Wednesday, February 19, 2014

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Bierocks, Beer Rocks, Berrocks

I made the mistake of posting a food photo on Facebook last month without explaining how to make the things. Yesterday several friends took notice and asked for the recipe. For those who cannot do without bierocks, here’s that recipe. Bie-what? Yeah, we had that conversation at home. Between a Midwesterner and a native Californian, it went something like this:

"What are they?"
"They're what?"
"German bao."


Coastal Californians, of course, have more intimate knowledge of dim sum dumplings such as xiaolongbao than they do of Midwestern comfort food, so appealing to a bao sensibility was simply a fast way to get at the heart of the meaning. I could have just as easily called them Kansas empanadas. Bierocks, brought to the American Midwest by 19th century Mennonite immigrants, are stuffed rolls that fit in the palm of your hand.

Norma Jost Voth writes in Mennonite Foods and Folkways from South Russia (volume 1):
Bierocks, among Molotschna Mennonites, were bread pockets amply filled with a mixture of ground beef and cabbage. A little like a hamburger sandwich, they made a hearty meal, were conveniently served hot or cold and made ideal traveling companions for trips or picnics...The word Bierock is related to the Turkish word berok or boerek. Today, in the Crimean city of Simferopol (where Russian Mennonites went to school or went shopping) they are called cherbureki and sold on the street.
Also spelled beer rocks or berrocks, the word is also a cognate of piroshki, pierogi, pirogi, and the dozens of other spellings for those thick, filled dumplings popular in Polish families, and are similar to Russian, Ukrainian, and other central and eastern European dumplings. These, however, are a bit bigger and baked rather than simmered and pan-fried. In the American Midwestern states of Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri, even larger versions are sometimes known as runzas (because, wags that we were in college, we figured a meal of the low-grade examples from our dorm’s cafeteria would deliver a nearly immediate, and perhaps fatal, case of the runs).

No worries. These shouldn’t cause such gastronomic distress — unless you gorge a dozen or so. Then you deserve it. In fact, I am under orders to make more “German bao.” The recipe below is one I adapted, slightly, from Bruce Aidells and Dennis Kelly’s good book, Real Beer and Good Eats. The filling is classic: cabbage, onions, and sausage. It is, however, a versatile recipe and practically begs to be tweaked. Some variants I like: (1) Make a pseudo-Reuben by swapping out 2 cups of rye flour for 2 of all purpose flour, add some caraway to the dough, and use sauerkraut, pastrami, and Swiss cheese (deli Swiss is fine or class it up with a nice Comte or cave-aged Emmenthal), (2) Use any or all of mushrooms, fried onions, spinach, or Swiss chard as fillings. (3) Try roast pork, garlic, broccoli raab, and sharp provolone. You get the idea. Keep the stuffing moist and fully enclosed when you make the buns and you should have no problems.


1½ pounds/680 g fresh sage or smoked sausage, removed from the casings
1 cup/300g onion, diced small
4 cups/300g shredded cabbage
1 Tbl fresh minced garlic (or 1 tsp powdered)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp dried onion powder
½ tsp pimento/smoked paprika

⅓ cup/75g sugar
½ tsp salt
1 package (1 ounce) active dry yeast
1½ cups/350ml warm cooking water (at about 100° F.) from the potatoes
⅔ cup/150g butter, softened
2 eggs
1 cup/265g warm mashed potatoes (at about 100° F.)
7—7½ cups/about 900g all-purpose flour

To make the filling: Fry the sausage over medium heat 3-5 minutes to render some of the fat. Pour off the fat, and add the onion, cabbage, salt, and spices. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, or until the cabbage has wilted. Set aside to cool while you prepare the dough.

To make the dough: Dissolve the sugar, salt, and yeast in the warm potato water. Proof in a warm spot (80-100°F/27-38°C.) until the mixture becomes bubbly, about 5-10 minutes. Pour into a large mixing bowl. Blend in the butter, eggs, mashed potatoes, and 7 cups of the flour.

Knead on a floured surface until the dough becomes elastic and easy to work, about 5-10 minutes. Add the remaining flour if needed. Place the dough in a large oiled bowl and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm spot for 45 minutes to 1 hour until the dough doubles in size.

After it has risen, punch down the dough and form into 24 equal balls. Pat the balls into ½-inch-thick rounds, about 2 inches in diameter. Place about ¼ cup of the filling in the middle of each round. Form the dough around the filling to make round rolls. Pinch the seams together and place, seam-side down, on a baking sheet. Put in a warm spot and let the rolls rise for 20-40 minutes. It the surface of the dough has dried out, brush lightly with water.

Heat the oven to 375°F/175°C. Bake the rolls for 20-25 minutes or until the beer rocks have a nice golden color and a mouth-watering aroma. The rolls freeze well.

Makes 24 rolls, 3-4” diameter.

Adapted from Bruce Aidells and Dennis Kelly (1992) Real Beer and Good Eats: The Rebirth of America's Beer and Food Traditions.

Goes well with:

  • Aidells and Kelly's book can be had for ridiculously little money on Amazon. 
  • Speaking of homey Midwestern foods, it's still cold and wet in huge swaths of the US; try some German bacon dumplings or homemade egg noodles to take the chill off.  
  • Norma Jost Voth's Mennonite Foods and Folkways from South Russia is not quite as cheap or common as Real Beer and Good Eats, but it should be easy enough to track down copies in the US and Canada. Volume one can be found here and volume two here.
  • Finally, if you just can't bring yourself to make dough from scratch, you could — in extremis — pop open a tube of ready-to-bake biscuits, stuff them, and bake them off as above. It's ok: I've cooked drunk before, too. Tart them up at least a little, though; an egg glaze, maybe, sprinkled with flaky salt, caraway seeds, or a blend of cumin and smoked paprika. 


sylvan said...

I'm unclear on "Form the dough around the filling to make round rolls". Do you just kind of pinch together the round at the top? In the pic, the bierocks seem to have a smooth unbroken top.

Also, (and maybe this is a local font issue) the degree signs in the body text have been rendered as zeros, making for some eye-popping temperatures.

Matthew Rowley said...

Those would, indeed, be some crazy temperatures. The weirdness, as is so often the case, was on my end. Thanks for the catch, Sylvan.

Also clarified the dough/roll issue in the copy. See above. TL;DR? Pop the filling into a round of dough, form it into a ball around the filling, pinch the seams closed, then place them — seam-side down — on the baking tray.

Sylvan said...

Thanks for the clarification. Not sure I'm ambitious enough to attempt these (although they sound worth it); I just had the childlike "How does the filling get in there?" question.

Matthew Rowley said...

And it's a completely reasonable question ~ I'd just overlooked that simple direction. The trick may be convincing someone *else* to make them. Or find Portland-area Mennonites who need a little nudge into bake-sale territory.

RumDood said...

Adding this to my recipe book, even if I'm not of volgar descent.

GStone said...

"Those would, indeed, be some crazy temperatures."

Glad you clarified that, because I ain't buying a kiln just to cook these things. ;)

(and Evernote, btw, is the perfect solution for keeping my recipes together and keeping my laptop out of the kitchen!)

Matthew Rowley said...

Though not of Volgar descent myself, RumDood, I have been called a vulgarian on one or two occasions. I'd like to say this is a family recipe, but no: it's just a basic version that hits a lot of the taste memories from undergraduate days. If I were to strip it down to the essentials, I'd ditch the spices other than salt and swap put ground beef for the sausage — but, then, I've always liked a little something extra.

Gwydion ~ A kiln is overkill, but when we considered what to do with the back yard of the new house a few years ago, I did propose a brick-floored, wood-fired oven. That may yet happen. The smokehouse and stillhouse are less likely — even when I proposed that excess heat from both could warm a hot tub (which I kinda want, but pretend I don't so I have a bit more negotiating room). And as for Evernote: between that and Scrivener, the way I compose longer pieces has definitely gotten streamlined (though I'm still a sucker for pens, pads, and longhand). Evernote's been particularly good for recipe retrieval.