The bialy is an elusive creature. Most bialys I have encountered have been less than stellar, with a large number of them falling into the category of actually being just flat out terrible. It’s a lot like the search for a good bagel (at least, the search for a good bagel here in the Pacific Northwest). Mass produced grocery store bagels are just awful, let’s admit it. And grocery store bialys…well, so there are really no such things as grocery store bialys, since a bialy is not nearly as well known a commodity as a bagel, which actually has the benefit of saving the bialy from a fate as sad as that known by most bagels.
What I am saying is, a good bialy is hard to find. When I worked at a coffeehouse many years ago (as the vast majority of people who moved to Portland in the ‘90s were contractually obligated to do), I was always tasked with explaining to customers what those flat things covered with cheese that sat next to the bagels were. It’s a bialy, I would say, and then I would launch into an explanation of what a bialy was, only to end up having to close the speech by then warning whomever I was talking to that the bialys sold by that particular coffeehouse were not, sad to say, very good. They were, in fact, terrible. (Tangent: With the exception of some truly incredible cinnamon rolls and the twice-weekly batch of fresh shortbread cookies that I always made on my shift, the majority of the baked goods offered at this coffeehouse were just horrible. In particular, I will never forget the shamefully bad scones we sold there: chewy, tough little numbers flavored with almond extract and seemingly made by someone who had never, ever encountered an actual scone before in his or her entire life—seriously, these things were like tiny little loaves of flat, stale bread, and I never understood how the bakery we got them from was even allowed to call them scones.)
A good bialy is crisp on the outside, slightly chewy in the middle, and light throughout. The dough should have a deep flavor, like good artisan bread. The filling should be a nice dollop of sweetly sautéed onions and a touch of poppy seeds. That’s it. Those simple elements combined make one of the most pleasing savory baked goods known to all of humankind, which is why, I believe, the bialy tends to be grossly mishandled most of the time. Each element of a bialy needs to be top notch, giving every bite a component of flavor that stands strong with its companions to complete the overall taste experience.
These bialys, from Rose Levy Beranbaum, do just that. They are perfect in every way, from their chewiness to their strong flavor profiles. If I could go back in time and swap these into the pastry case at my old job, I totally would, just so people could have a proper bialy experience instead of the weird, bland, cheesy one that was sadly offered. Having not mastered the art of time travel, however, I shall simply keep making these lovely little bialys at home, sharing with you and everyone else I know the delights of a classic, delicious bialy.
Last Year: Roasted Eggplant and Tomato Tart
Classic Bialys Recipe
Adapted slightly from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Bread Bible
For the bialy dough:
2 cups bread flour
½ teaspoon instant, rapid-rise yeast
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons (7 fluid ounces) warm water
For the bialy filling:
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup finely chopped onion
pinch of sea salt
1 teaspoon poppy seeds
generous pinch of black pepper
To make the bialy dough, in a large bowl, whisk together the flour and yeast, then whisk in the salt (keeping the salt from coming into direct contact with the yeast as much as possible). If using a stand mixer, fit the machine with the dough hook and turn the speed to low. Kneading on low speed, gradually pour in the water, mixing for about 1 minute until the flour mixture is moistened. Increase the mixer speed to medium, and knead for 7 minutes. If kneading by hand, once the flour mixture is moistened, turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead for 8 to 10 minutes. The fully kneaded dough should be soft and elastic, and should not stick to the bowl or surface when being kneaded.
Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl, turn to coat with oil, then cover with a lid or plastic wrap and allow to rise for about 2 hours, or until the dough has doubled in size.
Firmly press on the dough to deflate it, then transfer it to a floured counter. Cut the dough into 6 equal pieces. Working with one piece of dough at a time, keeping the remaining dough covered, round each piece of dough by pulling the dough together to form a pouch, stretching it make a smooth skin, then pinching it together where the edges meet. Set each round on a floured baking sheet or tray, pinched side down. Lightly flour the tops and cover with plastic wrap.
Allow bialys to rise for around 2 hours, or until almost doubled in size. When pressed lightly in the center, the bialy should keep the impression.
While the bialys are rising for the second time, make the filling. In a small sauté pan, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, add the pinch of salt, then sauté over medium heat, stirring often, for about 5 minutes, or until translucent. Remove from heat, add the poppy seeds and pepper, then stir to combine. Set aside to cool.
Preheat oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. Before preheating, place a heavy sheet pan on the floor of the oven. Adjust an oven rack to the lowest level, and place a heavy baking sheet or baking stone on the rack to preheat along with the oven. Line a rimless or overturned baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper, and set aside.
Working with one piece of dough at a time, hold a piece of dough with both hands. With your thumbs in the middle and almost touching, pinch the center of the dough tightly between your thumbs and first two fingers and stretch the dough to around 5 inches in diameter, forming a crater in the center. Place the shaped dough on the parchment-lined baking sheet. In the center crater of the bialy, spoon a heaping teaspoon of the onion-poppy seed filling. I made three bialys at a time, since I only wanted to bake three bialys at a time.
To bake the bialys, slide the parchment with the bialys directly onto the hot baking stone or heavy baking sheet. Toss a handful of ice cubes onto the hot baking sheet placed on the oven floor (or, if you are way of misplacing the ice cubes, carefully tip the ice cubes from a small plate onto the hot baking sheet placed on the oven floor), then immediately shut the oven door. Bake the bialys for 8 to 10 minutes, or until golden and mottled with brown spots.
Remove the bialys from the oven on their parchment, then discard parchment paper and place bialys on a wire rack to cool until just warm.
Bialys will keep for a day at room temperature, but they are best (read: super phenomenally good) eaten the day they are made.
Makes 6 bialys.