Bacon fat croutons:
½ French bread baguette, cut into ½-inch cubes
¼ cup rendered bacon fat, melted
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
6 slices bacon
½ cup brown sugar
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns, finely ground
¼ teaspooon ground red pepper (cayenne)
3 tablespoons Cabot Salted Butter
¾ cup minced yellow onion (about ½ large onion)
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
4 ounces local brown ale
3 cups whole milk
8 ounces Cabot Private Stock Cheddar, grated (about 2 cups) or a bag of Vermont Sharp Shredded Cheddar Cheese
1 tablespoon Tabasco or similar vinegar-based hot sauce
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
Salt to taste
To make croutons:
PREHEAT oven to 375ºF.
PLACE bread cubes in large bowl; while tossing, drizzle with warm bacon fat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss again.
ARRANGE in single layer on large baking sheet. Bake for about 6 minutes or until golden.
Cool and store in airtight container until ready to use.
To make candied bacon:
PREHEAT oven to 325ºF. Place wire rack on rimmed baking sheet.
MIX together brown sugar and black and red pepper in a small mixing bowl.
LAY bacon slices on large plate; lightly sprinkle both sides of each slice with some of sugar mixture. Arrange bacon on wire rack, leaving at least ½ inch between slices. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until crisp. Remove from oven and let cool (sugar will harden slightly). Serve as whole or half slices, or cut into desired shapes.
To make soup:
MELT butter in saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring, until soft. Add garlic and cook for about 5 minutes longer.
ADD flour and stir until mixture becomes a paste; let cook, stirring often.
When roux starts to caramelize on bottom of pan, whisk in ale, scraping browned bits from bottom of pan. Whisk in whole milk and bring to a boil.
REDUCE heat to maintain simmer; add cheese, stirring until melted.
Whisk in hot sauce and vinegar. Taste, adding salt as needed.
For optimal texture, allow soup to cool to room temperature and blend in batches on high speed; pass through fine strainer. Rewarm soup (do not overheat) and serve garnished with croutons and candied bacon.