Western Burgers are a high school cafeteria legend in my hometown of Wichita Falls, Texas. They are a simple and beautiful bit of comfort, consisting of hamburger meat, onion, and seasonings fully wrapped up in a hot, buttery bun. God bless the lunch lady (or man…they always seemed to be ladies back then), I say. Can you believe they actually made yeast breads like this in our schools at one point? THE “LUNCH LADY” was a title of honor, and in my earliest memories she served sheet cakes and turkey with rice and gravy. She knew everyone by name. But here is the sad truth. I don’t think I ever had one of THE Western Burgers in my high school. By the time I switched from my tiny, little Catholic school to the big, giant Wichita Falls High School (lovingly known as “Old High”), vending machines had come into vogue in schools. And while many of my new friends still ate in the cafeteria, I have to admit that I found the bustling scene a bit intimidating as the new kid. So my best pal and cousin, Joey, and I sat in one of the courtyards and typically ate a bag of Cheddar and Sour Cream Ruffles for lunch washed down with a Diet Dr Pepper. Egads. Think of all that I missed.
But, the legend of the Western Burger lives on in the hearts and minds of like-minded food folk from my neck of the woods. The actual school version doesn’t happen anymore because apparently it doesn’t meet the health requirements of a school lunch food. Apparently they are not quite so legendary when made in a whole wheat roll. Well, no kidding. However, due to the continued adoration of this would-be inductee to the Lunch Lady Recipe Hall of Fame…I made that up, but we should probably have a Lunch Lady Recipe Hall of Fame…the Wichita Falls School District now has an annual Western Burger Feed as a fundraiser for local charities. I cannot even begin to come up with a decent excuse for not having made the road trip for this. But I always miss it and then read about it in the paper and smack myself on the head.
There is a recipe for Western Burgers in the WFISD Food Service Cookbook, but I don’t have that yet…so I had to invent one of my own. My kids are bananas about it and my daughter has declared that every Tuesday should henceforth be Western Burger Tuesday!! And, you know what…I like the idea.
My version is low on the seasoning. Many put mustard in the mixture. We prefer to bake them up simple, and then dip them in ketchup or whatever suits our individual fancies. This is not like a grocery store bun…this is more like a tender hot dinner roll…almost kolache-esque in texture. If you are at all like me, it will make you happy in a deep, long-forgotten, bell-ringing, feet-shuffling, bad-perm, place in your heart. I hope it doesn’t give you flash-backs about forgetting your locker combination. It should only give you flash-backs about a simpler time, when the cafeteria lady was an industrial kitchen queen and you could still drink chocolate milk without the health food police frowning at you.
I’m all for healthy cafeteria food for kids, by the way. I’m completely and totally on board. But I miss this part of our collective background. The lunch lady is pure Americana.
So, if you can track down a real, “old-school” cafeteria lady, go out and give her a hug. Give her a big hair net and apron hug.
Summary of the process: Make the dough, let it rise, brown and season the meat, deflate the dough and knead it, roll it out, cut it into squares, place meat on a square, cover with dough, pinch edges, fold them under, bake, PIG OUT. Did I just say pig out? Yes, I did. Bon appétit just doesn’t seem to convey the right mood here.
¾ cup warm water
¾ cup whole milk, room temperature
½ ounce active dry yeast (2 packets)
4 tablespoons sugar
500 grams all-purpose flour (about 4 cups)
1 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted (reserve 2 tablespoons for brushing at the end)
2 pounds ground beef
⅓ cup chopped onion
2 to 3 ounces grated cheddar cheese
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1. Place the yeast and 1 teaspoon of the sugar in the warm water and let it sit for five minutes. It should become frothy on top if the yeast is active (if not, check the date on the packets). In a large bowl, combine the flour, remaining sugar and salt. Add the water mixture, the milk, and the melted butter and stir to thoroughly combine. It will be somewhat lumpy and sticky. Place a damp towel over the bowl and allow the dough to rise for 1 hour or until doubled in volume.
2. Meanwhile, brown the meat and the onion in a skillet. Remove it from the heat and drain the excess drippings from the meat. Allow the meat to cool to room temperature. Add the cheese, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper, and stir to combine. This will be the final flavor of the filling so taste it and adjust the seasoning if needed.
3. When the dough has risen, remove it to a well floured surface and knead it until it is no longer sticky, adding flour as is necessary. The goal is to have a ball of dough that is not sticky and that will rebound when you press on it with your finger, so keep adding a pinch of flour here and there, and kneading, until you achieve this. This should take about 5 to 7 minutes. Using a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough into the shape of a square of about 16” by 16”. Cut the rectangle into 16 square pieces of dough by cutting it into 4 columns, and then cutting each column into 4 equal pieces. Each square should be roughly about 4” by 4”. Roll each piece until it is slightly larger.
4. Place an equal scoop of the meat mixture on 8 of the squares. Form the meat into a fat patty with your hands before placing it on the dough. Cover each with another square of dough and pinch it around the edges to fully seal the pillow that you create. Tuck the edges underneath the pillow and gently pinch the seam into the bottom of the pillow a bit. Place each burger onto a lightly buttered cookie sheet, separated by 2”. Set aside and allow the dough to rise again for 20 minutes, until the burgers are puffy and enlarged.
5. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. When the burgers have finished rising again, place them in the oven and bake until they are golden, about 30 minutes. Brush the tops with a little melted butter and serve hot with mustard and ketchup on the side.
NOTE: Working with the dough squares is messy business. If you want to preserve a perfect exterior you will want a towel handy to wipe your hands between each burger. Also, I use King Arthur All Purpose Flour for this. Different flours behave differently. A later batch with a different flour required substantially more flour during kneading. And, finally…(in a slap your forehead moment for me)…you can also make these smaller by rolling out each square to a little larger size, placing less meat in the middle and closing up the one piece of dough like a pouch. Bake seal side down for slightly less time.