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.
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.