Recipe: Devils on Horseback (1967)

Devils on Horseback

Followers of the American table will be familiar with my love of bacon. These tasty little treats make perfect appetizers for holiday parties, and indeed are traditionally served in between the period of Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’ve been making them for several months now for client meetings at the advertising agency I work for, and people can’t stop talking about “those amazing bacon things Eric makes.” And even though they’ve fallen out of popularity over the last 30 years, they’re making a comeback – I recently even saw them on a menu at one of my new favorite local gastropubs in Minneapolis, Devil’s Advocate.

The history of Devils on Horseback dates back roughly to the late 19th century with its close sibling Angels on Horseback, which are oysters wrapped with bacon and seasoned in some way. The angels were popular at Victorian dinner parties as a way to end a dinner. The idea is likely French in origin, though the Devils on Horseback spin is decidedly British. Indeed, the first time I heard of Devil’s on Horseback was on an episode of one of my favorite television cooking programs, the now-cancelled Two Fat Ladies, who made these treats for a cocktail party at the Brazilian embassy in London (Clarissa Dickson Wright unquestionably ranks up with James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher in my pantheon of food heroes). In fact, it was from this program that I learned the trick to soak the prunes in black tea first. It softens them, making it easier to stuff, and imparts yet another subtle flavor. Plus, it’s one more way I can use up those large gallon size tea bags I bought awhile back.

Devils on Horseback became immensely popular in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s as Americans turned their attention to exotic finger foods, and our ever-present love of bacon. There is something very retro even about its smokey flavor. It’s hard to imagine why any bacon-wrapped treat would fall out of favor, but I imagine it had to do with the perceived labor involved (it’s really not that difficult or time consuming) and the national aversion toward prunes.

Prunes, a.k.a. Dried PlumsIndeed, so great is the aversion toward prunes in the United States that a few years back, the California Prune Board spent a small fortune on market research. They learned their target audience of women 25-54 saw prunes as something their grandmothers ate. They board spent another small fortune petitioning the FDA to allow them to use the term “dried plums” instead of prunes, and now they are known as the California Dried Plum Board and market the fruits as such. Whatever you want to call them, though, they are really quite tasty, relatively inexpensive, and good for you to boot. Generally, Americans could use a bit more fiber in their diets anyway.

Recipes and variations on this theme abound, but generally one begins with a pitted date or prune. It is stuffed with something – often blue cheese, but sometimes smoked or roasted almonds, lightly sauteed chicken livers, or savory fruit chutneys. The whole lot is wrapped in bacon, pierced with a toothpick, sometimes glazed, and baked until the bacon is crispy. A light pinch of cayenne pepper on top can kick the recipe up a notch for the brave.

Don’t let the prune scare you off though. If you find you don’t generally like them by themselves, you might find this more than acceptable. You kind of have to pop the hole thing in your mouth when it slides off the toothpick, and the flavors all meld together in deliciousness. Also, any recipe involving stuffing and wrapping seems to make people think the recipe is overly laborious. Really, it couldn’t be easier. You’ll develop a little assembly line, and soon you’ll find yourself with hundreds of these treats… well, maybe not hundreds, but why not? It’s the holidays, after all.

Give them a try and post your thoughts below!

The Recipe

20 prunes or dates, pitted
1 gallon-size teabag or 5 standard tea bags
1 liter hot water
1/4 cup reduced sodium soy sauce
4 healthy dashes of Worstershire sauce
1 tsp ground ginger
1/4 cup brown sugar
3 ounces blue cheese
10 slices of good bacon
20 toothpicks

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a bowl, pour the hot water over the tea bag. Let tea steep about five minutes. Remove bag, and add prunes to tea, letting them soak for five minutes.

While prunes are soaking, combine soy sauce, Worstershire sauce, ground ginger and brown sugar in small saucepan. Place over medium heat and stir until sauce reduces enough to thinly coat a spoon.

Slice the bacon in half, and using the back of a large knife, draw it along each slice of bacon to flatten and lengthen it.

Drain prunes from the tea. Take one prune, and find the opening where the pit was removed. Work your finger into it to make a gap. Crumble the blue cheese and work as much of the cheese into the prune as you can without tearing the flesh of the fruit. Wrap the stuffed prune with a slice of the flattened, halved bacon, and secure with a toothpick.

Place the prune in a large glass casserole dish – don’t use a cookie sheet, as the grease from the bacon will need to collect somewhere. Using a pastry brush, glaze each of the stuffed prunes, reserving the remaining sauce.

Bake in the preheated oven for about 15-20 minutes. They are done when the bacon is brown and crispy. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes before arranging on a platter. Drizzle reserved sauce over them, and serve warm or at room temperature.

If making ahead of time, the can be baked, refrigerated, and allowed to come to room temperature. Alternatively make the bundles and sauce ahead, and then glaze and bake them shortly before needed.
Drop prunes in teaMake the glaze
Flatten bacon with a knifeMake hole in prune
Stuff prune with cheeseWrap with bacon
Secure with toothpickGlaze wrapped parcels

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