Several years ago, my friend Lisa described moving to Utah to school from the Midwest. What she, and her friend Wendy missed most about Nebraska were the cabbage and hamburger-stuffed buns called runzas. Runzas are kind of like Hot Pockets, but are actually tasty and not horrid. They tried many times to replicate their memories of a soft, almost sweet dough with savory filling, only to fail time after time. It was my turn to bring Lisa dinner after the birth of her last child, and I was determined to find a good runza recipe to make as a special treat. I went down to Borders Books (when there was such a thing) and found a recipe for runzas in America's Best Lost Recipes. They were delicious. I made them for Lisa, and I've been making them for my family ever since. Runzas are one of my husband's favorite dinners.
I usually double this recipe, because as long as you're making them, you might as well make 20 of them. I don't double the ground beef, but I do use the whole head of cabbage. While I respect the humble seasoning of this peasant dish (really, runzas come from Volga Germans, who settled in Russia and then immigrated to the Midwest,) I can't help but spice up the filling with whatever I have on hand. I've used a dry chimichurri spice, or a mix of paprika and other savory spices. Generally, I just throw spices in a little at a time and taste the filling as I go. The dough is on the sweet side, so a savory filling works best, but you could sub in all kinds of other fillings with whatever mix of meat and vegetables you might have. I'll chop up green olives, hardboiled eggs, or anything else I might have, too (I prefer a more empanada-type filling.) I bet you could fill it with BBQ pulled pork and it would be outstanding. The regular recipe is supposed to make 8 runzas if the dough is divided evenly, but I usually just eyeball the pieces of dough, making smaller buns for the kids and larger ones for grownups, so you can get about 10-12 buns out of a single recipe. If I remember in time, I will go to the deli and ask for American cheese slices, it really does melt well. However, I'm just as likely to use cheddar, or any other cheese I have on hand, because why bother with a special trip? This recipe is adapted from one of my favorite cookbooks, America's Best Lost Recipes from the Cook's Country people. It is a wonderful book full of all kinds of unusual recipes that come from the traditions of immigrants to the U.S., and home grown dishes, too. I highly recommend getting your own copy.
Recipe for Runzas
3/4 cup warm water
1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
1/4 vegetable oil
2 Tbl Sugar
1 large egg
3 1/2 cups flour
2 packages instant yeast
1 tsp salt
2 tsp Shirley J dough enhancer (optional, but it helps!)
3 Tbl unsalted butter
1 1/2 lbs ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 small head of cabbage, cored and chopped (about 3 cups)
Spices such as paprika, oregano, allspice, sage, rosemary, cayenne, or thyme (depends on your taste)
Salt and Pepper
10 slices of deli American cheese
Optional: chopped green olives, hardboiled egg, minced carrots or celery
Mix water, sweetened condensed milk, oil, sugar, and egg in a bowl. Place flour, yeast, and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer and whisk a little to combine. Fit the mixer with a dough hook. Add water mixture on low until dough comes together. Increase speed to medium and mix until smooth and shiny, about 4-6 minutes. Shape dough into a ball and place into a greased bowl (I usually clean the mixing bowl and grease that.) Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about an hour.
Melt 1 Tb butter in a large skillet over medium high heat. Sweat the onions until softened, add the ground beef and cook until just browned, about 6 minutes, breaking up large clumps, salt and pepper to taste, spice the meat as you like. Transfer the beef to a paper-towel lined plate. Pour off all but 2 Tbl of fat from the pan and add the cabbage. Salt and pepper it, add spice, toss until just beginning to wilt, about 2-4 minutes. Return beef to the pan and adjust seasonings. Remove from heat and put into a bowl to cool slightly.
To Assemble and Bake:
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, turn on oven to 350 degrees with oven racks in upper middle and lower middle positions. Punch down and divide the dough into 10 pieces. Working on a lightly floured surface, roll each piece of dough into a circle, trying to keep the middle higher than the edges. Place dough round into a small cereal bowl and line it with a slice of cheese (sometimes I need to break the slices to fit in the bottom.) Spoon about 1/2-3/4 cup of filling over the cheese and pinch up the edges of the dough together to form a bun (I usually pinch opposite edges together, until the runzas come together. Place the bun on the parchment lined pan. Repeat with the remaining buns until 9-10 buns are on the sheets. Cover with a clean cloth and let rise in a warm place until puffed, about 20 minutes. Bake in the oven until golden brown, about 20 minutes, switching and rotating the pans in between the racks halfway through baking time. Brush the warm buns with melted butter and serve. Runzas keep nicely wrapped in foil in the fridge for several days, or you may wrap them individually in plastic wrap and freeze them, defrosting in the microwave as you'd like.