“I don’t think this is really a recipe for home,” Liberty Bar’s baker, Ron Sutton, said when I called to get instructions for their perfect house buns. Adapted from Nancy Silverton’s Breads From the La Brea Bakery, it takes three days to get from mixer to oven and results in enough buns to serve Sarah Palin’s rapidly expanding family. But only fanatics would make their own hamburger holders from scratch, I reasoned, so why not give you few a shot at hamburger nirvana. As for the rest of us — those who think a sponge is stored under the kitchen sink when you’re not doing the dishes — sure, you could cut the quantity, or just order a dozen from Liberty when you call in for a Virginia Green’s Chocolate Cake, but the original recipe’s at least worth a read, because, presented here pretty much unedited, it conveys not only the flavor of a superior bun, but of the Liberty Bar kitchen itself, and its legendarily precise recipe tweaker, Dwight Hobart.
— Elaine Wolff
Day One: The Sponge
40 oz. hard unbleached white flour
24 oz. water
16 oz. milk
26 oz. white starter
.6 oz. (one small cake) cake yeast
Dissolve cake yeast in 24 ounces of water in a large non-reactive container. Add and mix all the rest of the ingredients as given above – by hand or using a 30-quart mixer. Cover and refrigerate for at least 18 hours.
Day Two: The Dough
4 lbs. (up to 6 lbs. depending on the humidity) hard unbleached white flour
16 large eggs
1 c. sugar
1/3 c. salt
36 oz. butter
Let butter warm a little bit if it’s been in the refirgerator. Combine the ingredients in a 30-quart mixer, except for the butter, with a dough hook on low speed. While these ingredients are mixing, cut the butter into small chunks and add gradually to the mixing bowl until it is well-incorporated, and the dough is smooth and shiny, but not greasy. The dough should wrap itself around the dough hook and clean the sides of the bowl. It ought to reach an internal temperature of approximately 76 degrees Fahrenheit. Place in a plastic container, cover, and refrigerate for 18 hours.
Day Three: The Buns
Remove dough from container and place on a flat, clean surface. Use a rolling pin to flatten the dough in one piece to a thickness of one-half inch. Cover three baking pans with parchment paper. Cut out the individual buns with a tin can open at both ends. The buns should be approximately 3.5 inches across when first cut (the can Liberty uses seems to be what grocers refer to as a #606 can; the label has been removed but it was probably a 12 oz. can of crushed pineapple). As the buns are cut they will swell slightly; flatten them gently with the palm of your hand until each bun is approximately 4 inches across and .5 inch thick, then place them on a baking sheet. The recipe should make approximately 50-60 buns.
Cover the unbaked buns with a tablecloth and allow to proof until the dough will retain the impression of your fingertip. The buns may double in size. They may not, but they should increase by at least one-half to three-quarters. This state requires experience and judgment. The temperature is important. Avoid the tempation to place the dough in a hot place. Sourdough takes its own time and works best at room temperature unless the room temperature is colder than a well digger’s rear end, in which case you may have to do something else. To reiterate, this procedure takes time. Be patient. On the other hand, do not go off with your thumb up your ass and your mind in Arkansas to return and discover that the dough has become flabby as Bill Clinton’s belly. In that case, the buns may fall in the oven or they may rise dramatically only to reveal a great gaping air space lacking substance when cut (metaphorically Clintonesque once again).
Depending on room temperature, the weather, the initial temperature of the dough and the quality of the starter to begin with, the buns should take at least one hour to rise, most often two hours, and rarely more than three hours.
In the meantime, the oven should be heated to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Oven temperature is crucial when baking. Use an oven thermometer to make sure the oven is doing what you want it to do. The Liberty Bar should have several oven thermometers readily available; if this fails to be the case, complain bitterly to the head cook, manager and owner. Thermometers will appear forthwith. Once the buns have risen to hold the impression of a fingertip, spray them with water and sprinkle poppy seeds over them. Immediately place the baking pans in the 425-degree oven (remove the tablecloth) and bake the buns for 20 minutes until nicely browned. When the buns are done, remove the pans from the oven and allow the buns to cool on the pans in a safe place.