Bialys, Bialystok’s Lost Onion Rolls
By Food Perestroika
Everybody knows what a bagel is, but what about a bialy? “It’s like a bagel without a hole,” will say people who’ve had one. And these people have a point: bialys are generally sold in bagel shops, they’re good vehicles for cream cheese, they’re round, and their centers aren’t hollow. Both bialys and bagels come from Poland and are Jewish staples best consumed on New York’s Lower East or Upper West Side. But it’s not that simple…
Bialy is short for bialystoker kuchen, and is a kind of bun hailing from the Polish city of Białystok. Once upon a time, Bialystok’s Jewish population ate them pretty much at every meal. This brought on the mockery of the rest of the country, which didn’t quite understand the microclimatic obsession and called the Jews “Bialystoker kuchen fresser” — bialy eaters. If you really wanna know everything about bialys, I’d recommend Mimi Sheraton’s The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World, an entire book dedicated to the forgotten and misunderstood little bun that manages to keep its readers interested despite its very narrow scope.
Kossar’s bialy dough recipe, as reported by Mimi Sheraton, is the following: 100 lb high-gluten flour, 7 gal ice water, 2 lb salt, 1 lb yeast. Each roll weighs 85 g / 3 oz and is 10 cm / 4″ in diameter. The recipe from Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes is almost the same. My version, while following the same water to flour ratio, presents several differences from what I had during my LES deli crawl:
- In some respects, it’s closer to the original bialystoker kuchen, as it features a crispy center, a brown crust, and poppy seeds. My onions are raw and sliced instead of diced, because this is how some Bialystokers recall them being prepared in their hometown, and because after making my own comparisons (diced, sliced, dried, caramelized, mixed with breadcrumbs), this is how I like them best. Funny, you may say, that someone like me who spends his time poo-pooing tradition would all of a sudden decide to follow it to a T. But there’s a good reason for that: the brown crust and crispy center are what makes the bialy truly original and addictive. And it has be eaten straight out of the oven! I can’t insist enough. A cold bialy isn’t nearly as interesting.
- Then I have a few changes of my own. I’m adding a small amount of honey to the dough, which is guaranteed to get the purists grunting in disbelief but brings a welcome hint of sweetness and flavor. If this is too much heresy for you, just skip it! I’m also using smoked salt in the dough, because the original bialys were baked in wood-fire ovens. It doesn’t make a major difference in the result, just enough for effect. Finally, I brush the bialys with melted butter as soon as they come out of the oven (and I also sprinkle them with fleur de sel). I love butter, and butter’s the best topping for a bialy. I encourage you to slather on a lot more, but a little stroke of melted butter already permeates the dough quite durably.
Finally, let me expand on that crisp center business. It’s not easy as it seems! Since heat makes the dough rise, the center will both shrink and thicken during baking. So you have to really stretch the dough until it’s paper thin if you want the center to be crispy (don’t even be afraid to tear it slightly in the process). But the more you handle the dough, the less perfectly round your bialy will be, which means it will brown less evenly. Just compare the batch in the above picture (which I should have baked a tiny bit longer in the first place) with an earlier iteration of my recipe below, wherein the roll’s shape and browning are nearly impeccable, but the center is not thin enough to get crispy. Another approach that would be worth testing is to prick the center with a fork (just like an Uzbek flatbread). No matter how many times you make a recipe, there are always more things to try…