Bialys may not be well known here in the North, better known for its lefse, potica, kolache and limpa. Yet it’s familiar in that way that so many cultures share a common bond when it comes to carbohydrates.
A bialy is a bit like a bagel, in that it’s round and chewy, and yet it’s not. It’s a bit like a kolache, in that its central divot sports a filling, and yet it’s not.
Bialys are filled with a mixture of sautéed onions and poppy seed, and the dough tips toward the salty side, which brings them into the realm of a perfect bread for upcoming evenings of soup suppers.
Dunkable? Absolutely. And if some of the onion bits tumble into the soup, that’s a win.
Bialys have their roots in Eastern Europe and Jewish culture, originating in the small city of Bialystok in northeastern Poland.
The town gained a tragic history during World War II, when Nazis burned down the central synagogue, trapping many Jews inside. Others fell victim to the Holocaust. Immigrants who fled to New York established a strong Jewish community on the Lower East Side, complete with bakeries.
Lore holds that a baker, in the midst of harried work, dropped a round of dough on the floor.
We’ll let Mimi Sheraton, grande dame of New York food writing, take it: “Someone else, not seeing it, came over and stepped on it. The baker, not wanting to waste it, picked up, smeared on poppy seed and onion, baked it, tasted it, and declared a eureka moment in bread history.”
This account comes from Sheraton’s book, “The Bialy Eaters,” a regional history as told through its iconic bread. As with many cherished traditions, she found that authenticity varies — inevitable over the course of time, with its changing techniques, ingredients and memories. The authentic bialy is the one you grew up with. For newcomers, this recipe could become that measure.
One note: The dough is quite sticky, which gives bialys their trademark chewiness and blistered crust. A stand mixer with a dough hook will make the kneading process immeasurably easier. If you have only a bowl and your hands, you can work the dough in the bowl with wet hands, scooping and stretching until it’s springy, about 10 minutes.
Bialys are best eaten the day they’re baked, but the final step comes together quickly, enabling you to serve them warm for dinner. Any leftovers refresh nicely in a warm oven for breakfast. A schmear of cream cheese, and you’re off.
Note: This recipe is adapted from those in “The Bread Bible” by Rose Levy Berenbaum, “Bread Illustrated” by America’s Test Kitchen, and joepastry.com. Recipe may be doubled.
• 2 c. bread flour, plus 1 tbsp. if necessary, and extra for rolling dough
• 1 tsp. instant yeast
• 1 1/2 tsp. salt
• 3/4 c. water plus 2 tbsp.
• Oil or cooking spray
• 2 tsp. canola oil
• 3/4 c. finely chopped yellow onion
• 1 tsp. poppy seeds
• 1/4 tsp. salt
• 1/4 c. flour for shaping indentation
In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together flour and yeast, then add salt. With mixer on low, slowly add water, mixing for about 1 minute. Raise the speed to medium (4 on a KitchenAid) and continue mixing for 7 minutes. The dough should clean the sides of the bowl, but still be soft and elastic. If it sticks to the sides, add additional tablespoon of flour. (By hand, work the dough in the bowl with wet hands, scooping and stretching for about 10 minutes until smooth and springy.)
Scrape dough into a bowl lightly coated with oil or cooking spray. Flip so that all surfaces are oiled, then cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper and oil or spray with cooking spray.
Scrape risen dough onto a well-floured counter and cut into 6 equal pieces. Using well-floured hands, shape each piece into a ball by forming it over your middle finger and pulling dough down and around, pinching closed at the bottom, forming a smooth top. Place on baking sheet, flour the tops, then cover with plastic wrap and a clean dish towel. Let rise for about 1 hour, or until slightly puffy.
In the meantime, heat oil in saucepan, then add onions, sautéing about 5 minutes, or until soft and translucent. Off heat, stir in poppy seeds and salt. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees at least 30 minutes before baking.
Place 1/4 cup flour on a small plate. Spray or oil the bottom of a 1/2 cup measuring cup, then dip in flour. Press cup firmly into the center of each dough round until the cup touches the sheet to make an indentation. Repeat, re-flouring the cup each time. Use your fingers to even out the indentation, then use scissors to snip several notches in the bottom. (This helps keep the bialy flat while baking.)
Divide the onion mixture evenly among the bialys, smoothing with the back of a spoon.
Bake until pale brown and mottled with darker brown spots, about 12-15 minutes. Serve warm.
Bialys may be reheated, wrapped in foil, in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes.
Nutrition information per bialy:
Calories 200 Fat 3 g Sodium 690 mg
Carbohydrates 37 g Saturated fat 0 g Total sugars 1 mg
Protein 6 g Cholesterol 0 mg Dietary fiber 2 g
Exchanges per serving: 2½ starch.