Citizens, your old-school Despot – the OG who ALONE is TFD! – is a fan of this nostalgic school lunch sandwich, which was just featured on Gastro Obscura! In that article, they expounded:
In the late 1950s, a school district in Washington’s Yakima Valley received an excess of subsidized cheese. Faced with the abundance of dairy, the food services supervisor (or, by other accounts, a local cafeteria cook) invented a new sandwich that soon appeared on cafeteria menus: the Cheese Zombie.
The Cheese Zombie is essentially a grilled cheese cake that’s baked with fresh dough. Zombie-makers begin by placing American cheese slices between rolled-out sheets of dough. Before placing the giant sandwich into the oven, they pinch the dough together to seal it—no one wants to lose any of the cheese—then top with a brush of melted butter to create a soft, brown crust. When they’re finished, the individual sandwiches are cut much like a sheet of cake.
The result is easy to eat with one hand, hearty, and terrific with tomato soup. And, unlike the typical toast used in grilled cheese, the bread in a Zombie is like a soft pizza crust.
Yakima Valley school districts still make the meal, and nostalgic adults can get their Zombie fix from one of the many small shops in the area that also serve the sandwich. It’s especially popular at Halloween, perhaps due to its name.
This article from the Yakima Herald goes deeper into the origin story of the Zombie:
About Cheese Zombies
A Cheese Zombie is sort of like a grilled cheese sandwich, except with bread dough. They are baked in large sheets, with slices of cheddar cheese baked between layers of dough.
The origin of the Cheese Zombie is the stuff of legends in the Yakima Valley. According to a 2005 article by James Joyce III in the Yakima Herald-Republic, the Zombie was created by M.J. Sabinish, a cook for the former Broadway-Stanton School District, which merged with the Yakima School District in the mid-’60s. According to son Mike Sabinish, who was a baker at Garfield Elementary at the time, they were invented at least around 1959.
But according to a recent obituary, the Cheese Zombie was invented by Dorothy Lucille (Pelley) Finch of Grandview, who died May 25. Finch was the School Food Service Supervisor for the Grandview School District starting in 1956, the obituary said. She was credited with helping create the national school breakfast program and serving on a legislative committee for the American School Food Association.
Sadly, I have been unable to locate any of Finch’s survivors to get more of that story.
Regardless of origins, Zombies have a statewide following and are served in Yakima schools to this day.
The origin of the name may be more unknown than the original creator. “We always have them on Halloween,” said the cook manager at Garfield, Cindy Herring, in the 2005 article. Or maybe the name has something to do with the color.
My horror-film loving husband and I came up with a new theory, based on what new Zombie chef Linda Davis told us about her process. It takes two hours for her to make her Zombies, because there is yeast in the dough.
Just like the undead, Cheese Zombies need time to rise.
After searching at length, I found a great recipe for Zombies on materialmama.typepad.com, where it was served in a Bay Area school cafeteria, meaning these Zombies had spread across the entirety of the West Coast from their epicenter in Yakima!
As noted on her blog:
What is a Cheese Zombie you ask? Nope not a cheese covered dude from Walking Dead. It’s nirvana and heaven mixed together and stuffed with generous cheese in a soft spongy bread thats been soaked in butter before baking. I always thought this particular item was just a local Walnut Creek thing, but then a teacher I worked with in Elk Grove went to Ygnacio Valley and had them too!
The bread was so soft and airy that we could squish them into cubes roughly the size of a golf ball. I craved them with each of my pregnancies, but never seemed to be near a school that served them at lunchtime.
Perhaps it is just that they were the bright spot in my life, perhaps they are a reminder of my youth. Regardless, I have been on and off on a mission to recreate the beloved Zombie for the last 15 years or so.
I e-mailed the head of Food Services for the Mount Diablo Unified School District (duh should have done this 15 years ago LOL) Her name is Jana Harrison and I’ll be in her ‘Zombie Debt’ forever. Please send her a thank you or well wishes if you remember these fondly or find them tasty! Here was her reply:
You can’t believe the number of requests we get for the recipe. We use American cheese but have also used mozzarella when making pizza-type zombies. Good luck with the recipe. The test of a true zombie baker is to have no “leakers”, where the cheese melts out of the dough You can post to your group, but you may want to test the recipe first. We recently revised the home size version as it had too much yeast. We haven’t had anyone use it since the revision.
Happy “leak-free” baking,
They gave me permission to print it out here so to all you Northgate and MDUSD grads, this is my gift to you all. Go forth and bake!
Citizens, I could not resist jazzing this recipe up a bit – in my case, by adding some optional thinly-sliced scallions and a hint of equally optional mustard to the cheese and some very optional oregano to the tops. Feel free to omit all of these for the classic Zombies! These also remind me a great deal of Nebraska’s Runza sandwich (recipe also here on TFD!), except without the meat component.
Battle on – The GeneralissimoPrint
The Hirshon West Coast Cheese Zombies
- Total Time: 0 hours
- To make 2 1/2 pounds of dough:
- 2 cups warm water
- 1 1/2 – 2 Tablespoons yeast
- 6 cups bread flour
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 – 1 1/2 teaspoons salt (depending on taste)
- 1/4 cup butter
- For the filling:
- Velveeta Cheese
- Scallions, thinly-sliced (light green and white part only – VERY optional, this is a TFD addition. Omit for classic Zombies)
- Your favorite Mustard (Very optional, this is a TFD addition. Omit for classic Zombies)
- Melted butter to brush on cooked Zombies
- Crushed dried oregano to sprinkle on top of Zombies (Very optional, this is a TFD addition. Omit for classic Zombies)
- Dissolve yeast in warm water. Add remaining ingredients and mix with dough hook about 10 minutes until the dough no longer sticks to the sides of the bowl. Dough should be soft and pliable. Let dough rest a few minutes then divide into 1-pound portions. Roll the portions into logs. Cut each log into 5 equal pieces.
- Use 1 ½ to 2 oz. of Velveeta cheese per zombie, plus sufficient optional mustard to very lightly coat the cheese slices. If using optional scallions, sprinkle on the mustard. Lay the cheese on top of each dough slice, then pull dough up from the sides to cover filling. Pinch closed very carefully.
- Place zombies pinched side down on parchment paper or a greased cookie sheet pan (parchment works best). Brush with melted butter. Let rise until almost doubled in size. Bake @350 degrees until brown on top, about 15 to 20 minutes.
- Brush with more melted butter, sprinkle optional oregano on top (if using) and serve immediately.
- Prep Time: 0 hours
- Cook Time: 0 hours
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