Ballin’ (featuring Basketball Burger Buns)


JoAnn Fabric stores give me migraines.

So does Michael’s Arts and Crafts.

They induce big, pulsating, knife-through-my-brain headaches that turn the colorful aisles of doodads and tchotchkes into dark, scabrous caves collapsing in around me. The plastic bins of puffy stickers and colored ribbons that would have sent a younger version of me into an orgasmic frenzy feel as though they’re being applied to my skin with a burning hot glue gun. I think I might puke if I see one more photo of a mom and her kids laughing together at the sheer thrill of their own crafty competence.

I have never successfully completed any of the projects I’ve bought at those stores. I’m just not artistic in that way.

The problem is that the frenzied child deep down inside me still thinks all that plastic is cool. She still thinks there’s a chance for us to be crafty, her and me, and she turns the steering wheel when I had planned on going straight home.

But after what happened last month, I’ve put that inner child on a time out.

My clients had set the menu for their big March Madness event. It would be an afternoon of passed apps with a sports-bar-food focus: bacon and corn cheese balls with flecks of thyme, mini cheeseburgers with caramelized red onions on homemade rosemary buns, stuffed peppers with Wonderland mole sauce, and pulled pork sliders. It was a fun menu. I was eager to start cooking, but there was still another week to go before the party.

That’s when I got the email.

The client had been mousing her way through March Madness ideas on Pinterest and found pictures of cheeseburger buns painted like basketballs. She wondered if I could make that happen for her party.

And that little girl inside me, the one who believes I have perfect eye-hand coordination, started jumping up and down with excitement. Not only would the guests be dazzled by my delicious homemade burger buns, but they’d be enchanted by my attention to detail and artistic ability! Off I went to JoAnn Fabric to buy some skinny paint brushes and edible non-toxic orange paint and black paint.

I thought I should bake a small batch of buns as a test run, just to make sure I knew what I was doing on the big day. After the buns had cooled, I sat at the wooden Ikea table in the breakfast nook off our kitchen. It was the perfect day to enjoy this small, daylit room– with the sun beaming down, filling me with inspiration.

I stirred a drop of water with a dollop of orange paint in a metal prep bowl and began to apply the first layer of color onto the basketballs buns. Note to self, the rosemary in the buns is making the tops too bumpy. I guess they need to be plain buns. I played with the color, trying to remember exactly what tint of orange a basketball really is, and produced about 20 acceptable first-coated balls.

But then I met my match. Guiding the ultra-thin brush from the tiny pot of black paint onto each bun to create the seams of each ball was truly challenging.

Well, this just takes time to figure out, I thought to myself.

But they didn’t seem to be getting any better. The brush would run out of paint mid-seam, so I’d reload the bristles and create a sudden heavy line in the middle of the bun. My lines were shaky and I was getting food paint all over everything.

I started to feel my inner tantrum approaching. Every jittery basketball bun brought back another failed attempt at art throughout my life. I hallucinated my more artistic friends around the table, creating such realistic basketball buns that Michael Jordan would be impressed. But mine looked like a blind 4-year-old had made them (no offense to blind 4-year-olds.)

The next morning, I returned to Joann Fabric. I needed to see if there was any other paint system for food. I found something promising: Wilton edible paint pens.

Crafting is fun!

I went home and made another batch of buns. I oranged this batch no prob and then started to draw on them with the pens. This was better for sure. They still looked more homemade than I had hoped, but it was much easier to paint steadily with the pens. I let this batch sit for an hour to dry.

But dry they would not. Not in an hour, not in 5 hours. Beyond frustrated, I put them in the freezer overnight. Something has to set this goddamned ink! But the next morning they were still smudgy. Francis said that the guests at the party wouldn’t care, but there was no way I was going to serve 175 people food that could rub off on their hands or clothes!

I sent the client an email to say that I didn’t think the basketballs were possible and I wept in my husband’s arms like a child that got nothing but lumpy sweaters for Christmas.

And then Francis did the best thing: he went to a real cake decoration store (Blake’s Decorette Shop) and found me a food paint pen that set immediately. My buns were still not perfect, because drawing isn’t my A-game, but the client was thrilled, and the guests cheered when they saw the basketball burgers.  They were devoured.

I won’t be spelunking at Joann Fabric any longer.  I think the migraines are fueled by the close-but-no-cigar-ness of those stores. They’re like the Dress Barn of crafts. If you just found a little mom and pop store for your paint/ yarn/ quilt/ food decorating needs, you’d be way more satisfied.

I’m sharing the recipe for my mini burger buns with my recommendation for AmeriColor Gourmet Writer Pens. Wilton pens are garbage for this task unless your guests are looking for stained fingers.

My only other tip is this: if you’re feeling like baking basketball buns for your NBA burgers, let yourself enjoy the task more than I did.

Hey, LeBron, want a bite!?!

Basketball Burger Buns


  • 2 teaspoons yeast
  • 1 cup warm water (not hotter than 110 degrees)
  • 3 tablespoons sugar, separated
  • 3 tablespoons melted butter
  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
  • 1 egg
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • ¼ cup instant potato flakes
  • 3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  1. Stir the yeast into the warm water with 1 tablespoon of sugar and let sit for 10 minutes.
  2. When frothy, pour into a bowl of a mixer. Stir in the remaining sugar, the butter, the oil, and the egg.
  3. Using the dough hook, stir in the salt, the potato flakes, and the flour in ½ cup measures until all the flour is incorporated. Knead with the hook (or by hand if you’re not using a mixer) for about 3 minutes. This dough comes together very easily.
  4. Let rise in a lightly oiled, covered bowl for an hour.
  5. Punch dough down and let rise another hour.
  6. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  7. Using an ice cream scoop, measure out equal balls (I get about 15 medium buns or 30 small buns from one recipe.) Flatten the balls on a parchment covered sheet pan and let them rest for about 15 minutes while your oven gets hot.
  8. Bake for 20 minutes (15 minutes for really small buns).
  9. Let cool.  If you’re making basketballs, paint a line through the center horizontally and then a vertical line perpendicular to the first line. Then draw the smaller side loops equidistant from the center vertical line. This gets really obvious really quickly. Have fun!

Paint or not, they’re soft and delicious.


Here’s me making these buns on KATU’s Afternoon Live:

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