Extinction. Like the Lowland gorilla, the cassette tape and Madagascar forest coconuts, the bialy is rapidly becoming extinct.
Sure, if you live in New York (where the Jewish tenements on the Lower East Side once overflowed with Eastern European foodstuffs that are now hard to locate), you have a few decent options. There’s Kossar’s, the Lower East Side factory that has been wobbling on the line of bankruptcy for years — we’ve never popped in to find anyone besides the counter person there. Non-profit breadery Hot Bread Kitchen makes a version you can find at both their Harlem shop and on Sundays at the New Amsterdam Market. But if you live anywhere else in the country, or the world, it’s not likely that you’ll have the pleasure to enjoy one of these chewy, baked onion-stuffed disks. What a shame.
The bialy is not a sub-type of bagel, it’s a thing unto itself. Round with a depressed middle filled with cooked onions and sometimes poppy seeds, it is simply baked (bagels are boiled, then baked). This means its outside is matte, not shiny, and it doesn’t have that pull-away crust. Large puffy bubbles characterize the bialy’s innards. Though it can be slathered with butter or cream cheese (and topped with cured/smoked fish), purists prefer them straight up, preferably no more than five hours after being pulled from the oven.
Yes, there are bagel shops that offer “bialys,” but beware of the bagel in a bialy’s onion-strewn clothing.
We are not the first to seek out either the origin of the bialy or places to procure authentic examples. Veteran New York Times scribe Mimi Sheraton devoted a book to the topic. The Bialy Eaters traces the foodstuff back to Bialystock, Poland, procuring a hazy idea of where the bread was born. Reached for recommendations beyond the aforementioned bialy purveyors, she comes up empty.
Similarly, pastry chef Elizabeth Falkner took a moment out of prepping her soon-to-open Brooklyn pizza restaurant to lament the lack of a treat that she’s obsessed with, and to share the recipe below (though she notes that it’s an adaptation for home; she prefers to cook them in a wood-burning oven).
Source after source turned the question back to us. Where can you find a decent bialy? At least one that’s close to the real thing?
Palm Beach County, Florida, the mecca of New York Jewish expats, boasts a couple of spots that are worth trying, including Flakowitz (pick up a babka while there) as well as Bagels &….(yes, that is their name). There are reports of bialys in California at San Francisco’s Wise Sons and Manhattan Bread and Bagel in Manhattan Beach.
You would think that with the hub of Polish immigrants in states like Illinois and Wisconsin, bialys would be more prevalent. But alas, it does not seem to be true. Maybe someone should open up a bialy shop. Chef Falkner, we’re looking at you.
- Rice flour for dusting on parchment lined pan
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon poppy seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 onion minced, per bialy
- 17 ounces bread flour
- 9 1/2 ounces all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 4 ounces starter or poolish*
- 1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 2 ounces warm water
- 14 1/2 ounces cold water
*Make the starter or poolish the night before with 1/2 cup flour, 1/3 cup water and 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast. Mix together and leave out at room temperature overnight.
- Combine 2 ounces of warm water with the yeast to dissolve. Combine all dough ingredients together except the salt.
- When dough comes together, knead for 6 minutes.
- Add salt and knead for another 2 minutes. Set aside to rise for 2 hours.
- Roll into a log on a flour dusted surface. Scale out dough at 3 ounces a ball (about 16 bialys total)
- Press each out to shape without overworking and leaving 1" lip around edge.
- Proof dough balls (allow to rise again) in warm spot covered with a clean dish towel for an hour or until soft and airy.
- Sauté onions in 1 tablespoon olive oil until light caramel in color but at higher heat. Make center depression in each one and fill with the filling.
- Sprinkle bialys lightly with poppy seeds and salt.
- Bake at 450 degree oven, preferably on a pizza stone, for about 12-15 minutes.
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