In a million years, I never thought I'd write (or even think) these words: I love bacon jam. (Generations of my family are wringing their hands. I can't see them, but I know.) I don't eat a lot of bacon, I don't like fruit jams or jellies, and I don't have a sweet tooth, but bacon jam tastes more like chutney, a bit of sweet and a bit of salty, and makes a perfect pairing with cheese. The panini put me in mind of the ploughman's lunch served in every pub in Britain: cheese, chutney, crusty bread, and sometimes a sausage. I used small ciabatta rolls for instant portion control, because believe me, you can get carried away with this combination of jam and cheese, but any crusty bread will do.
Bacon jam and cheese panini
The original bacon jam recipe comes from Martha Stewart's Everyday Food magazine, and calls for making it in a slow cooker. I wasn't thrilled with the results, but loved the ingredient mix, so I've adapted it for stovetop cooking. Makes slightly more than one pint.
1-1/2 lb sliced center cut hickory-smoked bacon, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and chopped
3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar (light or dark; I prefer light)
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
3/4 cup brewed strong coffee
Line a platter with paper towels, and set aside.
In a large Dutch oven (I use a 5-quart size), cook the bacon over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until the fat is rendered and the bacon is lightly browned, approximately 20 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove the bacon to the platter and let it drain.
Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat (discard or save for another use). Add the onions and garlic, and cook until the onions are translucent, 5-6 minutes. Add vinegar, sugar, maple syrup and coffee, and bring to a boil, stirring and scraping up the bacon bits from the bottom of the pan. After 2 minutes, add the bacon, and stir to combine.
Reduce heat to simmer, and cook, uncovered, for 2 hours, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing is burning. If the jam seems to be cooking too fast, add 1/4 cup of water every now and then. When the liquid is syrupy, remove the pot from the heat. Let it sit for 5 minutes, then transfer contents to a food processor and pulse 3 or 4 times until coarsely chopped. Transfer to a heat-resistant bowl. Let the jam cool, then refrigerate in an airtight container.
The jam will keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 weeks, though if your family is like mine, this jam has no hope of lasting that long. Not even close.
To make bacon jam and cheese panini:
Preheat a panini press, or heavy nonstick frying pan or stovetop griddle.
For each sandwich, you'll need 2 slices of bread, a teaspoon of olive oil, a few lettuce or arugula leaves (I use baby romaine), several slices of cheese (Italian fontina, Dutch gouda and brie are favorites), and a smear of bacon jam.
Assemble your panini: layer lettuce and cheese on one piece of bread, smear bacon jam on the other. Put the two halves together. Lightly brush the outside of the sandwich (top and bottom) with olive oil. Place in the panini press, and close the lid; or place in the frying pan or griddle, and top with a heavy plate or small cast iron skillet. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until the bread is toasted on the bottom and the cheese is melting; turn, and cook for 30-45 seconds to crisp the other side. Serve hot.
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