There are some things worth making and there are some things better made by someone else. It goes without saying that the borderline between these two categories is entirely objective and open to dispute. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette recently featured a mother who makes her own toilet paper and her kids' diapers. I admire this woman's initiative and determination to put her crafting talents to good use, but I will never, under any circumstances, make panty liners for my girlfriends. This anecdote may not be in good taste for a food blog, but you have to admit that it illustrates my point. Some things just don't seem worth it.
This truism holds, well, true in the world of comestibles, too. Sometimes it's a certain ingredient that will make me change the page in my cookbook. Sure, I can get away with substituting beef stock for veal stock, kosher salt for gray sea salt, black cod for sea bass; but there's no good substitute for (too expensive) leg of lamb. Ditto for lobster tails. More often, though, it's some complicated technique that's just not worth it. I won't stuff sausage casings. I won't make cherry-tomato cups. Don't even try to talk me into puff pastry. My first and last effort was laughable and cryable at the same time and not in the "I'm so happy, I feel like crying" way you get when your college roommate walks down the aisle in a poofy white dress.
On the other hand, recipes I once deemed too frou-frou, fussy, and a waste of good time sometimes quietly beg me to give them a chance only to worm their way into my good favor. Homemade crackers, it seems, are sometimes in order. I'm now proselytizing homemade ricotta. And I'll never buy carbonated water again. I have a penguin in my kitchen that makes it for me when I press its beak.
But hamburger buns? Really? Aren't hamburger buns meant to be the edible equivalent of book ends? They satisfactorily fulfill their structural function by lending support to what would otherwise become a messy pile, but that's about it. Right?
Well, I have been disburdened of this naivete. Homemade hamburger buns, it turns out, are worth it. And it sort of makes sense, doesn't it, especially when you've gone to the trouble of gently forming your patties, babysitting them at the grill, and dressing them with fresh lettuce, tomato, and onion. This especially goes for any of you out there who--in defiance of burger purists, but in line with certain fancy-schmancy French chefs--are concocting burger variations studded with pine nuts or topped with foie gras. Le burger, the Times this week proclaimed, is now Paris-chic. The recipes featured in the accompanying article call for "sesame-seed hamburger buns" (the Cafe Salle Pleyel burger), "whole wheat English muffins" (the Cocotte burger), and no bun at all (the Yves-Marie Boudonnec). There's nary a homemade bun in sight. I doubt I'll be sourcing foie gras for my burgers (which is one of those ingredients that will make me pass over a recipe, not, I must admit, for ethical but for financial reasons), but I'll be one-upping the French with my homemade buns this summer.
This recipe is super simple. The only hard part is sitting around and waiting for the dough to rise, and when you have central air conditioning, that's not very hard at all. The dough is easy to work with and rises with gusto. When baked, the buns come out glossy on the outside, chewy on the inside, with a flavor and crumb similar to challah bread. I like best that they're slightly misshapen, which is the badge of domestic ingenuity. But the mottled surface and rippled edges of these buns also make them sort of Paris-chic. They're the culinary equivalent of a messy ponytail and smudged eyeliner. We'll call them Pittsburgh-chic. I'm not sure what that means but, for me at least, that alone makes them worth it.