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
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.