Bialys were a specialty of Jewish bakeries in Bialystock, Poland, before WWII. I imagine that they came about the same way that pizza did in Italy. Excess bread dough was pressed into a convenient shape for eating out of hand and topped with the Ashkenazi favorite fruit, onions.
Jews immigrating to the States and settling in New York brought the flat rolls to America. Their bakeries sold bialys, pletzels, and goods that immigrants nostalgic for the pungent tastes of the old country craved. For while bialys are often eaten at breakfast, they are pungent indeed, with onions, sometimes garlic, and plenty of pepper.
It’s said that bialys never became popular outside of New York. Well, I’ve been living in Israel for so long, I can’t vouch for that. I hope it’s not true, but if so, then the New York bakeries selling these old-world breads have preserved a recipe that would otherwise have vanished, along with the Jewish Polish communities whose daily fare they were, once upon a time.
My recipe began, like the bialys of long ago, with more challah dough than I needed. It’s not conventional, as it has semolina flour and rolled oats. I’ve been adding semolina to all my breads because it makes a light crumb. I wouldn’t have started bialys with this dough on purpose, but found that the finished rolls were more than satisfactory, being lighter than the usual bialy yet full of old-fashioned flavor.
They won’t keep long; being so light, they’re likely to dry out after a while. You can preserve their freshness for several hours by wrapping them in plastic when they’re cool. Of course you can also freeze them.
Mimi’s Modern Bialys
Makes 8 bialys. Printable version here.
1 50-gram cube fresh yeast or 1 envelope active dry yeast
2 cups warm water
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup sunflower or other neutral-flavored oil
2 eggs, beaten
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup semolina flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1 cup onions caramelized in 2 tablespoons oil , coarsely chopped
Flaky sea salt or kosher salt to sprinkle
optional: poppy seeds, for garnishing (not shown)
Crumble the yeast into a large bowl and add the water. When the yeast dissolves, add the salt, sugar, oil, and eggs. Mix.
Add 1 cup flour, the oats, and the semolina. Mix. Add enough flour to make a sticky, loose dough – about 2 more cups.
Cover the bowl and allow dough to rise till very light and bubbly – about 40 minutes, depending on how warm your kitchen is.
Stir the dough down. Add the remaining cup of flour gradually, kneading lightly in the bowl with one hand as you go. Stop adding flour when the dough barely holds together. The less added flour at this point, the more tender the finished bialy.
Allow dough to double again – about 20 minutes. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 450° F – 230° C. Line a baking sheet with baking parchment or grease it well.
Deflate dough and knead again lightly. Sprinkle a little more flour if it sticks to the bowl.
Remove 4 pieces the size of your clenched fist, one by one. (There should be 8 at the end.) Stretch each ball of dough, then fold it over as you would an envelope . Fold and stretch this way three times. If the sticky dough really annoys you, sprinkle flour over your hands, or rub some oil on them.
On baking parchment, roll each dough ball out as long as your open hand, fingers extended. Or pat it out into a rough oval that length. Poke dimples into the dough with your fingers. Spread onions over the surface of the dough. Sprinkle salt and pepper to taste over onions. If garnishing with poppy seeds, sprinkle some in the middle of each bialy for an eye-catching effect.
Poke the dough again, driving some of the onions and seasonings in. Allow dough to rise 10 minutes. Transfer to to a baking sheet, four at a time.
If you have two such sheets, you can bake the entire batch at once. Otherwise, put the unused dough in the refrigerator while the first batch bakes, to prevent it from rising again, and repeat the previous two steps to make 4 more bialys when the oven’s free again.
Bake 15-20 minutes, or until bialys are golden.