Mennonite Meat-Filled Bread

Every culture seems to ask a universal question of its cooks:
Hey, where’s the meat-filled bread?

Italians have calzones. The Chinese – dim sum. The Polish fill pirogi. Armenians – Manti. Tibetans stuff momo with beef or yak. 

This multicultural culinary fact smacked me in the face again recently. A sweet little spot, The Bun Shop, just opened around the corner from me in Baltimore. Specialty Buns reads the gold lettering on the front door, and inside the pastry case reads out their rift on that universal question. The Rotiboy - challah filled with salted butter and topped with sugared crust. The Paraguayan Empanada’s inner life is one of beef, chiles and bits of hard boiled egg.

Mennonites, Russian Mennonites in this case, have certainly answered this meat-filled bread question as well. Their answer – the bierock.

The bierock is made with a sweet roll dough folded over a mixture traditionally made of ground beef, cabbage and onion. The gesture of sweetness in the dough plays nicely with the salty meat, and as in every bun situation its construction allows a portable and sturdy meal. On occasion I make a great big batch - freezing most and popping a couple in the oven on nights I don’t feel like standing in front of the stove.

But tradition is threatened in descending into mere museum fare without a bit of innovation. Today’s home bakers find a myriad of innovations for the bierock. Stuffed with pizza toppings, lamb and bitter greens, egg and sausage. Figs and fennel, apple compote, quince paste, chocolate pudding with cookie dough chunks. 

Looking back at the bierock, we see exactly why migration matters: The Mennonite faith originated in northern Europe shortly after the Reformation, but eventually a group split off and settled in Poland for a time, then onto southern Russia. Due to tensions with the Russian government, most of this group then moved to North America - Kansas, Nebraska, and Manitoba, Canada mostly.

In their luggage, the bierock – surely influenced by the Polish perogi, and the Crimean cherbureki

At age 10, the first time I remember having a bierock, I didn’t think of those golden hand warmers as Mennonite or Russian. They were simply one of the things we never ate in Texas where I grew up, which somehow elevated them to exotic.

And on at least one occasion bierocks were among the delicious things created when my favorite women gathered in a kitchen – my mother and her three sisters, my cousins, my grandmother, and of course my sisters.

At most of our gatherings, the supper table stretched out as far as it could extend, leaves placed in the middle of its belly. In the dining room of my aunt Diane’s farmhouse in Hesston, Kansas, I have seen at least 25 people seated at that table. Its burliness accepting the weight of the chaos.

On that particular day only the women received invitation. These gatherings are dubbed Estefests as in Estrogen Festivals. They are loud, raucous, filled with old farm stories and fresh updates. Food is instrumental and indulgent.

At that particular Estefest, we made beirocks. The thing is when I asked my grandmother about that bierock day recently, she replied:
#1. “I don’t remember the day at all.”
#2. “I don’t even really like bierocks.”

This grandmother, my mother's mother, did not grow up Mennonite, nor did she “convert” as an adult. But she worked in a bakery that made their traditional foods, and had a Menno mother-in-law, Keturah.
So perhaps this memory of mine was not so much one of “passing on family tradition”. Instead simply an excuse to be together. Arguably the most valuable thing we can ask of our food.

After a long absence from my plate in any valuable way (Read: I would make them, but they weren’t very good), the bierock came back into my consciousness when I was in my 20’s during a visit back to Hesston for the holidays… A new coffee shop had opened in town – The Lincoln Perk. There in the pastry case, patiently awaiting a patron, sat the buns.

But these particular bierocks exceeded my memory’s expectation of them, and certainly any of my own attempts over the years. I left intrigued somehow. Who was this baker keeping the dying bierock alive in this tiny coffeeshop? And how could I join in? 


How I Found Home and Sweet Butter Rolls

In the last thirteen months, I have made a giant U across the United States. Portland to Santa Fe to Charleston and now… to Baltimore. 

I have learned a lot in those thirteen months… how to make cookies with fruity pebbles, how to make pudding with pig’s blood, how to ask for help.

Also, I learned how much I really, really loathe cardboard.

It is the most exhausting raw material I can think of. The smell and sight abhorring - all mildew and armpit, donning the least imaginable color – not chestnut or chocolate, just a muted, despairing brown.

There exists this peak in the chaos of moving in which the cardboard is particularly taunting. All your stuff is in limbo… No longer in your closet but not really in a box yet either. It’s all just strewn about, angry-looking. And those miserable boxes gape open, hollering about all the work to be done

The boxes morphed into a public reading of diaries:
Dishes. Loaf pans. Ramekins.
S for Storage Unit.
G for Goodwill
X for Ready To Go
Two entire medium-sized boxes reading “Menno Cookbooks”.

It was at those points in the chaos when I most craved a kitchen. To refocus. To take a breath while my hands are in motion. To smell the sense of home in a warm loaf of bread.

Cardboard is, after all, the antithesis of home.

By the time I left Charleston for Baltimore, I had whittled the stack of boxes down to about a measly, liberating 10. Along with my old trunk, woven basket, a couple Rubbermaid bins, and a few suitcases, they all squeezed into the back of a rented minivan and traveled up the I-95 corridor.

I lived in Santa Fe just long enough to feel its effects – the obscene sunlight and roasting green chiles. But I wasn’t there quite long enough for it to feel like home.

In Charleston, living in my sister and brother in law’s home along with my niece and nephew, I certainly felt the intimacy of family. We shared our morning rituals of eggs and coffee with unflustered ease. I was afforded the privileged, up-close view of my Sarah's creative process as a painter. Sofie learned to read. Zeke discovered his love of scooters. Matt built a slide, a chicken coop, a rabbit hutch, and my bike rack. I became Aunt Katie who brought home sweet treats from work, always carried orange gum, and played Apples in Stereo on car rides.

"You're kind of like the second Mom," Sofie once said as we pulled pajamas over her head.  

photo by Sarah Boyts Yoder

But still, that was not my home. Most of my things were still in that damn cardboard, patiently awaiting a more permanent placement.

In the last year, there has occasionally been this surreal stinging sensation. It happens most at airports.
I just want to go home. I’d think. (insert melodramatic voice of a five year old)
Then the punch … There isn’t one.

Inside a giant buzzing scanner, feet wide, hands raised above my head, with some cranky lady staring at my guts, all I could think about is that elusive place of home. And the sting of its absence.

In those inescapable moments in the scanner, I tried to lean in, curious about the experience. I started to question… What is home anywayWe think of it as that physical space in which our artifacts of life are nestled into their particular spots. Photos hung. Dishes put away. Rugs take their spot on the floor.
We are warm there. Grounded. Comfortable.

It’s not that I’ve created some idyllic fantasy about home. Portland had rain. Santa Fe had moths. Charleston had sweat. Baltimore will have... something. And there are always dishes after dinner.

But still… the craving exists and if we can’t access that home… What next?

Well, for me, I bake. Because home is, at its core, a sensual experience. Not simply the scenery of our things. Silky textures of dough, bread crust singing as it's drawn out of the oven, the smell of yeast and flour and butter bloomed under heat.

The smell of freshly baked bread, and I can feel my chest let go. I’m back to my favorite bakery in Portland, my grandmother’s kitchen in Kansas, my mother’s supper table at Christmas. Those were most certainly homes.

And in that case home becomes much more accessible. It is here in my hands, a few ingredients, and a very hot oven - I really need nothing more.

I think Baltimore shall be home. At least the cardboard is gone. And my basket has found itself a corner, all my books have shelves.

Most importantly I have my breath, my hands, a sack of flour, and a hot, ready oven.

This recipe for sweet butter rolls comes from Jeanette Wedel in Hesston, Kansas. Stay in tune for more about Jeanette and the versatility of this beautiful dough. On this particular baking, I did my usual thing - looked in the frig, spotted a few inspiring elements, and decided to revamp the plan. So I stuffed many of the rolls with odds and ends - diced apples, a leftover bolognese sauce, cheese, quince paste. Do the same or stick with the straight dinner rolls. 

I'm giving this recipe in volume and weights. I highly recommend investing in a scale if you don't have one. Because at the end of the day, your cup of flour will likely never equal my cup of flour. 

Sweet Butter Rolls
adapted from Jeanette Wedel

yield: 12 medium size rolls

3 1/4 cup flour, bread or all purpose (450 grams)

1 cup cool water (226 grams)
2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast (9 grams)
3/4 Tablespoon salt (9 grams) 
1/2 cup granulated sugar (100 grams)
1/2 cup dry milk powder (79 grams)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temp (114 grams)

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the dough hook, combine all ingredients. Turn mixer on lowest speed and mix for 3 minutes. Turn the machine off, let the dough rest for about 5 minutes, then mix again on lowest speed for another 2 to 3 minutes, or until the dough passes the windowpane test.* 

*Windowpane test: Pinch a small piece of dough and spread it apart with your fingertips to try and create a translucent pane. If the dough tears, mix it again for another minute and then retest. If the dough stays in tact and creates the translucent pane, it's ready to go!

2. Once the dough is ready, transfer it to a lightly-oiled mixing bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise for one hour, and "punch down". (You can literally stick your fist in the dough or, as I prefer, fold it over onto itself and then turn over.)

3. Let rise again for another hour. Then transfer to lightly floured surface. Divide the dough evenly into twelve portions. I weigh mine out - about 60 grams each roll. Shape them into balls and let them rise again, on parchment-lined baking sheet, for another 30 to 60 minutes, or until - when you press them with your finger they don't spring back. 

Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 375. 

4. When the rolls are ready, transfer them to the oven and bake them for 15 minutes, rotate, and bake about 15 minutes more or until they are golden brown. At the 15 minute mark, you can do an egg wash* to make them shiny. 

*An egg wash consists of 1 egg, beaten, with a Tablespoon of water. Brush a bit onto each roll for a shiny surface. 

5. Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack or serve warm. 



The Reading List

Anybody remember Book It? ... That Pizza Hut reading program where, as an elementary school student, you could earn that super-exciting coupon for a personal pan pizza simply by reading books! As I remember it, this pizza prize was basically about 4 ounces of grease in a tiny cast iron pan, lightly dusted with tomatoes and cheese. But whatever... we all read more because of Book It. Or at least I did. So Thumbs Up to those folks! (No, I'm not being paid to say this, by they way. I can guarantee you that Pizza Hut really does not give a care what I say.)

Regardless of the gastronomic disappointment, those Pizza Hut bookworm dinners really are a sweet memory. Because more exciting than any tiny pizza was the fact that, in our family, a Book It coupon earned you a dinner date to the Hut with Dad. (I have 3 siblings... one-on-one time with anything was a prized possession.) Father and daughter sitting in a vinyl booth over those 4 ounces of grease was about as dreamy as it got as a youth.

There it is again... Words and food... bringing us together.
Like here. Right now. Via my current reading list... (Presuming you care more than Pizza Hut)

Elise Hofer Derstine, writer and farmer in Goshen, Indiana, (who you may remember from her interview here!) recently started publishing her words on her own blog, Hoof and Wings. Her latest posts (which come out each Thursday) are about the lovely story of her grandparent's courtship and their road to farming. Consider me hooked and awaiting Thursday.

Photo courtesy Elise Hofer Derstine

Momofuku Milk Bar by Christina Tosi.
Tosi's recipes are fun and creative. She doesn't take herself too seriously, reminds me of the playful because at the end of the day... it really is just a cookie. Why not have fun?
That said, it's a really really really good cookie.

Cornflake. Chocolate. Marshmallow. Crunch. Right?! Right.
Today I unashamedly made Fruity Pebble Crunch Cookies. Then ice cream sandwiches with lemongrass ice cream (because it turns out lemongrass ice cream tastes EXACTLY like Fruity Pebbles).

Here's the recipe for the cornflake cookies. Me? I took out the chocolate and subbed about a third of the cornflakes for oats. You?

The Joke by Milan Kundera. Kundera's words, and his ability to get you in so deeply in the heads of his characters make me feel full. In the best way possible.

Do stories, apart from happening, being, have something to say? For all my skepticism, some trace of irrational superstition did survive in me, the strange conviction, for example, that everything in life that happens to me also has a sense, that it means something, that life speaks to us about itself through its story...

The Random...  
Poem on my frig

Read the full poem by Machado here.

Katie @ The Shoofly