We eat a lot of soups in the winter. They are warming, let me use up various vegetables and proteins that may be sitting around in the fridge and are a good antidote for the heavier fare we tend to eat during the holiday season. And, as grocery prices rise, soups are one tool for keeping costs down. To keep things interesting, especially when I have made too much and we are on the second or third night of the same soup, I serve a different breadstuff each night. Some nights it is commercial bread fancied up into garlic bread. Other nights it might be two ingredient biscuits. But when I have the time, I like to make a batch of bialys.
A bialy (pronounced bee-ah-lee in the Eastern European enclave where I was raised) is short for bialystoker kuchen, or bread from Bialystok in Poland. It is a traditional dish in the Polish Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine; rich people ate it with their meal, while for poor people it might have been the entire meal. Of course, I didn’t realize that when I was growing up; all I knew was that my friend’s mother made them nearly every day and if I turned up about the right time, I would be offered one right out of the oven.
Bialys have been described as cousins to bagels. They are the same shape, but instead of a hole in the center, a bialy has an indentation that was traditionally filled with a poppy and caramelized onion mixture. These days they are as likely to be full of things like Nutella, brie or chicken artichoke dip. They are easier than bagels to make, since there is no boiling step in the cooking process; as a result their crust is less shiny and more bread like. Finally, the texture of a bialy is lighter; bagels seem dense by comparison, especially for an evening meal. When I was growing up there were no stores or chains devoted to bagels, but you could find them in every bakery and grocery store. Bialys? Not so much. And over the years they seem to have faded into obscurity, carried in few places besides Jewish delis in urban areas of the east coast or Midwest. In desperation, I learned to make my own, trying the recipes I found in various Russian, Polish or Jewish cookbooks. I finally settled on my favorite, which I found on a bread blog called Alexandra’s Kitchen.
It is my go-to recipe because it is easy and the making of it is spread over two days. I often set up the dough for tomorrow’s dinner while I am making tonight’s soup. It sits on the counter overnight, developing a more interesting, in-depth flavor than the mix and then immediately bake versions I have tried. The other advantage of the slow rise method is that you don’t have to do a long kneading; this can be a stiff dough for a machine to knead and hard on the arms if you don’t own a heavy duty mixer. With this recipe, time and yeast do the work for you, so even though you don’t finish the job until the next day, the actual effort and time are considerably shortened.
You’ll need to make the caramelized onion and poppy filling, or just plain onions which is my preference, early enough that the mixture has time to cool. You don’t want a red hot filling going into the uncooked dough. I nearly always have caramelized onions in my freezer, divided into one cup portions, so that they are ready to use once thawed. I wait until onions are on sale, buy a ten pound bag, and the husband and I spend several eye watering hours peeling, slicing in the food processor, and then slowly cooking them. A pain, but every time I pull out a package of them, I am reminded that doing it all at once means I only had to clean the food processor, pan and splattered stove top one time.
If you have never caramelized onions before, there are three things to know: they shrink considerably while cooking, you need to use a pan that lets you spread them out into one layer so that they fry instead of steaming, and you use a low heat so it takes a long time to bring them to the color of brown that you want.
Bialys freeze well and you can use them much as you would bagels, slathered with butter or cream cheese or as the vehicle for a tasty sandwich. When you slice them in half there will be one side with a hole and the other with filling, but I like that because the sandwich ingredients don’t plop out like they do in the holed bottom of a bagel.
Even after years of making these, I continue to look for ways to improve them or reduce my work. The most startling innovation I recently came across was using pizza dough. Not the cheater dough made from yogurt and self-rising flour, but genuine yeasted dough that you can make yourself or buy in a small plastic bag at the grocery store. Talk about saving time! Of course, it is more expensive to buy the dough pre-made than to make your own. The blog myjewishlearning.com is where I learned that trick. She also has a recipe for gluten free bialys, made with cauliflower, almond flour, parmesan cheese and eggs.
FOR THE BIALYS:
1000 g (7.5 cups) bread or all-purpose flour*
20 g (5 teaspoons) kosher salt
4 g (1 teaspoon) instant yeast
3 cups (680 g) water
FOR THE FILLING:
2 tablespoons olive oil or neutral oil. (Butter will also work but you need to be vigilant to prevent burning. You can use half oil and half butter to get the buttery taste with the forgiveness of oil in terms of burning.)
2 small onions, diced
¼ cup fresh bread crumbs (I often leave these out because I don’t notice much difference with them.)
1 tablespoon poppy seeds plus more for sprinkling (I’m not a huge poppy seed fan so I usually leave those out.)
Whisk the flour, salt, and yeast together. Add the water. Stir with a wooden spoon until combined, then knead gently with your hands to make sure all of the flour is incorporated. The dough should stick to your hands.
Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for at least 12 hours; I have let it rest for as long as 18 hours.* If you spray the plastic wrap with a non-stick spray, you will find it easier to remove. When the dough has risen, remove plastic wrap, and turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Portion dough into equal pieces (They should weigh about 3.5 to four ounces each).
Using lightly floured hands or enough flour to keep dough from sticking to you and your work surface, shape each portion into a ball. Cover balls with plastic wrap, then let rest for 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, place a baking stone or Baking Steel in your oven. It’s OK if you don’t have one, just use a regular cookie sheet. Preheat oven to 450ºF.
Make the filling: Heat the oil over medium or low heat. Add onion and sauté slowly until translucent. Add a pinch of salt. Continue to cook until onion is only slightly brown…better to err on the side of underdone because the onions will get much darker in the oven. Add breadcrumbs and poppy seeds to the pan. Stir to combine.
Shape your bialys into 5-inch rounds with a raised rim and thin center: I do this by first punching down in the center of each dough ball when it is resting on my work surface. Then I lift up the round and with my thumbs in the center of the dough, I gently stretch the dough out so that the center begins looking paper thin, while the rim stays ballooned. It will take a little practice getting your shaping technique/method down, but the truth is that it doesn’t really matter unless you are looking for that really traditional bialy shape — they will taste delicious regardless of the shape.
After shaping each one, place it on a parchment-lined baking pan. Brush each ball lightly with water. Sprinkle sides with extra poppy seeds. Spoon filling into center or scatter it over the top of each. Bake for 8 to 12 minutes depending on your oven.
When lightly golden, remove bialys from oven and let cool on wire rack.
*If you have 00 flour, which is used to make especially thin crust pizzas and pasta, use that for your bialys. The 00 label on the flour tells you it is the finest milled flour that you can buy, almost like baby powder in consistency.
**You don’t have to make these bialys using the no-knead, long, slow rise method.
If you want to make them in the same day, increase the yeast to 2 teaspoons, and decrease the water to 2¾ cups. Knead the dough by hand or in a mixer until smooth and elastic. Let it rise for two hours, then proceed with the recipe. Unless you have a heavy duty piece of equipment, like a Kitchen Aide, this may be hard going for your mixer. In that case, after the initial mixing, when all the ingredients have been incorporated, you can divide the dough in half and knead each section independently. But it will be easier on you and your mixer if you plan to use the long, slow rise method.
(This recipe is from the blog Alexandra’s Kitchen (alexandracooks.com), reprinted with the kind permission of Alexandra Stafford. Her blog and her book Bread Toast Crumbs have been invaluable in advancing my bread baking skills.)