Friends and guests often ask what my favorite dish is. It’s a well-intentioned but impossible question, like picking the favorite moment of one’s life or picking a favorite place or landscape. The diversity of goodness is simply too great and too varied to pick just one.
Still, like many cooks, if I had to pick one thing it wouldn’t be a dish from my restaurant or some highly elaborate creation, but a food deeply comforting for many: a well-made burger. What is it about a burger that is so satisfying and comforting? Is it simply the culture in which we’ve been raised? Is it the balance and contrast between the different elements which really make it a meal in itself: ground meat, bread, vegetables (lettuce, tomato, etc.), sometimes even cheese or some other tasty condiment? The taste of wood smoke from the grill?
Of course, a burger can be carefully or thoughtlessly made. It can be overcooked or perfectly cooked, bland or well-seasoned, from inhumane feed-lot beef or clean grass-fed beef, with a flavorless supermarket tomato or a perfectly ripe home-grown tomato. Indeed, in my experience it is the tomato which makes the whole experience. So many of us are used to the flavorless tomatoes perfunctorily served on most burgers in this country, but a perfectly ripe tomato bursting with flavor and juice is the perfect foil for the rich ground beef of a burger.
And then there’s the bun. Just as we in the States often think of the crust of a pizza as a vehicle for the more interesting flavors placed on top, so do we think of a bun as a vehicle for what is between it instead of a co-star in the production. Often buns are too big, often too small, often stale, often bland. But this approach isn’t very satisfying. I’m a big advocate for making bread at home, including buns. It’s not at all difficult to do, and I’ve included a recipe below.
When we Americans pine away for Italy, we would do well to think of and comfort ourselves with a burger. We do it better than anyone else in the world, especially Italians who are totally incompetent with the concept. They might have us bested in most other ways, but we’ve got them on this one.
Rich Sandwich Loaf or Hamburger Buns
1) Dissolve 2 teaspoons dried yeast in 1 1/2 cups milk or buttermilk.
2) Add an egg to the milk, and then gradually add around 4 cups flour, 2 teaspoons salt, and 3 tablespoons softened or melted butter.
3) When the dough becomes difficult to stir, dump it onto a floured board and knead with swift motions, adding enough flour to keep it from sticking horribly. There’s no need to knead more than a minute or two, just until the dough comes together into a nice ball instead of a shaggy mass. If it never does, just move on to the next step.
4) Place the dough in an oiled bowl and let ferment for a few hours, until double in size. The cooler the room and the milk, the longer it will take and better it will be. If you need to, warm the milk to 110 degrees to speed things up.
5) On the floured board, deflate the dough and form it into tight little 3 ounce balls (about 12 of them). Place them on parchment paper on baking sheets, and loosely cover with plastic.
6) When the rolls have swelled a bit, brush a little egg beaten with a touch of water on the top of each roll, and bake at 400 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, untill nicely browned. When tapped on the bottom, they should sound hollow.
7) Allow to cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing. The buns are best the day they are made, but they can be stored for a day or two or frozen for several weeks.