I had a friend once, who after getting an invite to my annual Porkstravaganza party, said with confusion, “Wait, aren’t you Jewish?” I tried to explain how some Jews are really observant and some, well, less so. Finally he summed it up – “So you’re more Jew-ISH.” Unlike Jules in Pulp Fiction, I am Jewish and I DO dig on the swine. A lot of the time anyway.
Porkstravaganza started rather mildly. Each New Year’s Day, in our old neighborhood in Atlanta, I hosted friends and neighbors for a Southern New Year’s feast. Traditionally, on New Year’s Day, Southerners eat black eyed peas and collard greens representing luck and money. I always made a giant ham and a bunch of corn bread and everybody went nuts. Well, like any good southerner, I ALWAYS start my black eyed peas with a ham hock and cook the collards with about a half pound of bacon. And, you already know my affinity for lard so the cornbread was just amazing, of course. One year I decided to add a big pan of mac and cheese to the mix. Someone there during the prep, said, “What? No pork in the mac and cheese? You’ve basically made this a complete pig fest. Why stop now?” So I added some bacon to the bread crumbs on top of the mac and cheese. Consistency, y’all. As years passed and people offered to bring something, the rule became “as long as it has some kind of pork in it, that’s fine.”
When we moved to the Lowcountry, I did the New Year’s feast a few times for neighbors but we didn’t know a ton of people yet and it’s not as much fun without a giant crowd. Eventually, our circle of friends grew and I mentioned our porky tradition to a handful of people who were all very intrigued. But so many people travel away from here during the holidays so I decided to do something a few weeks after that. And six years ago, Porkstravaganza was born.
Porkstravaganza is a potluck cocktail party. Everyone brings a dish to share with the caveat that it MUST contain some sort of pork product. The first year, people brought a lot of sausage balls and those yummy honey mustard ham sandwiches that are so popular down here. But I made some Asian pork meatballs and with spicy hoisin mayonnaise for dipping and some bourbon bacon apple tartlets as a sweet thing. Once people saw what I was after, the party really took off. I have friends contact me in the summer and fall to find out the date to make sure they don’t make travel plans around the party. We normally do it sometime in February around one of the various school holidays. That way, The Boy doesn’t have to miss Hebrew school because Mama has meat sweats and a hangover. The irony, right?
We typically have 30-40 people show up who bring about 20 dishes to sample. It became a bit of a competition a few years back so we now have ribbons and a trophy. This has morphed into something other than a typical cocktail party. There’s plenty of beer and wine and good conversation, but everyone goes completely silent during voting. Even my friends who don’t typically do a lot of cooking bring their “A” game for Porkstravaganza. And friends and family from Atlanta who remember my New Year’s Day celebration have started making the five hour drive to partake. It’s a little out of control; in the best possible way.
This year’s party was no different. Chef J and I exempt ourselves from winning as the hosts but I can tell you that in the years that we’ve tallied votes, we’ve only (unofficially) won once. We’ve got some seriously good cooks as friends! Some favorites of mine this year were a pork and chile filled “Pig in a Blanket” with a pineapple gastrique, my Aunt C-Belle’s “Oh.My.God. Cornbread” that involved a fully bacon wrapped Mexican cornbread, Chef J’s $50 meatballs (a delicious bacon wrapped pork meatball, smoked and served with an Italian salsa verde), and my friend Ryan’s “Baby Chicken Cordon Blue.” The winners were, in third place, “Belly in a Bun” (braised sweet and spicy pork belly in a little biscuit with some kick-ass cole slaw), and in second place, “Chili Al Pastor” (chili made with chorizo, pork, and lots of yummy seasonings and toppings and, of course, served with a tiny little Corona beer). The winner was my neighbor’s amazing pork empanadas. The pastry really did it. The salty, tangy pork filling was delicious, but the perfectly flaky, chewy corn flour pastry that was deep fried around it was the kicker for me. Yummy!
This year, I had all these grand plans for making a Mexican-Chinese fusion sort of dumpling thing and practiced at a Super Bowl party. Epic fail. Just not good. It happens to all of us, so back to the drawing board. And since Porkstravaganza tends to lean more towards the savory, I decided to go with something sweet this time.
As you know, I’m not much of a baker so I took a shortcut. I started with a box, yep, a big old brownie mix from the supermarket. But I deviated pretty hard from the directions, substituting yummier, more adult things for the “suggested” liquid ingredients. Did a creative topping and made lots of people very, very happy.
Bourbon Bacon Brownies with Salted Caramel and Candied Bacon Topping
- 10 slices thick cut bacon (a little less than a pound), divided
- 4 T brown sugar
- 1 box brownie mix (I like Ghiriadelli but anything will do)
- 1 egg (or however many your mix calls for)
- 1/3 – 1/2 C bourbon depending on your brownie mix, you’ll be substituting this for the water
- vegetable oil (maybe)
- 1/2 C dulce de leche (available on the Mexican foods aisle)
- 2 T half and half
- Coarse sea salt
Fry six slices of bacon until very crisp. Remove to paper towels to drain and cool. Chop bacon. Reserve all bacon grease.
Preheat oven to 375F. Place remaining bacon on a parchment lined baking sheet. Sprinkle bacon with half of brown sugar and bake for about 10-12 minutes. Remove from oven and carefully flip bacon. Sprinkle with remaining sugar and bake another 10-12 minutes or until crisp and sugar is very bubbly. Allow to cool completely. When totally cool, it should be very candied and crispy-chewy (not too chewy, not too crispy), chop candied bacon and reserve until later. You will probably only need three of the four slices for the brownies but I know you are going to pick, thus the four slices of candied bacon.
Preheat oven to temperature indicated on brownie box.
Follow instructions on box substituting bourbon for water and bacon grease for oil. If you don’t have enough bacon fat, top off with vegetable oil. When batter is fully mixed, fold in the six slices of chopped cooked bacon so that it’s pretty evenly distributed. Bake according to package directions and desired doneness. Remove from oven and cool as directed.
Once cooled, cut into small pieces and arrange on serving platter.
Heat caramel in microwave about 1 or 2 minutes. Using a fork or a small whisk, mix with half and half. Drizzle over brownines and sprinkle with sea salt. Garnish with candied bacon.