Thursday, January 13, 2011

Check Out My Buns

It's junk food week here at Trout Caviar--pizza, hot dogs, and burgers--though I hope, and do believe, that we're managing to elevate the genre somewhat. It occured to me, as I was making all this dough--dough that proofs for hours--to facilitate this "fast food," that the common factor in great 'za, hot dogs, and burgers is great bread. A pizza is bread; pizzas that emphasize toppings over a great crust don't interest me at all. I've ordered pizza in restaurants extolling the glories of their own "homemade" pies, and been served a pile of ingredients--maybe nice ingredients, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, that sort of thing--on top of a perfectly round, perfectly tasteless, clearly industrial, premade, frozen crust that is basically nothing but an edible (barely) plate. Breaks my heart.

And as for the dogs and burgers, well, they're sandwiches, and the one and only thing that unites all sandwiches is that they are stuff on bread. Ergo, you cannot have a great sandwich without great bread. I think the pleasures of a hot dog can survive a mediocre bun better than a burger or a sandwich-sandwich--the spicy sausage and all its flavorful garnishes only require a fairly utilitarian vessel.

My hot dog lunch included a veritable salad garden of veg--sambal carrot slaw and pickled ramp mayo on one, sauerkraut and fermented red kale on the other, with kale chips and a couple pickled green beans on the side.

A great burger, on the other hand, does not exist without a great bun. Fortunately, I've come up with a great bun recipe, and here below, I share it. Recognizing that tastes will vary, this is nonetheless the world's greatest hamburger bun. This would be a greater achievement if I could honestly say that there's been much effort expended elsewhere in coming up with a great bun. By which I mean: There's been a great boom in upscale burger places in the last few years, and I've eaten at a few of the nouveau joints, where I've been astounded at the poor quality of the buns they use. The brioche bun is a popular pedestal for gastronomic burgers, but these are often too rich, too sweet, or just too soft to do the job. At one place (Burger Jones), I found my flavorless bun literally dissolving halfway through my meal.

Well, I'll say no more on that topic, only that I'm doing a service to the burger-eating world by disseminating this recipe, which is one that I really and truly came up with by my ownself. I "invented" a lot of breads during my Real Bread baking years, but most of them were just variations on a theme. This bread had a path, gradually evolved, and it's one of very few bread recipes I have where I actually follow my own recipe. It is delicious bread in its own right. It has the right texture to stand up to a juicy burger and a panoply of condiments without falling apart, but it is soft enough that you can bite into it without having said condiments all shoot out the side--not to say I can guarantee that some won't shoot out, I mean, you like avocado on your burger (I do sometimes), you're on your own....

Make them round with 3 1/2 to 4 ounces of dough for burgers. Make hot dog buns with 2 1/2 to 3 ounces dough--and now, I don't actually think this is the perfect hot dog bun, but it's very good. It is excellent as a lobster roll vehicle, and we serve shrimp burgers on it--make slightly larger hot dog bun shapes. This would take a po'boy to undiscovered heights; I'm looking forward to crayfish season to try that.

The leavening is active dry yeast, no sourdough involved. It's a rich, somewhat sweet dough that rises like the Dickens. You can have the dough mixed, proofed, shaped, and baked in three hours if you like. You can take a more leisurely approach, too. This recipe makes a big batch, about 30 buns worth. You can halve it, or, if you don't want that many buns, make the whole recipe and bake a couple pounds of the dough in loaf pans. It makes dandy toast or sandwich bread. If you halve the recipe you could mix it in a KitchenAid fitted with the dough hook.

The recipe:

Le Bun (The Cornmeal Honey Butter Bun--or, at the end of long day's baking for the market, "Corny Horny Bunny Bread")

2 Tbsp active dry yeast
1 cup warm water

1 cup boiling water
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup water
1 cup milk

2 Tbsp salt
½ cup honey
4 oz melted, cooled butter (unsalted)
7 to 8 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (I use Dakota Maid)

In a large bowl (I recommend an 8-quart size) mix the yeast and warm water and let sit five minutes. Mix the cornmeal and one cup boiling water in a separate bowl, stirring to moisten all the cornmeal. When the yeast is soft and the cornmeal mixture somewhat cooled, stir a bit of the milk into the cornmeal, mixing well to avoid lumps. Pour this into the yeast mixture with the rest of the milk, the additional one cup water, the honey, salt, and melted butter.

Add four cups of the flour as quickly as you like. Add another two cups one at a time. You should have a very sticky dough at this point. Gradually add another cup of flour. You can start kneading a bit in the bowl, or dump the dough out onto your counter and knead there. Knead for just a couple of minutes, adding flour as required to keep the dough from sticking. Add just a little at a time, but don't worry about adding too much. The honey and butter make this kind of a sticky dough, but you need to be able to work it.

When you've kneaded it for a couple of minutes and it's coming together, leave it alone for at least 10 minutes. It will seem lumpy and awkward at this point, but everything will get smoothed out in time.

After this resting period, knead the dough gently for a couple of minutes, until it is smooth and firm. Place the dough back in the mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise for two to three hours. It will rise rapidly, dramatically, even, especially in warm weather. You can punch it down and let it rise again if you like or your schedule dictates. You can refrigerate it for a while to retard fermentation, then take it out and carry on.

When you're ready to bake, measure out 3 1/2 ounce portions for burger buns, 2 1/2 for hot dog buns--a kitchen scale really is essential here, I think; but you can wing it knowing that a full batch makes 30 hamburger buns.

For burger buns shape balls, then flatten them with your palm. Let these little disks rest for a few minutes, then flatten them again to circles 3 1/2 to 4 inches in diameter. For hot dog buns, form little baguettes about 5 inches long.

Place the dough on parchment-lined baking sheets. You can put them pretty close, it's okay and actually kind of attractive if they grow together during the final proofing and baking. Let rise 30 minutes. Bake for 18 minutes in a preheated 400 degree oven. Turn the sheet pans around halfway through if your oven heats unevenly. Add steam to the oven, if you like; I keep a small cast iron skillet in the bottom of my electic oven, and I toss a couple of ice cubes into that at the beginning of baking.

If they're browning too fast before they're done, turn the oven down to 375. When the buns are brown top and bottom, slide them off the baking sheet to cool on a wire rack. These freeze well.

Next time: Secrets of a great burger revealed (hint: get out your meat grinder...).

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw


Tom said...

Ladies and Gentlemen, the man speaks the truth. I have tasted this — but once, but once is enough — this is truly a wonder-bun.

On another note, Brett, I would never have expected you to have tried Burger Jones. I'm surprised we've never talked about our mutual disgust over that place.

s said...

Those do look awesome. I totally agree on a good bun being key--I hate to order a decent burger and have it arrive with a mushy bun that has disintegrated on route.

I often make half of a bread batch into buns (so, one 2ish pound loaf, and 6 or 8 buns). Its a good use of dough for 2 people, and they freeze well too for impromptu cookouts.

Trout Caviar said...

Hey, Tom, thanks for the endorsement! Re Burger Jones, it's in the same mall as our eye doctor, so we popped in for lunch after check-ups last spring. Underwhelmed, to say the least....

Hi s: Is it possible that these restaurants think that because the burger looks all nice and bun intact when it leaves the kitchen, that it's going to stay that way through the eating? I mean, I don't mind a bit of mess, a good burger is going to be messy eating, but when the bun just disappears and you've got meat and cheese and condiments dripping through your fingers...yech.

I did the buns and loaves thing with this recent batch. This dough makes something quite like an egg-free brioche when made in loaf form.

Early next week I'm going to post on my idea of a very fine burger, and I'm really looking forward to hearing how other folks feel about this very personal, very important topic!

Cheers~ Brett