Eating Jewish: Bialys
I have an affinity for baked goods, both savory and sweet, that runs deep. Since Jewish cuisine is absolutely teeming with baked goods, it provides me with many ways to indulge this passion and I’m determined to try as many as I can (for the sake of my culinary education, of course…). I was recently reminded that the bialy still remained on my “to try” list when I came across this article a few weeks ago, in which readers are told how Brooklyn’s oldest bialy shop was saved from closure by two Muslim businessmen who bought the business. With the intent of preserving the history of the shop, the new owners chose to use the same bialy recipe as the previous owners.
Not as popular or well known as the bagel, bialys are still a significant part of the culinary traditions of the Ashkenazi community. However, bialys are simply not sold in Montreal; I’ve read that this is because there were no immigrants from Bialystok (the home of this bread) that settled in the city. So, I was going to have to make my own. Also, since the consensus seems to be that bialys are best eaten fresh out of the oven, this was clearly the way to go.
Bialys originated in the city of Bialystok, Poland, in a Jewish community that numbered more than fifty thousand before World War II. The locals knew them as kuchen, while outsiders generally referred to them as Bialystoker kuchen or the name used today, bialys. They were so popular in this city that they were sold on almost every street in Jewish areas and they were present at most meals, sometimes even becoming a meal in themselves. When members of the Bialystok Jewish community immigrated to the United States, they brought the bialy with them and began to open bakeries devoted to these savory rolls. With the majority of this community settling in New York, these bakeries were a popular sight in the city, especially on the streets of the Lower East Side.
Admittedly, there are quite a few steps in this recipe and it takes a while to make but don’t let that scare you! This is not a constant hands-on recipe, but rather the majority of the time is devoted to letting the dough rise, something that is done five times for varying amounts of time. Traditionally, raw grated onions are placed in the indentation of the bialy prior to baking, allowing them to cook slightly while in the oven. I wanted a deeper onion flavor so I decided to caramelize the onions until they were soft and sweet prior to placing them on the bialys. Although I haven’t tasted a traditional bialy, I highly recommend this variation. Finally, you may notice in the picture that my bialys puffed up quite a bit during baking, making it so that the indentation is not as defined, as it should be. To avoid this, it’s important to flatten each ball in Step 7 of the recipe, but if this happens to you, just know that they will still taste really great.
Whether you’re a bialy connoisseur or a neophyte like myself, I think homemade bialys are a definite must. The results are soft yeasty, oniony rolls that are delicious topped with a smear of butter or cream cheese soon after they’ve come out of the oven.
Adapted slightly from Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food
1 package active dry yeast (these packages are generally 8 grams which is equivalent to 2 ¼ teaspoons)
1 ¼ cups warm water
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons table salt/sea salt or 4 teaspoons kosher salt
About 3 cups bread flour and more for dusting your work surface
2 medium onions, halved and thinly sliced
3-4 tablespoons of olive oil
Dissolve the yeast in ¼ cup warm water, stir in 1 teaspoon of sugar and let the mixture stand until it is foamy, about 5 to 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine the yeast mixture, the remaining sugar and water, along with 2 cups of flour. Stir to combine and then begin to add the remaining flour until you get a dough that holds together.
On a lightly floured surface, knead the dough for 10 minutes, until it is smooth and elastic. This is a sticky dough, and you’ll have to keep adding flour to your work surface and to your hands while you’re kneading. Place the dough in an oiled bowl and turn to coat the surface. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place until it has doubled in bulk, about 1 ½ to 2 hours.
- While the dough is rising, make the topping. Heat olive oil over medium low heat and slowly cook the onions until they caramelize and turn golden brown. Set aside.
Punch down the dough and knead it for 30-40 seconds. Return it to the bowl, cover, and let it rise in a warm place until it has once more doubled in bulk, about 1 ½ hours.
Punch down the dough and knead for 30 seconds. Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces and roll into balls. Because this dough is quite springy, it can be hard to roll the pieces into balls. I found it made it easier if you fold the ends of the pieces inwards, then beginning to roll with a good amount of pressure, tucking pieces underneath when necessary. Place them on your work surface, cover and let them rest for 10 minutes.
Using the palms of your hands, flatten each ball into a 3 ½ inch round that’s about ½ inch thick. Place on baking sheets lined with parchment paper, cover, and let rise in a warm place until they have increased in size by about half, about 30 minutes.
Using your index and middle fingers, press down in the middle of the dough rounds to create an indentation. Make sure to leave a rim of at least 1 inch around the indentation. Fill the indentations with the caramelized onions. Cover and let the dough rise for 15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Bake the bialys until golden brown, 10 minutes.