The 24-Hour Cheeseburger Project

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Click here to get the recipe used in this post: The Blue Cheese Bacon Burger.

Not too long ago, the door would close behind me after a long day at the office and I'd head straight to the kitchen. Knives were drawn, fires were stoked, imaginary photo stylists were awed by my plating skills. But I can't remember much more than that, including what exactly I created. And no one else was there to bear witness.

Think of this less as the depressing admission of a young bachelor in Manhattan and more as a blissful prelude to my latest culinary challenge. Now, the stoking and plating is reserved for Friday nights, when I cook for Julie.

Thanks to a new gig in Washington, DC, dinner at my place now requires her to travel more than 200 miles by rail, basically leaving me no choice but to create something worth the trip. At the very same moment, we're rushing toward the same place -- my dinner table -- while fighting the pandemonium around us. She's contending with the train engine din and endless scenes streaming by at Amtrak's disappointing pace. I'm dealing with menu ideas racing through my mind -- mostly bad ones that need to be quickly discarded.

The race begins: It is 6:30 p.m., 4 hours before she's expected.

At the very same moment, we're rushing toward the same place -- my dinner table -- while fighting the pandemonium around us.

This time, I went for something deeply satisfying yet completely underrated as a worthy culinary mission: the bacon cheeseburger. Sure, Tyler Florence has trademarked his Ultimate version on one of my favorite Food Network shows of all time, but a second opinion seemed prudent after he staked his name on something called the Bruschetta Burger at Applebees.

Enter Judy Rodgers, a San Francisco chef I first encountered in The New York Times in 2002, when her Talmudic statements made an immediate impression.

''You want a simple white country loaf, not sourdough, and one that has a coarse crumb with big holes,'' she told The Times. ''Ciabatta is good. But not baguette -- there's too much crust. And you can't start with a fresh loaf because it will be too tender. When I say not fresh I don't mean dried out but a little stiffened, like you would not want to serve it plain."

So I bought her award-winning book, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Unfortunately, the several-page-long essay on cooking an omelette -- full of that same precision and confidence -- sent me back to less demanding instructors for six or seven years.

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Photo by Mike Nizza

Things, as they say, change. Now, I'm older and wiser. Now, my reading comprehension and kitchen experience have prepared me to finally understand the Zuni message. Now, most importantly, I'm cooking for Julie.

On page 366 of Zuni, I found what may be the finest essay on hamburger meat of all time. It begins by recalling the year 1973, when the brothers in charge of the "most revered kitchen in France" turned their attention to a beef preparation seemingly beneath them. "The Troisgros brothers' rogue attitudes," she says, "still color my every culinary decision."


Photo courtesy

Eager to have my many culinary decisions colored by figures as fascinating as they, I gave in. Judy Rodgers, meet Mike Nizza, your most devoted disciple.

Her first directive: burgers cannot be made in a few minutes like Big Macs, which shall quake at the sight of hers, or even in a few hours. This would force even the most earnest of home chefs to stretch their ambitions.

No, her recipe begins an entire day beforehand. Luckily, my planning commenced on Thursday night, just in time to rush out, buy a large chunk of beef chuck, chop it up, and, most important, season it with sea salt. Is this extra step really that important? Judy, of course, has put some thought into this:

I started salting about 20 years ago and found it always made the meat taste better and have superior texture. The salt breaks into the cells and enhances internal juiciness. Surface salting can dry things out, but when you allow enough time for the salt to penetrate, it makes a real difference.

Then I revved up the meat grinder, a gift and a strong indicator both that my friends and family are generous and that my trips to Williams-Sonoma are many. After reacquainting myself with the oft-ignored gadget, I armed it with blades chilled in the refrigerator before pushing through the meat not once but twice, as instructed. I formed patties and moved on to the finishing touches, which I would find outside Zuni's pages.

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Photo by Mike Nizza

Indeed, none other than Tyler Florence provided two more important elements to this dish: slow-sautéed onions with thyme and bacon spiked with cracked pepper, and maple syrup. As Florence fans will attest, this man has a way with bacon and onions.

Just as both of those components received special consideration, so did their accompaniment. French fries would've have been unforgivable at 10:30 p.m., especially with the Burger to Remember. Luckily, Julie's fondness for iceberg wedge salads endures, and I happened to have all the ingredients at hand.

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Photo by Mike Nizza

Last year, we shared a fantastic example at a barbecue barn near Union Square called Applewood, but by our next visit it was dropped from the menu. Back in Washington, I decided to resurrect it. First, I assembled the buttermilk blue cheese dressing from another Florence recipe. The experimental part was reproducing Applewood's masterstroke: the sublime pecans. I toasted mine with freshly crushed red chiles before glazing them with a little more of that maple syrup at the end. Surprisingly close, I thought, while mulling improvements for next time.

With all the components waiting and Julie 30 minutes away, there was one other detail of the burger I wanted to add, and one for which I could find no Zuni wisdom: the cheese. Luckily, repeated visits to The Spotted Pig, the always-packed gastropub in the West Village, had left me with an idea. Their default burger doesn't merely arrive with a slice of cheese melted on top, as Florence would recommend; it's piled high with Roquefort blue cheese. This is the punch that knocks us out every time.


Photo by Adam "Slice" Kuban/Flickr CC

A mystery to confront: How does the Pig get blue cheese to melt without drying into a cruddy mess? With Julie arriving at Union Station, there was no time for research. Force of will -- and a broiler -- would have to do the trick.

It was time for the patties I had carefully guided from chuck roast to near-perfect circles with small indentations in the middle (another helpful tip from Judy) to meet the unmercifully hot bottom of a cast iron pan. Once seared, I moved them into the oven to cook well shy of medium rare. The cheese-melting step would bring them the rest of the way.

Things did not melt as expected. There were slightly dried clumps everywhere, and I started to wonder if adding a creamier cheese (mozzarella?) would have helped recreate the Pig magic. Too late. Searching for solace, I found the surprising words of Judy, who assured nervous amateurs at another point in the recipe that "the flavor and succulence [would] not suffer" if her directions were not carried out exactly. She is really more forgiving than she seems, after all.


Photo by Mike Nizza

When Julie walked in, everything was ready. Except the buns. Damn those buns. Hours before, I nearly aborted the Hamburger Starting Concept when it became clear that Whole Foods was inexplicably sold out of them. After a deep breath, I did what any other man in my position on a Friday night would do: I reached for the challah and prepared for the solemn knife work ahead of me.

Knowing that every second mattered, I grabbed my Shun Classic Ultimate Utility Knife and carved out two convincing buns. Okay, one was convincing, the other merely acceptable. That one, of course, would be mine.

After four hours on our separate quests, we came together at the table, plates before us. While normal folks might simply eat, I had built this up far too much. I wanted -- no, I NEEDED -- her reaction as soon as possible, preferably in the form of a quote worthy of a movie poster. Amid a deep breath and my own unbelievably soothing bite, the absurdity of my hopes emerged in a flash.


Photo by Mike Nizza

Julie didn't come all this way to play restaurant critic, not at this particular moment at least. I finally had my witness, and she was smiling. That's all that mattered.