Midwest Made: Big, Bold Baking from the Heartland

Nebraskan Runzas

Shauna Sever lived in California for 12 years before moving back to Chicago with her husband and children. But she doesn’t yearn for California cuisine. Instead Sever, the author of the recently released Midwest Made: Big, Bold Baking from the Heartland, embraces her homeland roots and wants people to know we’re not just some huge, homogenous flyover region with bland and boring food.

               “There’s much more variety than people realize about the Midwest,” says Sever, a contributor to the long-running public radio show The Splendid Table, for which she was nominated for an IACP award in 2017. “Every state or every little city or little town has different recipes that are important to the people there.”

Indeed, as Sever sees it, the Midwest represents the great baking traditions of Europe, passed down generationally by immigrant families who settled here over the last century or so. Each dish has its own special history like runzas–yeasted dough baked around a savory meat filling that can conveniently be stuffed in a pocket that are also known as bierocks and krautburgers. In ways, they are like pasties, those Cornish turnovers popular in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which were also good for stuffing in pockets so that miners could take them to work and not have to worry about forks and knives.

“They {runsas} likely originated in Russia in the 1800s, and came to the Midwest with the Volga Germans, a population of German people who lived along the Volga River in southeastern Russia in the 18th century and settled in Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas in the early 20th century,” Sever writes in her introduction to the recipe.

For Michiganders, there’s Bumpy Cake—though I’d never heard of it before flipping through Sever’s book. But it’s the real Michigan deal, created in the early 1900s by Detroit’s Sanders Chocolates company. She also includes a recipe for potato chip cookies popularized around 1940 as a promotional effort by potato chip companies to sell more products. I first tried them at The Southerner, a restaurant on the water in Saugatuck. Owner/executive chef Matt Miller, whose family migrated from Appalachia to Detroit to work in the auto industry, uses his heritage as inspiration for menu items. Hence, his version of potato chip cookies.

Sever says when making this dish, we can use whatever Potato chip brand we want though she notes a really thin, delicate chip like Lay’s Classic work well.

“This variety is very salty, so I only add 1/4 teaspoon of salt to the dough itself,” she says. “The key to these cookies is their salt level, so if you use a lightly salted chip or another brand, taste the dough for salt and see if you’d like a bit more–1/8 teaspoon or a couple of pinches–to achieve the level of salty-sweetness you like. It’s easiest to weigh the amount of whole chips you need, and then crush them in a resealable plastic bag with a rolling pin.”

Potato Chip-Chip Shortbread

               The following recipes are reprinted with permission from MIDWEST MADE © 2019 by Shauna Sever, Running Press

Nebraskan Runzas

Makes 12 sandwiches


21/4 teaspoons instant yeast

3 tablespoons warm water (110° to 115°F)

5 cups unbleached bread flour, spooned and leveled, plus more for dusting

6 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 1/2 cups warm whole milk (110° to 115°F)

1/2 cup/1 stick unsalted butter, melted

2 large eggs, at room temperature

Oil for bowl


2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium-size onion, finely diced (about 2 cups)

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 pound beef (85% lean)

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

4 cups shredded cabbage or cruciferous combination of your choice (see headnote)

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 cups coarsely grated extra-sharp Cheddar cheese

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, for serving

Position racks to the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat it to 350°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Prepare the dough: In a small cup, whisk together the yeast and warm water.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine the flour, sugar, and salt.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the warm milk, melted butter, eggs, and dissolved yeast mixture. Whisk until smooth. Pour into the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon to form a shaggy dough. Set the mixer to medium speed and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, 5 to 6 minutes. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover tightly, and let rise in a warm place for 30 minutes. Punch the dough down, cover, and let rise for another 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling: In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft and just beginning to turn golden, about 5 minutes. Add the ground beef and cook until browned, 5 minutes more. Add the Worcestershire sauce and cabbage and cook until tender, about 8 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the filling to cool. Once cooled, stir in the cheese.

Assemble the sandwiches: Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and divide into 12 equal portions. Roll each portion into a ball, then use a rolling pin to form the dough balls into rough 6-inch circles (if the dough fights you as you’re trying to roll it out, let it rest for 5 minutes and start again). Place a generous 1/3 cup of filling in the center of each circle. Fold half of the dough over the filling, and pinch the edges to seal, rolling them up slightly all around the edge. Place the runzas, seam-side down, on the prepared baking sheets.

Bake until golden, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool on the sheets for 10 minutes. Brush lightly with the melted butter just before serving. Any leftovers reheat well the next day.

Potato Chip–Chip Shortbread

Makes 4 dozen cookies

8 ounces unsalted European-style butter, at room temperature

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled

2 cups finely crushed salted potato chips*

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

1 large egg

1 tablespoon water

A few pinches of granulated sugar

Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 375°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, vanilla, and salt together on medium-high speed until creamy, about 1 minute. Add the brown and confectioners’ sugar and continue to beat until very fluffy, 2 minutes more. Scrape down the bowl well and add the flour. Mix on low speed until a smooth dough forms. Stir in 1 cup of the crushed potato chips and the chocolate chips.

To form the cookies, sprinkle about 1/2 cup of the remaining crushed potato chips onto a work surface in small area, about 10 x 12 inches. Turn out the dough onto the crushed potato chips and pat it into a rough rectangle. Cover the surface of the dough with parchment paper or plastic wrap. Roll the rectangle to a 1/2-inch thickness, about 7 x 11 inches. Remove the parchment or plastic wrap.

In a small cup, beat the egg vigorously with the water and granulated sugar until smooth. Brush the surface of the dough lightly with the egg wash, then scatter the remaining crushed potato chips over the dough. Lightly roll over the dough with a rolling pin to encourage the chips to adhere. Use a bench scraper or large, sharp knife to cut the rectangle into 4 dozen 1 1/4-inch. Transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheets with a bench scraper or small offset spatula, spacing the cookies about 2 inches apart on the cookie sheet.

Bake 1 sheet at a time until set and golden in color, about 13 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 2 minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely—they will crisp as they cool. Store in an airtight container for 3 to 4 days. They taste even better after an overnight rest.

Chocolate Bumpy Cake

Serves 15 to 20


Nonstick cooking spray for pan

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled

2 cups granulated sugar

1/2 cup/ unsweetened cocoa powder*

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 cup well-shaken buttermilk, at room temperature

1/2 cup hot brewed coffee or hot water

1/2 cup vegetable or canola oil

2 large eggs

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Vanilla buttercream:

1 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 cup whole milk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup unsalted butter, at cool room temperature

Fudge icing:

1 cup unsalted butter, divided

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup well-shaken buttermilk

1/3 cup dark corn syrup

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Prepare the cake: Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 350°F. Spray a 9 x 13-inch light-colored metal baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, granulated sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, coffee, oil, eggs, and vanilla. Pour the wet ingredients in the dry. Beat with an electric mixer until smooth. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Set the pan on a wire rack to cool completely.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling: In a 2- to 2 1/2- quart saucepan, whisk together the granulated sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Whisk in the milk. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; boil for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and whisk in the vanilla. Transfer to the bowl of an electric mixer and let cool completely. Beating with the paddle attachment on medium speed, beat in 1 tablespoon of butter at a time. Increasing the speed to medium-high, beat until light and fluffy and resembling whipped cream, about 5 minutes.

When the cake has cooled completely, load the filling into a pastry bag fitted with a 1-inch large round tip. Pipe nine 9-inch lines crosswise over the cake, 1 inch apart. Freeze until the filling is solid, at least 30 minutes.

When the filling is solid, keep the cake in the freezer while you prepare the icing: In a 2- to 2 1/2- quart saucepan, combine 1/2 cup of the butter and the sugar, buttermilk, corn syrup, cocoa powder, and salt. Place the pan over medium-high heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and cook until the mixture reaches 235°F, no higher. Whisk in the remaining butter, 1 tablespoon at a time. Stir in the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla, whisking until the icing is smooth. Remove the cake from the freezer.

Immediately pour the icing in waterfall-like ribbons over the surface of the cake. If needed, gently rewarm any icing clinging to the pan, and pour it again. Freeze the cake until the icing is set, about 15 minutes, or refrigerate until ready to serve. Store any leftovers tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Jane Ammeson can be contacted via email at janeammeson@gmail.com .