Monday, June 16, 2014

Beef and Cabbage Buns and Elsie Smith

In my last blog post, I mentioned Elsie, our housekeeper, and wrote that I couldn’t remember the meals she had prepared for us while my mother was away. That was not exactly true. I wasn’t able  conjure up the dinners she prepared for us on that one occasion, but I sure can remember at least one or two things Elsie made for us, and a few other tidbits about this wonderful woman who was a part of my family for over 20 years.

The first thing about Elsie Smith: she called everyone Honey. And it wasn’t just “Hi Honey!” It was “Honey, you’re mommy just called, and Honey, she won’t be home for another hour, so Honey, I made you a sandwich for an after school snack, Honey. Now go do your homework, Honey”. It wasn’t like she didn’t know our first names or anything, she just called EVERYONE Honey, and she loved calling everyone Honey!

Elsie joined our family shortly after my sister was born in 1963. She worked for another woman in our neighborhood and came highly recommended when it became apparent that my mother needed some household help with 3 children under 5. Elsie came every Friday for the next 2 decades and she became a beloved fixture throughout our growing up and into young adulthood. When Mom and Dad felt they could venture away for a weekend without us kids, Elsie was there to mind us with love, affection and a steel hand resting inside a velvet glove. She loved the music of  the hunky 1960’s singer  Engelbert Humperdinck, but when she found out that was not his real name, she promptly shifted her allegiance to Trini Lopez. She had her scruples, after all. She even named a cockatoo she received as a gift "Trini". Elsie was someone you always wanted on your side. 

The Reilly kids, circa 1968

Elsie was a good, honest woman, of German heritage, and she had a clear, unvarnished view on life, which is why she was such a good housekeeper. She wanted to keep everything in order, Honey, and she did so in the Reilly household every Friday, Honey! She was also a simple cook, so when she stayed with us when my parents were gone, her repertoire was equally simple – grilled cheese, macaroni and cheese, Campbell’s Soup and the like. But I do vividly remember something she made for us once, and it must have been a special occasion: a seasoned beef and cabbage mixture, encased in slightly sweet bread, baked and served warm. Beef pies! Bierocks was what she called them. And they rocked! Bierocks were a onetime culinary taste treat for the Reilly children circa 1968. For some reason, we never got Elsie to make them again and it was pure folly to ask that my mother make them.  I still have that combination of ground beef, cabbage, cheese and dough lingering on the back of my palate.

A few years ago I purchased America’s Best Lost Recipes by the Cook’s Country magazine. (They are also the America’s Test Kitchen folks, so it’s a viable resource). I loved reading through the family favorite and time tested recipes – 7Up Cake, Cheese Crusted Olive Balls, Mile High Bologna Pie among them.  

7 Up Cake Photo by Margie MacKenzie

Cooking is not an exact science, and the outcome of what one is preparing can be effected by the humidity or dryness of the kitchen, the quality and freshness of the ingredients and the skill and patience of the cook. My experience with Runsas falls into the later category. I’ve always had issues with all things dough – pastry and bread – so perhaps I should cut myself some slack. 

What should have looked like this:
photo from Cook's Country

Looked like this:
photo by Margie MacKenzie
Though my Runsas/Bierocks were pretty darned tasty (thanks to the sweet bread dough which wasn't all that hard to make), I felt I had failed. I had failed by not creating a beautiful doughy package of savory delight, but also in not completely capturing the flavors I remember so well from that one time Elsie made them for me. It just wasn’t the same, much like my mother’s attempt at preparing Spaghetti Casserole for my brother, my sister and me years ago. I guess there is truth in the saying, “You can’t go home again”. I will have to have Elsie's Runsas as my taste memory to go along with all the other wonderful memories I have of this very loving woman.

So if you are an intrepid soul, or someone who really knows how to work with dough and fillings, give Runsas a try, and please, Honey, think kindly of Elsie Smith, honey, while doing so, Honey! She'd be so happy, Honey! And so would I!

Runsas - Beef & Cabbage Buns


 8 servings



o    3/4 cup warm water (100 degrees)
o    1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
o    1/4 cup vegetable oil - I use Canola oil
o    2 TBS sugar
o    1 large egg
o    3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
o    2 packages rapid-ride or instant yeast
o    1 teas salt


o    1 TBS unsalted butter, with 2 TBS melted
o    1 1/2 lbs lean ground beef
o    1 large onion, finely chopped
o    1/2 small head of cabbage, finely chopped, about 3 cups
o    Salt & Pepper to taste
o    8 slices cheese - American, Cheddar or Gruyere


For the dough: Lightly grease large bowl with cooking spray. Mix water, sweetened condensed milk, oil, sugar, and egg in large measuring cup. Mix flour, yeast, and salt in bowl of standing mixer fitted with dough hook. With mixer on low, add water mixture. After dough comes together, increase speed to medium and mix until shiny and smooth, 4 to 6 minutes. Turn dough out onto heavily floured work surface, shape into ball, and place in greased bowl. (To make dough by hand: Combine dry ingredients in large bowl, make well in center of dry ingredients, add wet ingredients, and mix with wooden spoon until shaggy dough forms. Turn dough out onto heavily floured work surface and knead until shiny and smooth, about 10 minutes.) Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rest in warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add beef and cook until just beginning to brown, about 6 minutes, breaking up any large clumps. Using slotted spoon, transfer beef to paper towel-lined plate.
Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat from pan. Add onion and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add cabbage and toss until just beginning to wilt, 2 to 4 minutes. Return beef to pan and season with salt and pepper.

Assembly & Baking
Adjust oven racks to the upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 350 degrees. Coat 2 baking sheets with cooking spray. Divide dough into 8 equal pieces. Working on lightly floured work surface, roll each piece of dough into 7-inch circle. Place one dough round in deep cereal bowl and top with one slice of cheese. Spoon 3/4 cup filling over cheese and pinch edges of dough together to form bun. Transfer bun, seam side down, to prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, cheese, and filling, placing 4 buns on each baking sheet. Cover buns with plastic wrap and let rise until puffed, about 20 minutes.
Bake buns until golden brown, about 20 minutes, switching and rotating position of baking sheets halfway through baking time. Brush buns with melted butter and serve.

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