|Barbecued beef bierocks. © Ryan Schierling|
I saw a lot of strange things growing up in Kansas. I saw the skies turn a deathly still, hot ochre moments before a funnel cloud dropped down and started sucking the roofs off of houses. I saw an elderly woman speaking in tongues beneath an ominous, menacing mural of abolitionist John Brown. I once saw a six-legged cow. But I ain't never seen a beer rock.
Now, I understand there are many cultural variations and spelling disparities of the bierock – a meat-filled wonder of German and Russian origin, brought to the United States by German Russian Mennonites. They call it "beer rock" in Kansas, but I'm pretty sure – even as an expat – that's got to be a successor to the horrible 90s-dance-music compilation album Jock Jams (Vols. 1-5). If beer rock is what you want, there must be a cheerleading competition on ESPN2 because of the NHL lockout. If you'd rather have a bierock, I've got your number.
Pasty or pastry, pirogi or piroshky, pirok, börek, runza, empanada, calzone… all are a regional version of stuff, stuffed into dough and baked.
I was introduced to bierocks as a kid, probably at a Mennonite church function in Harper, Kansas. My ancestry is German/Russian, and the version I remember was filled with ground beef, onion and cabbage. If one of the church ladies got a little crazy, there might have been some caraway seed and unseemly gossip in there.
In my early 20s, I lived in Fort Collins, Colorado and found runzas at a fast-food chain called, oddly enough, Runza. They served a delicious, fresh, beef-filled bierock facsimile that fueled my nostalgia and kept me from having to craft my own.
If only I'd known how simple it was.
I am not a baker. Julie is the baker – the One who Understands and has Control over Time, Temperature, Precise Measurements, Exact Standards and the Chemical Reactions of The Universe. I can cook, and I understand enough to know that knife-skills abruptly cease after six beers. This dough is gentle, and kind, and forgiving enough to handle my "everybody into the pool" approach to baking. So far, it's held me in good stead. You mix the dry together, mix the wet together, then mix them both together and knead like you've never needed anything this badly before in your life. I mean, kneaded. No… needed. Whatever.
You end up with a slightly sweet, extremely pliable dough ready to counter any savory filling you desire, traditional or not. This time, I decided on smoked, pulled beef with a homemade version of Kansas City's Gates Extra Hot BBQ sauce. Julie got a savory veg mix of onion and potato, spiked with sweet carrot shreds, fresh sauerkraut and a pinch of celery salt. You can fill it with whatever you like, but you've got to start here:
1 cup warm milk
1/2 cup warm water
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup sugar
4 teaspoons active dry yeast
5 cups all-purpose flour
Mix all dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Mix milk, water and butter together. Add the wet to the dry and begin mucking things about with your bare hands. Once the dough starts to hold its shape, turn the whole mess out onto a floured counter or large cutting board and start kneading. Someone's grandmother once said that kneading dough develops the bust line. I don't know if this is true or not, but it made me feel a little sexier for the 10 minutes I was manhandling it. Knead for ten minutes, adding a toss of flour as necessary to keep things smooth and moving right along.
Put the dough into a clean, lightly oiled bowl, cover with a clean dish towel and let rise for two hours. The dough will double in size.
I smoked a five-pound salt-and-peppered beef clod for this recipe. Once it was done, I let it rest, then pulled it apart and mixed it with an overflowing cup of barbecue sauce (see recipe below). That's it… barbecued beef. Feel free to use your favorite crock pot bbq beef recipe or some brisket leftovers or what-have-you. There is no wrong answer when it comes to bierock filling.
But, really, back to the science.
Once the dough has risen, punch it down and tear it into four equal pieces. On a lightly-floured surface, roll out each piece until it is about 1/8" thick, or roughly 8"x12". Your goal is six 4"x4" squares to work with from each of the four hunks of dough.
Place 1 cup of your bierock filling on each 4"x4" square of dough. It seems like too much, but the dough is very pliable and stretches quite nicely. Pull opposite corners together and pinch the dough together at the middle. Pull a third corner up, pinching the seams together. Tuck any filling that's bulging out back into the pocket, and pull the fourth corner up, pinching the seams together. Flip the sealed bun over and place onto a greased cookie sheet or jelly-roll pan. If you're not sure of the difference between a cookie sheet and a jelly-roll pan, don't fret. I don't know either. Wait… okay. Julie just told me that a cookie sheet is flat, a spatula has easy access from all sides, and baked goods can slide off easily. A jelly-roll pan is like a super-shallow cake pan (a sheet pan) with a continuous lip on all four sides. Both are acceptable for this application.
You should have six bierocks on your sheet pan. Place that clean dish towel over them and let those filled, fat buns rise for an hour. Preheat your oven to 350-degrees.
Once the bierocks have risen, pop the tray into the oven for 20 minutes. When they exit, have a bit of softened, salted butter ready to brush on the steaming, golden tops. Bierocks are best eaten fresh from the oven, but they do freeze and reheat well. (I cannot guarantee leftovers.)
Bonus recipe #1 - Ollie Gates Extra Hot BBQ Sauce
It took a lot of tries, but this is as close as I've come to a bottle of Gates Extra Hot, which is unavailable in Texas. Willie Nelson would have an easier time getting weed through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoint at Sierra Blanca, Texas than smuggling Kansas City barbecue sauce into the state of Texas. It's just not allowed.
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons celery seed
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon chili powder
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons crushed black pepper
16 ounces ketchup
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
juice of 1 lemon
Mix all ingredients in a non-reactive saucepan and bring to a slow simmer. Let cook for 1 hour, then cool. This sauce will keep in a covered container in the refrigerator for a few weeks.
Bonus recipe #2 - Traditional bierock filling
When I'm not stuffing bierocks with barbecued beef, I usually go this route. It's comfort food of the highest order, and it reminds me of my youth.
2 pounds 80/20 ground beef
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 small head cabbage, chopped
2 good pinches of kosher salt
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
2 teaspoons cracked black pepper
Brown beef and onion over medium heat, until beef is half-pink, half-browned. Add cabbage, salt, caraway seeds and pepper. Continue cooking until beef is just browned and cabbage is beginning to wilt. Remove from heat and drain liquid from mixture. Adjust salt to taste. Let cool before using for bierock filling.