I grew up without any food traditions. We were poor and most of my meals were either provided by Portland Public Schools or whatever my mom could cobble together from food stamps. (She was also a lunchtime line cook and hated cooking.) My dad’s side of the family, the Arndts, were Volga Germans (Wolgadeutsche)—ethnic Germans who lived in isolation in Russia for 150 years—but assimilated to the American diet quickly after arriving in Portland way back in 1911. With WWI right on their heels, they were in kind of a hurry to lose their Germanity.
The unofficial food of the Wolgadeutsche is the bierock: a soft bun filled with ground beef and cabbage—tangy with caraway and a little pickle brine. In the Midwest, they’re so common that they have a whole fast food chain dedicated to them, but they’re rarely seen in Portland. I only remember my mom cooking bierocks once, but the first time I made them on my own they tasted so familiar. I felt like I was reclaiming my ancestral foodways and my own ethnicity. Each bite repairs a severed link to my culinary heritage, and every time I feed them to my son I’m passing something down to him that was never really passed to me. Even though it’s just bread filled with hamburger, it’s one of the most important things I make.
Volga German Bierocks
MAKE THE DOUGH Bloom 2¼ tsp active dry yeast for 10 minutes in ¼ cup lukewarm water. Scald ½ cup milk (bring to barely a simmer—180 F on a thermometer), then set aside and add ⅓ cup butter, 1 tbsp sugar, and 2 tsp salt. Stir until melted and combined, then cool until lukewarm. In a large bowl, combine the yeast and milk mixtures. Beat in 2 eggs, then slowly add in the 4–4½ cups white all-purpose flour, mixing until you’ve formed a soft dough. Turn out on a floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Turn dough into a buttered bowl and lightly cover with plastic wrap. Set in a warm, draft-free spot for around an hour to 90 minutes or until doubled in size. Meanwhile ...
PREPARE THE FILLING In a large pan, evenly brown 1 pound of ground beef over medium heat, then add 1 cup of diced onion and 4 cups of shredded cabbage. Saute for 5 minutes. Add 1 tsp of caraway seeds, two garlic cloves (minced), and a ¼ cup of chopped fresh dill. Cook 10–15 more minutes, until cabbage is tender. Stir in 2-3 tbsp of dill pickle brine (or water) to deglaze the pan. Season to taste. Cover and remove from heat.
ASSEMBLE THE BIEROCKS After the dough has risen, punch it down, and let it rest for 10 minutes. Divide dough into 10 balls. Roll each into a circle, about ⅛ inch in thickness. Scoop ¾ cup of filling onto a dough circle, then tightly pull up the edges, pinching to seal. Place, seam side down, onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Repeat for the rest, leaving 2 inches of space in between each bierock. Loosely cover bierocks with a kitchen towel and leave in a warm, draft-free spot for 20 minutes. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. When the bierocks are nice and puffy, gently brush with melted butter. Bake for 20–25 minutes. Cool slightly before serving. They’re great with German potato salad (or French fries), various pickles, and beer.