I find myself standing at a stainless-steel table under bright fluorescent lights wearing tight bright blue gloves and holding a shiny, sharp blade. It’s a surgical view my M.D. Dad would have appreciated. This is not an early a.m. dream. I’m at work at the catering company making 220 devils on horseback — bacon-wrapped, almond-filled dates. It takes several hours. The mind has time to wander.
1) We get a lot of food returned uneaten from weddings and parties. Quinoa salad comes back. Gravy comes back and so does mac and cheese. Bacon-wrapped, toasted-almond-stuffed dates do not return. Their salty, smoky, fatty, sweet, crunchy sex appeal is undeniable. The first step is to get raw blanched almonds and count 220 of them, plus a few for snacks. Constant counting is critical in catering. Toast the almonds lightly on a parchment paper-lined sheet tray. You can find dátiles con tocino — bacon-wrapped Medjool dates with garlic and lemon — at The Med in Boulder.
2) Get a case of pitted Medjool dates from the walk-in. Count out 220 dates. Pick the big ones. It’s easier on the fingers. Press 220 toasted almonds inside 220 dates, checking for pits. I use the edge of a towel or end up with a cramped, bruised thumb. Boulder’s North End at 4580 offers bacon-wrapped, chorizo-stuffed Medjool dates with coconut cream and roasted red pepper sauces.
3) Grab a case of pre-sliced bacon from the walk-in: You cut each slice roughly in half. Trim them on the fat side to the width of an average date. Sounds easy but every slice is different, or at least every pork belly is a slightly different size and shape. You have to adjust your knife work. You wonder where the hogs lived and died. Regular sliced bacon is .062 inches thick (1/16 inch) with 16 to 20 slices per pound. Thick sliced bacon is .111 inches thick (1/8 inch) with 10 to 14 slices per pound.
4) Do this 220 times, stack them up, and keep them cold or the bacon will be hard to slice. You do it efficiently but not too rapidly. You are spending hours with a sharp chef’s knife in one hand and people passing behind carrying hot pans from the ovens. One slip of concentration and there’s blood on the cutting board.
5) It could be snowing outside but you wouldn’t know. All you see is the pile of bacon trimmings you have created. You cook them to produce bacon bits and bacon fat for the blue cheese dressing. 101 Things to Do with Bacon by Centennial-based writer Eliza Cross offers recipes for bacon corn flake cookies, bacon toffee and bacon-wrapped, chèvre-stuffed dates with fresh basil.
6) All that prep is designed to bring you to this rolling moment, with all components in place. Hydrate early and often. Take an almond-stuffed date and place it on one end of the trimmed half-slice. Roll and transfer to a draining rack over a sheet pan. William Oliver’s Publick House in Lafayette dishes thick bacon strips with a shot of real maple syrup.
7) Repeat 220 times (plus a few extras for samples). When done, pierce each devil with a bamboo skewer so it holds the whole assemblage together, but not so the point sticks out too far. Watch out for painful finger puncture wounds. Bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with Haystack Mountain goat cheese drizzled with chipotle are available at Timberline Steaks & Grille at D.I.A.
8) You will lose count of the bacon-wrapped, almond-stuffed dates and have to recount all of them. It pisses you off and disrupts the flow. Il Porcellino Salumi in Denver serves The Bacon sandwich: rustic toast layered with shaved, house-smoked bacon, apple butter, jalapeno aioli, pecora cheese fondue and arugula.
9) Place the sheet tray in a 375-degree oven for about eight minutes and then turn the tray around and bake for another eight minutes or so. Pull them out and see if they are crispy enough. We precook the devils, which are then crisped-up in an oven at the event. Denver’s famous Fool’s Gold sandwich was a loaf of sourdough bread stuffed with a pound of crisp bacon, a jar of peanut butter and blueberry jam. It was once served at Stapleton Airport to Elvis Presley and friends who flew in from Memphis just to taste it.
10) The kitchen air is bacon-infused but don’t forget to set the timer on the oven. Do not forget the devils. When done, you carefully pull out that hot tray holding a pool of molten bacon fat and date sugar and place it on a rack to cool.
11) While the devils cool, replace your bacon-coated cutting board and rinse your knife in super-hot water. Once the 220 devils are cooled, transfer them to a rack in a hotel pan. Double-wrap in plastic, label carefully, move them to the walk-in. The bacon, date and almond are now wed like a piece of savory candy. The Bacon of the Month Club for Denver’s Tender Belly delivers first-class meat in four varieties.
12) Devils on horseback are a Victorian-era British hors d’œuvres often served around Christmas. Traditionally a prune was used. The name derives from angels on horseback: oysters wrapped in bacon. Denver’s Berkshire restaurant serves a heritage bacon flight four ways: garlic, sweet chili, balsamic and candied maple.
13) If you make devils on horseback for a holiday party don’t worry. They are very hard to screw up. You can also change up the dried fruit and fill with macadamias or cheese. Denver’s Bacon Social House offers flights of bacon strips from artisan smokehouses. That’s all there is to say about bacon-wrapped, almond-stuffed dates.
(With apologies to Wallace Stevens.)
Tasty stocking stuffer
For any promising bakers on your gift list, pick up a copy of the freshly published Lucky’s Bakehouse Holiday cookbook. Boulder pastry whiz Jennifer Bush compiled a collection of just 14 memorable bakery classics that are each fully explained and beautifully photographed. Some treats like chocolate fudge and painted sugar cookies are relatively simple. Others like candyland cloud cake require multi-step attention. The slim volume is available at the Bakehouse and at Lucky’s Market.
Taste of the week
Westminster’s Early Bird Restaurant boasts a destination garnish and table condiment worth the drive. The eatery’s brunch fare includes hush puppies, red potato home fries, Anson Mills cheesy grits and chicken and johnnycake waffles. The house garnish for many of the sandwiches and entrees is a bacon-wrapped date. On every table is a true rarity: A bottle of real maple syrup.
Words to chew on
“If you record the sound of bacon in a frying pan and play it back, it sounds like the pops and cracks on an old 33 1/3 vinyl recording.” — Tom Waits
John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU. Podcasts at: news.kgnu.org/category/radio-nibbles