Sunday, August 23, 2015

The horseshoe sandwich.

Springfield, Illinois meets Austin, Texas. Horseshoe sandwich, FGHD style. © Ryan Schierling
I'm sure there are wealthy suburbs of Springfield, Illinois that have more cardiologists per capita than any other city in the United States. I imagine when filling out new patient paperwork, there is a check-box for "Do you eat horseshoe sandwiches? If yes, how many per year?" That information is disclosed to insurance companies, you are deemed "high-risk" and your policy is put under review.

In the summer of 2007, I ate a horseshoe at storied purveyor D'arcy's Pint in Springfield. I was determined to finish it, and after 45 minutes, I did. Moments later, I felt the first tinges of angina. I was told by locals that to thin the blood I needed more alcohol. I ordered a pitcher of Old Style and a cold, wet bar towel for my forehead, and that seemed to do the trick.

Years later, I kept telling Julie I was going to recreate this Illinois staple, and it was going to be glorious. The Texas toast, the hamburger patties, the crinkle-cut fries and that incredible blanket of luxurious, velvety cheese sauce.

She took my braggadocio with a lot of grains of salt, reminding me that the heart never forgets. And yet, I got a crinkle-cutter in my stocking the following Christmas. This week, I finally tied on my apron and took that Springfield regular to Austin-level serious. Honestly, why hasn't Texas adopted this plate? It's right up there with Frito chili pie, chicken-fried steak and eggs with hash browns, and enchiladas Dan Jenkins. 

Horseshoes are a territorial novelty. Venture outside of Springfield, and you'll find they appear less and less on menus. Two slices of Texas Toast, a double helping of protein, a mountain of French fries, smothered in cheese sauce. There's also the petite version of a horseshoe – the pony shoe – which is half the size, and until recently I was convinced they were only eaten by children and invalids. Springfield expat Aaron Starkey has explained that full-size horseshoes are an ego thing. "Pony shoes, men live longer..."

There's a regional history to this dish, and it all goes back to Chef Joe Schweska and the historic Leland Hotel in 1928. According to various and sundry sources, Schweska's wife Elizabeth suggested a Welsh rarebit sauce over an open-faced sandwich as a new lunch-menu item. Joe cut ham off the bone in the shape of a horseshoe and put it on top of a pair of thick-sliced pieces of toast. A white cheddar rarebit sauce covered the meat and bread, and eight potato wedges (the nails in the horseshoe) were plated around the meat and toast. There might have been a frightened slice of tomato. Today's horseshoe sandwich is less delicate, less refined, and can be ordered with a meat-market of optional proteins – the prototypical ham, hamburger patty, corned beef, turkey, chicken-fried steak, bacon, walleye, pastrami, fried pork tenderloin, sausage, grilled chicken, and I'm sure someone out there has a... *shudder*... tofu horseshoe. It is covered in fries and drenched in cheese sauce – some white, some yellow. It will not fill you up, it will stuff you, perhaps beyond repair.  

If French Quebec were a little more daring, they'd start putting le pain and a patty under some poutine. Rochester's garbage plate is a less-refined hot mess, though I'm sure it serves the same culinary function. Don't even talk to me about disco fries. This is an open-faced sandwich that's legendary, and it deserves a modicum of respect that only your doctor would understand, but probably not tolerate in good conscience.

So how did I up the ante on this caloric classic? By (mostly) respecting history. There are cheese sauce recipes that reference Kraft Old English Cheddar as the original yellow cheese used as the mornay sauce base (according to Joseph E. Schweska Jr.'s brother-in-law). D'Arcy's Pint currently serves one of the most popular horseshoes in all of Springfield, and they use a lovely white cheddar sauce. I used both white and yellow cheeses: the Kraft Old English Cheddar product went inside the burger – Juicy Lucy style – and white sharp Cheddar was incorporated with the bacon-fat roux in the cheese sauce for a ridiculously-rich mornay.

All of this could be wrong, and I'm bastardizing a nearly 90-year-old historic recipe. But you knew I was going to do that anyway. All apologies, Springfield. This is my pony shoe.

Horseshoe sandwich (ATX)

2 pieces Texas toast bread, toasted under broiler

1 pound ground sirloin, 80/20
1 5-ounce jar Kraft Old English Cheddar Cheese, refrigerated
Salt and ground pepper to taste

1/4 pound bacon, cooked crisp

Your favorite steak sauce

4-5 Russet potatoes, peeled and crinkle-cut

1/2 cup bacon fat
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon cayenne 
2 1/2 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 pound white sharp Cheddar, grated
1 cup beer (I used Bass ale)

Trust me. © Ryan Schierling

Fire up the broiler, unless you have a bagel toaster or toaster oven. All you need out of this step is the Maillard reaction and bread. Make toast.  


I used ground sirloin, which had a little lower fat content than 80/20 ground chuck. This wasn't a problem, because I put Kraft processed Cheddar cheese product in the middle of the patty. Split a pound of ground beef into four pieces, and patty them out to about six inches in diameter. It's okay if they're a little thin, you're going to double down here. 

Preheat a dry cast iron skillet to medium-high. No lube required. 

Take your Kraft Old English Cheddar Cheese spread out of the fridge and dig into it with a knife. It will be viscous and perfect for the molten middle of this burger. Two heaping tablespoons is enough. Put the cheese on one patty, top with another patty and seal everything well. Season both sides with salt and pepper, and cook about four minutes per side. This should give you a juicy medium burger and liquid cheese. Remove from heat, put on a plate and tent with foil. 


It's bacon. Cook it the way you like it. I rack a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven and lay out the porkses. When it smells delicious, and it's crispy and brown, it's done. Drain on paper towels. 

Steak sauce

We used store-brand, A-1 equivalent. If we'd had HP sauce, we would have used that. The steak sauce was poured into a squeeze bottle, for perfect drizzle. You don't have to do that. It's going to get smothered in fries and stuff. 

French fries

Peel and crinkle-cut the potatoes into proper fry-sized pieces. Soak the fries in icy cold water for as little as 2 hours, as much as 24. This is an important step as it removes quite a bit of the starches, which hinder moisture from leaving the potato as you fry it. If you're going for a long soak, you can change the water halfway through. Rinse well, drain potatoes and pat completely dry. 

We use the double-fry method, which is blanching the fries at 300-degrees for 7-8 minutes, until they are soft and limp, and nicely blond. They are then placed on paper towels on a baking sheet, and placed in the refrigerator for an hour or so. When you're ready to get going on the second fry, bring the oil up to 375-degrees and put in a few handfuls of potatoes at a time. It usually takes 3-4 more minutes of frying to get them browned and crisp. Drain on a baking rack over more paper towels. They really don't need seasoning – the cheese sauce has got you covered – but if you want to sprinkle a little kosher salt on them, do it. 

Cheese sauce*

In a large skillet, melt bacon fat over medium heat. Whisk in flour continuously until incorporated, a few minutes until a blond roux is achieved. Whisk in milk, salt, dry mustard, cayenne and Worcestershire sauce. The mixture will become thick. Turn heat to low, and begin adding cheese a little bit at a time, whisking constantly. Once cheese is melted in, turn heat back to medium and add the beer. Whisk until the sauce comes to a bare simmer. Turn heat to low, cover, and wait for this dreamy, creamy sauce to envelop your horseshoe sandwich.

*Adapted from various recipes on Made in the style of D'Arcy's Pint white cheese sauce.

The Horseshoe

Plate toast. Place hamburger on top of the Texas toast, top with bacon and drizzle with a fair amount of steak sauce. Cover with French fries. Ladle as much cheese sauce as you think you can survive on top of everything. 

Open a bottle of red wine, or start lining up the beers.

Makes two pony shoes.

Pony shoe, Texas-style. © Ryan Schierling

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