This is about a tasty roll that was nearly lost to history.
Around a hundred years ago in Poland’s largest northern city, Bialy culture took over in a mad rush, flamed, and went out. You could buy one of these rolls – with their signature oniony middles – from any of a hundred places in the neighborhood. But by the end of World War II not a single resident of the Jewish quarter of Bialystok remained. The Bialy and its creators had been wiped from the planet.
Enough people remembered these little beauties to bring the Bialy back from the brink. Mimi Sheraton tells the story so well in her book The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World that I recommend it to anyone.
A cross somewhere between a bagel and a tiny pizza, this roll has a flattened center which gets filled with onion that ‘cooks’ in salt for hours while the dough rises quietly elsewhere. A ‘Bialy’ as it’s known, when fresh from the traditional woodfired oven, has a mildly smoky flavor and a crust that billows around a kind of belly button of lightly caramelized onion at its center. The poppy seeds add a crunchy tang.
I think about the ghosts of Bialystok and their lost culture as I knead the dough, stretch it out, and mix the onion. There’s the girl with the deep dark eyes whose face lights up as the baker hands her a Bialy; she grabs the roll lovingly and skips away into the mist. The young couple courting over Bialys and tea who I can barely make out in the shadows behind a low window. And there’s always the old guys huddled in the square right near the white clock tower, who adjust their black hats against the cold. I imagine those old dudes rubbing their hands together in some Ashkenazim gesture and musing over my antics; their breath fogs the air. And as I take the rolls carefully from the oven, with the sweet smell of onion rising in the heat, one of them makes a quarter turn and assesses my rolls with his sharp eyes.
‘Not bad for a Goyem baker,’ I hear him say, turning back to the others and chuckling. ‘Not bad at all.’
Bialystok Rolls crusted with Salted Onion and Poppy Seeds
Makes 12 Bialys
For the dough:
2 cups water at 100°
1¼ teaspoon dry yeast (double for faster option, below)
4 cups or 20 ounces of unbleached bread flour (11.5% protein content)
1 ½ teaspoons of sea salt
2 Tablespoons canola oil
1 cup of flour for bench work
For the topping:
6 ounces of finely chopped sweet onion
1 teaspoon of sea salt
2 Tablespoons of herbed bread crumbs
1 eggwhite+1 teaspoon of cold water
2 Tablespoons of poppy seeds
Faster option: As with many small breads, these rolls are meant to rise and bake quickly after the dough goes through a long slumber, which for me means overnight. You can double the quantity of yeast and let the dough rise at room temperature for 3-4 hours if you like, with some subtle changes in flavor and texture.
Make the dough: Add yeast and ½ cup water to a large mixing bowl. Stir vigorously and let sit for 10 minutes to let the yeast hydrate. Mix in the flour and the other 1 ½ cups of water and leave for 30 minutes before kneading.
Add salt and canola oil and knead for 5 minutes to make a soft dough.
First rise: Put dough into a clean bowl which is at least 3 times the volume of the dough. Cover and let sit in a cool place for 8 hours or overnight (55-60° is optimal).
Make the onion topping: Finely chop the sweet onion, and mix it with a teaspoon of salt. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for at least 4 hours or overnight. The salt in the mix will ‘cook’ the onion so that it exudes moisture and matures in flavor. Drain the exuded liquid and mix the onion with breadcrumbs just before topping.
Second rise: Punch down dough, knead and fold it for a minute on a floured surface and return it to the bowl. This time, let rise at room temperature (68-70°) for 2 or 3 hours until doubled in bulk.
Heat the woodfired oven: Your fire should be 2 hours old with enough moderate heat to sustain the oven for an hour’s baking. Every 20 minutes for the last hour, move your fire side to side to evenly heat the floor tiles. A few minutes before putting in the rolls, push the mature coals to the back center of the oven and brush the floor clean of ashes. There should be little or no flame when the Bialys go in.
Heat a conventional oven: Line a center rack with a pizza stone or quarry tiles. At least 30 minutes before baking the first rolls, preheat the oven to 425°. You will need to stagger the next steps to have half the Bialys ready 20 minutes after the first lot.
Form the Bialys: Turn the dough out onto a work surface, and form it into a snake. Cut the dough into 12 equal pieces of about 3½ ounces each. Tuck the sides of each ball under and stretch the tops into mounds. Flatten each piece with your palm and let rest on the counter for 10 minutes before proceeding. Meanwhile, cut 2 pieces of parchment paper to fit the backs of two cookie sheets.
After a rest, stretch each piece of dough out like a 5” pizza, making a thick rim with a depression in the center. Put 6 of these onto each piece of parchment paper. Cover loosely with a cloth and let sit for 30 minutes before topping.
Top the Bialys: Mix eggwhite and water. Mix drained onion and breadcrumbs. Brush the top of each roll twice with eggwhite wash and then scoop a teaspoon of the onion mixture into the middle depression, smearing it up onto the sides as desired. Finish each Bialy with ½ teaspoon of poppy seeds.
Bake in a woodfired oven: If the floor of the oven is well heated and swept clean with the fire pushed all the way back, you can easily bake a dozen Bialys at a time in your oven. Put half to either side, let bake for 5 or 6 minutes until puffy, and carefully turn the parchment sheets around. After turning, my parchment sheets always want to slip out with the peel, but as long as the rolls have been turned it doesn’t matter. Let bake a further 5-7 minutes until the tops begin to brown.
Bake in a conventional oven: Bake the rolls (six at a time) on the parchment paper directly on the quarry tiles for 8 minutes at 425º, turn carefully around and bake for a further 7 or 8 minutes, until the onions begin to brown.
Pull the Bialys from the oven with a metal peel or spatula and let cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes to an hour. That is, if you can wait that long. And I can guarantee that if you share some of these great rolls with any of your neighbors who grew up in the Bronx or Brooklyn, you’ll have friends for life. L’chaim!