who is even more squeamish than myself certainly doesn't help matters.

So to me there is something very right, and yet so wrong, about these maple bacon sugar cookies shaped like piggies.

I baked some lavender-ginger cookies for a good friend of mine's birthday several weeks ago, and was wondering aloud what shape to cut them into. Jay spied my piggy cutter and suggested using it, but I didn't want my friend, a dancer who takes good care of her figure, to get the wrong idea when I gave her a batch of super rich cookies all for herself shaped like pigs. So I cut them into tiny circles instead.

But it got me thinking about pig-shaped cookies, and that got me thinking about pig-flavored cookies, and there's nothing I like more with bacon than maple (and, I guess, butter. Hey, why not?). So these cookies came into existence.

I pulverized crispy smoked bacon with maple sugar in a coffee grinder, added pimenton de la vera to emphasize the smoky flavor, then whipped it into buttery cookie dough. A muddle of flaky salt, more bacon, coarse sugar and paprika tops the piggies, giving it added umami and crunch. The flavors blend together nicely, combining sweet, salty, smoky and completely addictive all into one cookie that will make even the most squeamish person weak in the knees.

In a good way, that is.

Maple Bacon Sugar Cookies

Makes about two dozen 2" cookies

3 strips bacon
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons maple sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon plus a pinch smoked paprika
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt, like Malden
2 teaspoons coarse sugar

Make the cookie dough:
Cook the bacon in a dry skillet over medium heat until browned and crispy, turning occasionally, 5 - 10 minutes. Drain on paper towels, then crumble into 1/2 pieces when cool.

Place the maple sugar and 2/3 of the bacon in a coffee grinder, and grind finely. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, cream the butter, maple-bacon sugar, salt and paprika together on medium-low speed until just combined, 2 - 3 minutes. (You don't want to incorporate much air into this batter, it will make the cookies harder to form and they won't hold their shape as well.) Add the flour, mixing on low to combine, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Remove the bowl and give the dough a final fold with a rubber spatula to make sure it's well combined. Flatten the dough into a disc, wrap and chill until mostly firm, about 30 minutes.

Make the topping:
In a mortar and pestle, pound the remaining 1/3 of the bacon with the flaky salt, coarse sugar, and a couple pinches of smoked paprika until it's the texture of coarsely cracked pepper. Set aside.

Bake the cookies:
Position two racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 350º. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface to 1/8" thick. If the dough cracks, it may be too cold - let it sit for a few minutes to soften a bit. Cut out shapes as close together as possible, spacing the cut cookies on the lined sheets 1 - 2" apart. Gather up the dough scraps and reroll. Cut out more shapes. Sprinkle the cut cookies with the topping and bake, rotating once or twice, until golden, 15 - 20 minutes. Cool completely. The cookies will keep at room temperature for up to a week.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Brown Butter Rhubarb Squares

One weekend in late September, my cousin threw the coolest birthday party for herself. And when I say cool, I mean that not only was a campout in Big Sur's Pfeiffer National Park an awesome idea for a birthday weekend, but it was actually physically very cold. And wet.

Jay checked the weather on the Thursday before and was surprised to see rain in the forecast. As we drove down the breathtakingly beautiful coast, with waves crashing up the sides of the craggy mountains, the clouds became more and more, well, cloudy. By the time we pulled into our campground, things were looking downright ominous, but we managed to get our tent set up, rain fly firmly in place, before the first drops started to fall.

Not so my cousin, who arrived with her hubby in the dark, during a full-on deluge.

Thankfully, we had had the foresight to reserve a table for four at the Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant. We bundled into our warm, dry car, and proceeded to one of the loveliest meals I've ever had. In a peaceful candlelit setting among easygoing staff, we listened the the rain pummeling the roof while enjoying a beet salad with goat cheese and beet green crostini, a flawless heirloom tomato wood-fired pizza, and a juicy California Pinot Noir.

Hopefully Joelle and Brian drank enough wine that they didn't mind setting up their tent in the pissing rain, or siphoning out the reservoir of water that pooled inside it, when we returned to the campground. Two other guests showed up even later and, I believe, slept in their car that night.

So enamored were we of the bakery (and of getting out of the still-driving rain and back into the warm, dry car), that we immediately returned the following morning to buy bread (a crusty asiago loaf) on which we optimistically hoped to grill sandwiches later.

In case you're wondering how the rest of the weekend fared, you'll be happy to know that the clouds lifted later that afternoon, leaving us with an almost entirely empty, sunny, though somewhat sodden campground to enjoy all to ourselves.

And the best grilled pesto-portabello sandwiches on Big Sur Bakery asiago bread. And s'mores with homemade marshmallows and graham crackers, and bittersweet chocolate.

While I am sad that the Big Sur Bakery is a three-hour (albeit beautiful) drive away, I was elated to see that they'd come out with a cookbook. When I saw the rhubarb brown butter bars recipe, I knew it would be mine.

These bars combine several of my favorite ingredients into one treat: loads of butter, cooked with a vanilla bean until nutty-brown (the French call it 'buerre noisette,' which of course sounds much better, being French and all); a rhubarb jam made with more vanilla bean and blood orange. I added some grated fresh ginger to the jam, as well.

But it took me a while to get around to making these, despite reading through the recipe several times. Though the book is filled with droolingly glossy food photos, no picture accompanied this particular recipe, and I spent an unhealthy amount of brain power wondering what the brown butter topping would be like, what the texture of the jam was, why (why!?) the recipe did not call for salt, and why they have you brown two separate batches of butter.

So I finally made it, with some tweaks and streamlining. And I got some answers. The brown butter topping is sort of like a dense, custardy cake batter, not unlike a financier. The jam cooks up perfectly thick and intensely flavored, ideal for spreading on toast with goat cheese or stirring into yogurt. And while the bars are undeniably delicious and may even have the power to convert rhubarb-haters, I think I really prefer a nice crumble bar, which are so much easier to make. The bars are certainly a fun project if you have time to spend melting butter just to freeze it again, and making three different recipes for one bar. They also travel well, and, well, they're just pretty, the way the ruby jam pokes through the topping in irregular orbs, like stained glass.

As for the tweeks and streamlining: I decreased the sugar in every aspect of the recipe, as the amount seemed extreme, and I thought the final bars were just right in their sweetness. I used whole spelt flour for the crust, and brown sugar in the filling to add some rich, nutty notes and assuage my guilt about all the white sugar in the jam. (Next time I will use agave in said jam, as it comes out so nice and thick I don't think the extra bit of liquid would affect it. I would only use 1/2 cup of agave, as I believe it is sweeter than sugar.) I halved the crust and topping, but kept the rhubarb filling the same for a greater jam-to-bar ratio, and baked them in an 8x8" pan. I was glad I did. Even though I gave a lot away, they are very, very rich and intense little buggers.

I also browned all the butter at once, since it seemed crazy to brown them in separate batches, though surely there is good reason to do this at the bakery, like making the dough ahead of time or something. (Although at Farallon we used to brown a lot of butter all at once and store it in the fridge to use as needed, so I am at a loss.) I also added salt, which the recipe didn't call for at all. I have been bamboozled by saltless sweets recipes in the past and always (always!) regret not adding some. Saltless sweets just taste flat, bland and overly sweet to me. Luckily for me, my blood pressure is so low that a nurse once asked me if I was dead! (I wasn't; not yet, at least.) So for the time being, I salt it up.

These bars are sturdy enough to travel well, but are best in the first couple of days, when the crust is still crisp. They'll keep for up to a week, but store them in the fridge after a day or two.

In closing: while I love the idea of these bars, the recipe is fairly involved, so if you're pressed for time, you might consider making these guys instead, using the rhubarb jam from this recipe. The jam is so good, you may want to make extra and store it in the fridge for using in other ways, or can it if you enjoy that sort of thing.

A note on vanilla beans: I consider vanilla beans an absolutely essential ingredient in my cupboard, but buying them from grocery stores can be absurdly expensive. I suggest investing in a bulk purchase of the little tropical orchid fruits if baking is something you do frequently. (And if it isn't, then what are you doing reading this blog? Don't you have better things to do?) If you live in the bay area, check out Vanilla Saffron Imports in the Mission, or place an order from them online.

And if you go to Big Sur to camp and check out the bakery (which is highly recommended!), you may want to check the weather forecast before you go, just in case.

Bunches of bars:
Rhubarb Crumb Squares
Plum Cardamom Crumble Squares
Huckleberry Chèvre Cheesecake Squares
(Gluten-Free) Congo Bars

Gingered Brown Butter Rhu-bars

Adapted from the Big Sur Bakery Cookbook

Makes 12 bars

The Brown Butter:
6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped

The Jam:
5 stalks rhubarb (each about 14" long and 1" wide, about 1 pound total), cut into 1/2" pieces
3/4 cup sugar (or try 1/2 cup agave)
1/2" knob of ginger, finely grated
1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped
zest and juice of 2 blood oranges

The Crust:
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons whole spelt flour (or use 3/4 cup all-purpose)
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt

The topping:
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk (use 3 eggs if doubling recipe)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons flour

Brown the butter:
Place the butter and vanilla bean in a medium saucepan and melt over medium heat. Continue cooking, swirling the pan occasionally, for about 5 more minutes. The butter will foam up a lot, then it will turn a golden-brown and smell nutty and good. Watch closely so that it doesn't go too far; remove from the heat. Measure out 1/4 cup of the browned butter and set aside for the topping. Pour the rest of the butter (1/2 cup) into a small metal bowl and freeze for 30 minutes, for the crust.

Make the jam:
In a medium saucepan, combine the 3/4 cup sugar, grated ginger, vanilla bean pod and scrapings, orange zest and juice. Over high heat, bring the mixture to a simmer, then dump in the rhubarb. Cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture has broken down into a thick jam, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool, and remove the vanilla bean. (You can wash it, leave it to dry at room temp, and reuse.) Measure out 1 1/4 cups of jam, and save the rest to enjoy on toast or otherwise.

Make the crust:
Sift the 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour, powdered sugar and salt into a bowl. Cut the frozen butter into tiny chunks and add to the flour mixture, working with a pastry blender or your fingers until large clumps of dough start to cling together and most of the butter chunks are gone. (You could also use a food processor for this.) Line an 8x8" square pan with a sling of parchment paper, and press the crust mixture evenly into the bottom. Chill the pan for 30 minutes.

Make the topping and bake the squares:
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375º.

Bake the crust until golden and firm, 15 - 20 minutes. Remove and let cool.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, brown sugar, flour and salt to combine. Re-melt the 1/4 cup of brown butter and gradually whisk it into the topping to create an emulsion. Spread half of the brown butter topping over the cooled crust. Dollop 3/4 of the jam over the brown butter topping, spreading slightly, then spread the remaining brown butter topping over the jam. Drop the remaining jam onto the bars in random dollops. Return the bars to the oven and bake for 30 - 35 minutes, until the topping is firm and golden. Let cool completely, then cut into 12 bars.

These bars are sturdy enough to travel well, but are best eaten within the first couple of days, when the crust is still crisp. They'll keep for up to a week, but store them in the fridge after a day or two.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Green Garlic, Chive, and Cheese Souffles, and Roasted Asparagus

The other day someone asked me, 'Is it true that if you look at a souffle the wrong way it will fall?'

Souffles seem to have more drama and mystique surrounding them than any other food I can think of. In fact, there is nothing difficult about making them, and despite their fragile and finicky reputation and ethereal texture, they are actually surprisingly sturdy. Another thing that may surprise you is that a cooled souffle will actually puff up again upon reheating. Not as high, mind, but enough to give it that coveted airy quality.

Making souffle is not hard. It requires a few steps which you want to pay attention to, such as making a roux, whipping the whites to the correct whippiness and folding them into the base, but all are quite manageable.

What I consider to be the unmanageable part is cleaning up after making souffles, which generate a surprising amount of dirty dishes. There's the cutting board, knife, skillet and spatula from cooking the alliums, the pot, spoon and whisk from making the roux, two bowls and a second whisk for the egg whites and the souffle base, ramekins, zester, baking sheet, cheese grater... sheesh, the list just goes on and on.

I abhor doing dishes, and will actively avoid doing so, even if (especially if!) it means that I just keep baking in order to procrastinate that onerous task. In fact, much of the appeal of cooking is that it absolves me from cleaning up afterwards.

And yes, I am aware that continuing to bake only generates more dishes.

Luckily for me, I live with not only a brilliant computer programmer, but also the best dishwasher in existence. Not only is Jay both efficient and meticulous at cleaning, he actually claims to enjoy doing it.

It is unfathomable.

Back to the souffle histrionics, I've also read advice to not invite late people to a souffle-based dinner party. As a late person who throws the occasional dinner party, this leaves me wondering whether there are actually people out there who have dinner ready before their guests arrive, rather than cooking the majority of the meal in a somewhat frantic manner while the guests hover about asking if they can help.

Which is usually the point at which I gesture helplessly to the pile of dishes in the sink.

Just kidding; I really herd them into the living room with drinks and apps to keep them occupied.

I actually prefer souffle for a leisurely bojon breakfast (which usually occurs around noon) to dinner. And sweet souffles aren't really my thing - sweet eggs? Blech. But a gooey, custardy puff flavored with masses of chives, spring onions and green garlic, as well as parmesean and goat gouda: now that's one badass bojon breakfast.

Other herbs would be lovely here in place of or in addition to the chives; thyme, marjoram, chervil or basil would all be divine. I used a mild dutch goat gouda for the main cheese, but a soft chevre, gruyere or a sharp cheddar would all be good too. A side of oven-roasted asparagus makes a simple accompaniment; a crisp salad with fennel, radishes and a citrusy vinaigrette would take this meal over the top.

And a mimosa on the side couldn't hurt, either.

Just remember: the souffle will fall, eventually. There is nothing you can do about it. So have everything ready for the rest of the meal so you can sit down to eat as soon as they emerge from the oven. Don't dilly dally. Carpe souffle.

And leave the dishes for later.

Spring Allium and Two-Cheese Souffles

Makes 5 - 6 pint-sized souffles, or 1 big one, serving 5 - 6

You can either bake these individually, in 2-cup ramekins, or in one large gratin dish. I used a mild dutch goat gouda in these souffles, but gruyere, cheddar or a fresh goat cheese would all be good, too. Other herbs could be added with or in place of the chives. You can use the two leftover egg yolks to make a half batch of ice cream, creme caramels, or try Heidi Swanson's awesome tapioca pudding.

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup (about 2 ounces) grated parmesan
2 stalks green garlic, finely chopped
2 small spring onions, finely chopped
zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon
3 tablespoons flour
1 1/4 cups milk or half and half
4 egg yolks
6 egg whites, at room temperature
1 cup (4 ounces) grated cheese, or crumbled chevre
1/4 cup minced chives

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 425º.

Grease the ramekins with 1 tablespoon of the butter, and coat evenly with 2 tablespoons of the parmesan. Place on a rimmed baking sheet and set aside.

Place the chopped green garlic and spring onions in a large bowl and soak in cool water for a few minutes, swishing occasionally to loosen any sand or dirt that might be hanging on.

Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over a medium-high flame. Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter, then lift the alliums out of their soaking water, shake off excess water, and toss them in the pan. Reduce the heat to medium, add a few pinches of salt and the lemon zest, and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender but not browned, 10 minutes or so. Add the lemon juice and remove from the heat. Let cool slightly.

Make the bechamel:
Melt the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for a minute, then whisk in the milk. Bring the mixture to a simmer, whisking constantly, and cook for a few more minutes until thickened. Remove from the heat and add 3/4 teaspoon salt. Let the bechamel cool slightly, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin from forming.

Have the egg yolks in a large bowl, and slowly whisk in the slightly cooled bechamel. Stir in the cheese, alliums, the remaining 1/4 cup of parmesan, and the chives.

In a second large, clean bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer) whip the whites with a pinch of salt until soft peaks form. (This means that when you lift the beater out of the bowl and turn the beater upside down, a peak of egg white should flop over.) Use a large, rubber spatula to immediately stir 1/3 of the egg whites into the souffle batter until almost combined, then gently fold in the remaining egg whites just until no streaks or lumps of egg white remain.

Divide the batter among the ramekins, filling them 1/4-1/2" from the top. Place in the oven and turn the temperature down to 400º. Bake for 20-25 minutes, opening the oven as infrequently as possible, until the souffles are puffed and nicely browned. (The baking time will be longer for 1 large souffle, maybe 35-45 minutes.)

Serve immediately from the oven. If you have extras, cool and store in the fridge for up to a few days. The souffles reheat beautifully, even puffing up a second time, though not as high, in a 350º oven or toaster oven.

Roasted Asparagus

This makes a lovely and easy accompaniment to the souffles, as the asparagus can bake alongside the souffles.

1 bunch asparagus, ends snapped off
1 tablespoon olive oil
a few pinches of salt
a squeeze of lemon juice

Lay the asparagus spears on a small baking sheet. Drizzle over the olive oil and salt, tossing to coat, then roast in a 400º oven until tender and slightly charred in places, 10 minutes or so. Remove from the oven and drizzle over the lemon juice.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Panela-Rum Buttercrunch Toffee

I seem to have bad candy thermometer karma. Every one I've ever purchased has either been miscalibrated from the get go, or has broken within the first few uses.

When learning to make Italian meringue in pastry school, the sort where you boil a sugar syrup to 220º F then dribble it into whipping egg whites, I kindly lent my brand-new thermometer to a classmate. His syrup turned black and smoked so vigorously it set off the fire alarm before it ever registered the correct temperature. Everyone probably thought I'd sabotaged him on purpose. (I'm cutthroat like that.)

So after three or so bum thermometers, I finally decided to cut my losses and get a digital instant read, as recommended by Cook's. While it has never failed me as such, it's not quite the same, as instant read is designed to probe a big lump of meat cooking in the oven, not be clipped onto the side of a pot to monitor the progress of molten sugar goo. But it comes in handy for a variety of uses, such as making sure the water for making green tea isn't a hair over 190º. And Jay likes to bring it on trips to stick in rivers so he can brag about how cold they were when we swim.

You can also use your instant read for making deliciously addictive, salty-sweet, buttery toffee, though you have to hold onto it with your delicate fingers hovering inches above bubbling, molten-hot sugar syrup. For a less risky grip, stick the thermometer through a hole in a slotted spoon and hold onto the spoon handle to dip the thermometer.

This recipe comes from my dessert/blogging idol, David Lebovitz, who manages not only to create incredible recipes for everything from ice cream to kim chee, but to write about them in a guffawing-out-loud funny manner.

I've made his buttercrunch toffee several times since drooling over it's glossy photo in Mr. L's ice cream book, The Perfect Scoop, which is a must-have if you enjoy making ice cream. It makes a superb gift (I meant the toffee, but ditto for the book), but is also irresistible when sitting around your kitchen, in a jar on top of the fridge which your hand seems to be constantly opening against your will every time you walk by it, which happens with disturbing frequency. I added a Latin twist to a British favorite (or should I say 'favourite?') by subbing panela, an unrefined, cone-shaped sugar from Latin America, for the brown sugar, and dark rum for the water in the recipe. I also added a healthy dose of salt, fine to the toffee and flaky to the top.

I dare you to be able to stop eating this.

I hate to break it to you, but you do need a candy thermometer to make this, unless you want to risk ending up with 'butter-chew' or 'butter-burnt' toffee instead. Which you might anyway if you don't have a reliable thermometer. If you are fearful, test your thermometer first in boiling water to make sure it registers 212º F.

Panela-Rum Buttercrunch Toffee

Adapted from the illustrious David Lebovitz (who offers some good tips and encouraging words regarding candy making in the previous link).

Makes about 3 cups

Panela is a cone-shaped sugar available at Latin-American groceries. If you can't find it, you can substitute muscovado or dark brown sugar. Use any nut you like as well; pecans, cashews and brazil nuts would both be lovely.

Sugar likes to crystallize, which is what you don't want when making toffee. To minimize the chances of this happening, agitate the sugar mixture as little as possible while it's cooking and when spreading it over the nuts. Have a clean pastry brush and a cup of water handy to brush down the sides of the pot if any crystals start to form. All that being said, fear not: during the countless times I've caramelized sugar, I've only had it crystallize a couple of times. If your mixture does crystallize, you can try adding a few tablespoons of water to the pot, give it a stir (it will bubble vigorously - careful!) and return it to the heat. It may re-dissolve and be saved.

1 1/2 cups whole almonds, toasted, medium chop
3 tablespoons dark rum
3 ounces (6 tablespoons, 3/4 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup shaved or grated panela, packed
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup (4 1/2 ounces) chopped bittersweet chocolate (I use 70%)
1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt, such as malden

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper for easy cleanup. Spread out half of the chopped almonds into a 10" circle.

Measure the salt and baking soda into a little container, and the vanilla into a separate container, and have them at the ready.

In a medium saucepan, combine the rum, butter and sugars. (Clip a candy thermometer onto the side of the pan if you have one; if using an instant read, just have it handy.) Cook over medium heat, stirring just enough to dissolve the sugar, then continue cooking, gently swirling the pan if the mixture begins to color unevenly, until a thermometer registers 300º.

Immediately remove from the heat and quickly stir in the baking soda, salt and vanilla, mixing just to combine. Pour the mixture onto the circle of nuts, and quickly and gently spread to cover.

Sprinkle the chocolate evenly over the top, let sit for a minute to melt, then spread into an even layer with an offset spatula or butter knife. (Or your finger. That works, too.) Sprinkle the remaining nuts over the top along with the flaky salt.

Let cool at room temperature for 1 - 2 hours to set the chocolate, or, if it's warm, in the fridge. Break or chop into pieces. Store at room temperature for up to two weeks.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bacon Beer Scones with Smoked Cheddar and Caramelized Onions

When you're bojon, sometimes you may wonder what to do with those extra forty hours a week not taken up by work. There are few rules as to what constitutes an ideal bojon activity, but generally speaking, unless you just sold your new start-up to Google or developed a brilliant iPhone app, it should be cheap, or, ideally, free. A walk on the beach, a picnic in the woods, free day at your local art museum, people watching at a cafe or park are all excellent options.

But here on Potrero Hill exists, arguably, the best bojon activity of them all: the free tour of the Anchor Brewery.

I happen to live five blocks away from this hoppy oasis; mere stumbling, or should I say, staggering distance. The tours take place twice a day, but only on weekdays. So while you don't have to be bojon to take the tour, it doesn't hurt.

Free beer + bojon = happiness. Photo by Michael San Felipe

But you do have to take the tour to get to the free beer. Which isn't a problem, as it is both fun and educational, especially if you're the type of person who likes to know how things are made. The facility is easy on the eyes, the guides are informant and entertaining (a plus when they're easy on the eyes, too!), and everyone there wears the coolest white coveralls. I've been on this tour at least half a dozen times by now, and, though I keep expecting to be barred entry or to have to give a fake name and show up in disguise, I manage to learn something new with each visit.

But the best part of the tour, better than the giant copper kettles, and the smell of the mash, er, mashing, and the huge vats of frothy lager and deep tubs of ale; better than the complex series of pasturization tubes and the loud clanging of the bottling room, is the post tour beer tasting.

By tasting, let me explain that each guest is poured six 7-ounce glasses of each beer that Anchor makes: summer beer, small beer, bock, lager, porter, and last but not least, barleywine. That's about 2 1/2 pints of beer which, if you're a cheap date like me, is enough to get you quite scuttered.

Did I mention the tour starts at 11:00 am?

Definitely a great bojon activity.

I never liked beer that much until Jay came along and tempted me with Belgian doubles and triples, but now I most appreciate a nice lager, which goes well with just about anything. And there's no lager I enjoy more than Anchor's best-known Steam beer. (Though you'll have to take the tour if you want to find out why they call it that. No spoilers.)

I wanted to bake something with said beer the other day, and settled on these scones. I based the recipe on the cheddar-dill ones from Once Upon a Tart. With three eggs, ample leavening, and a hefty amount of cheese, these scones bake up light, crisp and airy; sort of like if a gougere and a biscuit got it together. I threw in some crispy bacon, caramelized diced onion in the rendered fat, and used smoked cheddar cheese for extra umami. I imagine a teaspoon or so of smoked paprika wouldn't be out of place, here, to up the smoky factor.

And of course, nothing washes these down quite like a nice crisp glass of Anchor Steam beer.

Which, unless you pack some to take on your Anchor tour, you will likely have to pay for.

Bacon Beer Scones with Smoked Cheddar and Caramelized onions

Adapted from Once Upon a Tart

Makes twenty 3" scones

6 strips bacon, preferably cured and smoked
1 medium yellow onion, diced (about 2 cups)
3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
8 ounces smoked cheddar cheese, grated
2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1/2" cubes
1/2 cup beer (a lager, such as Anchor Steam)
1/4 cup half and half, or milk
3 large eggs

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400º. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Heat a skillet over medium heat for a minute, then lay the bacon strips in a single layer. Cook, turning occasionally, until browned and crispy, 5-10 minutes. Remove to a plate to cool, leaving the drippings in the pan. Crumble the bacon into 1/2" pieces.

Add the onions to the drippings and saute over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until deep brown in places, sweet and tender, 15-20 minutes. Stir in 1/4 teaspoon of the salt. Let cool to room temperature. (To speed this up, spread the onions out on a plate and stick in the fridge.)

Meanwhile, whisk together the flours, 1/2 teaspoon salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Rub the butter in with your fingertips until the mixture looks sandy, with some pea-sized chunks of butter remaining. Toss in all but 1/2 cup of the cheese, and all of the bacon and onions, stirring to distribute somewhat evenly.

In a large measuring cup, whisk together the beer, milk and eggs to combine. Pour the wets into the flour mixture and stir to form a sticky dough. Use a big spoon or a spring loaded ice cream scoop (with the red handle) to drop 1/4 cup mounds onto the baking sheets, spacing the scones 2" apart. Top the scones with the 1/2 cup of cheese.

Bake until the scones are golden, the cheese is melty, and your kitchen smells unbearably delicious, 25-30 minutes. Let cool a bit before eating.

The scones are best served warm from the oven, but will keep for a couple of days at room temperature. They'll taste best re-warmed in a toaster oven.