Like almost everyone else in the world, I've never had anything that could truly be called a genuine bialy. Oh sure, I've tried the big puffy things sold in some bakeries and grocery stores that are labeled with the name but, unsurprisingly, those are sorry pretenders. Of course, my situation in this respect is not at all unique.
Why is that so? Because bialys--the real ones--exist today only in the fading memories of a few individuals. According to food writer Mimi Sheraton, who spent years traveling from country to country in her quest to uncover and document the culinary and social history of the bialy, this is true because the specialized culture that originally produced them disappeared into the mist of time. It vanished not by choice but, sadly, because the Nazis destroyed it in 1941. Most of its surviving inhabitants dispersed, and those were the people Sheraton sought out.
In The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World, published in 2000, Sheraton takes readers along on a seven-year trek as she journeys the globe hoping to find and speak with emigres who once enjoyed the daily treat of this fragrant, poppy-seed and onion garnished roll. Ground zero for her quest? The diminutive bread's namesake of Bialystok, Poland.
I happened upon a copy of The Bialy Eaters at the library this summer and it intrigued me. My husband had asked me more than once to try making bialys at home and, not being too familiar with them, I thought the book might lend me insight. After reading it, I was hesitant to give them a try. Described as they were, with bittersweet emotion verging on reverence, I almost felt I'd be trespassing on hallowed ground were I to attempt them.
But my husband didn't give up asking and, last Saturday, I finally set aside time to make a batch. Except for their somewhat disappointing shape after being baked--too fat and rounded with no flat crispy section in the middle--I was pleased with them. I would, though, like to try again, and next time I'll take steps to help ensure a more authentic shape. Not that they could ever really be authentic.
The consensus seems to be that the closest thing to the original bialy--though still not quite like the original--can be found at a bakery called Kossar's in New York City. If I'm ever in the Big Apple, I'd like to stop in and give a Kossar's bialy a try. Until then, I think I can make do with homemade. I'll just have to work on my technique.
About this recipe . . .
I looked over a few contenders before settling on Jeffrey Hamelman's bialy recipe in one of my favorite cookbooks--Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes. I have never had anything but good luck with the formulas in this book, so I figured it was a good bet. I tweaked the onion filling, though. Hamelman's filling doesn't call for poppy seeds, nor does he advise readers to precook the onions at all. I think the inclusion of poppy seeds, particularly, lends something essential. I also added a smidgen of ground black pepper to the mixture.
Having made these once, I don't think the bialy dough-shaping directions are fully sufficient in Hamelman's book. (Sorry, Mr. Hamelman. I make this criticism with all due respect. Aside from this, I think your book is a real treasure, and I say that from the bottom of my bread-baking heart.) A novice bialy baker needs more detail in order to avoid having the bialys puff up, and close up, into little fat donut shapes. Not only that, the directions indicate that you should let the balls of dough proof on "1/4 inch of flour," but there is no explanation of why doing this is necessary. I was dying to know. I've read a couple of theories about it on the internet since last weekend, but don't you think a cookbook author should give such explanations up front? I do. Did I miss something? I desire enlightenment when I'm baking something new, not bewilderment, and that's especially true for me when we're talking about subtle details. Give me too much info versus not enough.
The verdict . . .
Overall, the taste and texture of these bialys was wonderfully satisfying. They're chewy on the outside without the leatheriness of bagels. They have that beautiful onion scent, and what about the yummy little crunch of the poppy seeds? Oh, man. Try one right out of the toaster and butter it while it's still warm, then bite into the crunchy crust. I predict you'll take the bialy, and leave the bagel behind.
(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)
This recipe makes one dozen bialys. I baked mine on a preheated, cornmeal dusted, baking stone set on the lowest rack of my oven.
5 and 1/8 cups of high gluten flour (That's about 1lb. and 6 oz. I actually used 4 cups of high gluten flour, and 1 and 1/8 cups of bread flour because I was a little short on the high gluten. I have found high gluten flour for sale at Whole Foods Market; you can scoop your own there and buy just as much as you need.)
13 oz. water (slightly over 1 and 1/2 cups)
2 tsp. salt (I used kosher, and actually used 2 and 1/2 tsp.)
3/4 tsp. instant yeast (not active dry)
Onion and poppy seed filling:
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. fresh white bread crumbs
2 Tbsp. poppy seeds
ground black pepper to taste
To make the filling:
In a small pan, heat 2 Tbsp. of vegetable oil and saute the onions until softened but not translucent.
Dump the onions into a small bowl and stir together with the bread crumbs, poppy seeds, and pepper. Cover this and set it aside at room temperature for at least a couple of hours.
To make the dough:
In the large bowl of your mixer, with the dough hook attachment, place all of the ingredients for the dough. (You do not need to proof instant yeast. You can just toss it in there with everything else right at the start--pretty neat, huh?) Mix on the lowest speed for 3 minutes to combine. Continue mixing for about 5 or 6 more minutes; if your mixer will let you knead yeast dough on second speed, use it now. If you're confined to using first speed for all kneading (as I am with my 6 quart KitchenAid mixer, per their dire warnings regarding this kind of thing), that's okay too.
The dough should be a dense springy mass when you're done, tacky but not sticky. (And, if you're into taking your dough's temperature, Hamelman says it should be about 76 degrees Fahrenheit at this point.)
Put the dough in a bowl that's been sprayed with vegetable spray or lightly greased with vegetable shortening. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and cover that with a dish towel.
Let the dough rise at warm room temperature for two hours total, but one hour into the rising time, uncover it, put it on a floured surface and quickly give it a quick stretch and fold. It doesn't need any more than that at this point so don't overhandle. Put it back in the bowl, cover it again, and let it continue rising.
Divide the risen dough into 3 oz. pieces (very helpful to have a food scale on hand for this, but if you don't have one just try to divide it evenly into 12 pieces). Round each piece tightly into a smooth ball, creating a surface tension. Seam side down, place the balls onto baking sheets that have been covered with 1/4 inch of flour. Then cover the balls lightly with plastic that's been sprayed or greased so it won't stick to the dough, and cover that with a dish towel. Let the dough proof fully (ie., have its final rise), on the sheets for 1 and 1/2 hours.
Begin preheating your oven and baking stone at 480 degrees (yes, 480) at least half an hour before you'll need to bake. You want it to be completely hot when the dough goes in.
To shape the balls in preparation for baking, take each one in your hand and press both thumbs into its center, creating an indented hollow; don't make a hole through the dough. Rotate the ball of dough while turning it with your thumbs, stretching the middle so it ends up looking like a plate with a thick rounded rim. Make the bottom dough membrane a couple of inches wide, at least, and don't be shy about this. You want the bialy to bake up with a thin crisp middle section (do as I say, not as I did when I made these the first time!).
Place the shaped pieces of dough onto your cornmeal-dusted baker's peel (the thing you'll use to slide them onto your baking stone, if you're using one). Fill each one with at least one rounded teaspoon (more if you prefer) of the onion filling. Spread a bit of it up the sides if you like, getting some of the poppy seeds on the doughy rim.
Slide the filled dough pieces onto the preheated stone. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Look for bialys that are lighly golden, not overbaked or dried out. Take them out as soon as they're done, and enjoy!
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