Today, we put bacon in everything. Seriously, everything. We're talking about bacon mayonnaise, bacon vodka, and yes, even bacon lube.
But a decade ago, that wasn't the case. So in 2004, when chef Tracy Dempsey decided to put some pork belly in a dessert, the reception wasn't what you'd expect given the current state of bacon-mania.
"People told me it was disgusting," Dempsey says.
Lucky for all of us with an appreciation for pork-filled after dinner treats, Dempsey's Bacon Pecan Brittle has since become the chef's signature creation. Dempsey says she goes through anywhere from 12 to 16 pans of the brittle every week. It's got a cult following and today we're finding out how she makes the sweet.
The story of this simple but memorable dessert starts in 2004, when Dempsey was just starting her five-year stint as pastry chef for Cowboy Ciao. Owner Peter Kasperski asked her to redo the dessert menu, including the current iteration of bread pudding, a Cowboy Ciao dessert menu staple.
Dempsey says she was inspired to create the brittle because she wanted to add texture to the dish. It served as a garnish for the dessert, along with a scoop of bacon (switched out later to maple) ice cream.
But why the savory flavor? Well, Dempsey says she's always enjoyed using savory ingredients in her desserts since her original plan was to be a cook as opposed to a pastry chef. In this particular instance she chose bacon and pecans, which Dempsey though would be a perfect fit thanks to their "meaty flavor."
She remembers making her first batch of brittle and giving a piece to then-Cowboy Ciao executive chef Bernie Kantak. Back then — and to some extent, to this day — Dempsey says Kantak wasn't quite the talker, but to Dempsey's surprise he took a bite and offered a high five. Kasperski told Dempsey, "Bernie doesn't do that."
"It was the beginning of a long-term relationship with Bernie," Dempsey says of her friend, smiling. "Bacon brought us together."
Today her company, Tracy Dempsey Originals, still creates one-of-a-kind dessert menus for both of Kantak's restaurants, Citizen Public House and The Gladly, as well a handful of other independent spots. For each restaurant Demspey and her team craft a distinct menu of sweet and savory desserts, which they execute and deliver to the restaurants.
"Oh, I meant to change into my jacket!" Dempsey says upon realizing she's still sporting a plain white t-shirt under her apron. "Oh well, this is show it is here — there's no glamour."
This morning we're with the chef in the Tempe commercial kitchen out of which she and a handful of employees make desserts. And it's true, it's not glamorous in the way you might expect. It's not fussy or fancy like retail bakeries tend to be, just a practical and neat space with small touches of Dempsey's personality in the form of Hello Kitty magnets hanging on the giant fridge.
By the time we arrived at 8:30 a.m. Dempsey and her staff are already hard at work and the ingredients to make a small batch of Original Bacon Pecan Brittle sit out on the table in a handsome set of white and silver china. It's surprisingly delicate to be in a this space.
It turns out the set is a family heirloom, Dempsey explains. She inherited it from her grandmother and rather than let it sit in a cupboard collecting dust, as many are prone to do with such precious things, Dempsey uses it for customer tastings and other occasions, like this.
A dainty white teacup holds no more than a few teaspoons of liquid, a mixture of baking soda, vanilla, and water. Two silver-rimmed plates full of chopped applewood smoked bacon, room temperature butter, and pecans wait nearby.
Over low heat on the stove, Dempsey has a saucepan of sugar, water, and corn syrup.
As we chat, the pot bubbles and begins to change colors from beige to golden brown. Dempsey can tell how far along in the cooking process she is just by the color and at the perfect moment, she throws in the bacon, butter, and nuts. She stirs the thick mass before scurrying over to the table to grab the teacup of liquid.
Most people would need, or at least want, to use a candy thermometer throughout the process. In fact, Dempsey says her employees do.
"But I just eyeball it," she says non-nonchalantly. "I mean, it's been 10 years."
The exact temperature to which she cooks the brittle is a closely-guarded secret and part of the reason Dempsey's brittle has such a unique texture. Unlike the thick, stick-to-your-teeth brittle with which you might be familiar, Dempsey's Original Bacon Pecan Brittle has an airy quality and is less dense.
She removes the pot from the heat altogether when the nuts are done cooking; Dempsey says she can tell by the smell and color. Unlike the bacon, which is already cooked when she adds it to the mixture, the pecans go into the pot un-roasted and therefore need time to let their water cook out.
Once she pours in the teacup of baking soda, the rest of process goes by in a flash. Almost as soon as it hits the pot the whole mess begins to bubble vigorously and darken in color. It's a race to get it out of the pot and into a waiting pan before the candy stiffens. Dempsey executes the whole thing in a matter of moments with the calm demeanor of an experienced candy-maker.
Within a few minutes the brittle will be cool enough to cut, which Dempsey does with a pizza cutter. The fact that Dempsey cuts her britter rather than cracking it goes back to the dish's inception. When she used the brittle as a garnish, she wanted it to look like strips of bacon, hence the uniform square shape she still uses today.
In the front room of the Tempe bakery, you'll find a counter and displays of Dempsey's other products. In addition to the famous Original Bacon Pecan Brittle, she's known for her homemade marshmallows, which are available in the variety of flavors.
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For now the space isn't generally open to the public except when Dempsey hosts classes or has clients in for tastings, but she says she's thinking about opening the bakery for retail sales in the future. During the holidays she says she's exploring the idea of having limited hours for people to come by and pick up some candy and perhaps other fresh baked goods.
With pale green walls and a giant chalkboard (that Dempsey says reminds her of the days when she used to teach French), the space is a glimpse into what the chef's Galette Dessert Bar would have looked like, had it actually happened.
After leaving Cowboy Ciao in 2009, Dempsey almost signed a lease on a space that would have become a bakery and sandwich shop in Scottsdale. But she says she's not unhappy with the way things worked out. Over the last five years she's built a unique business model that allows her to partner with local chefs and have freedom as an independent business owner.
Local chefs and diners are happy, too.