My Citizens – allow me to welcome you as the Count of Calendars, the Tyrant of Time – for today is the day after Yom Kippur, the most holy and sacred day in the Jewish calendar!
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement is a full 24 hours of fasting and intense prayer, and many Jews of Eastern European descent break their fast – unsurprisingly – with bagels. However, there is a far less well known cousin to the bagel that may actually surpass it in savor and Jewish history – I speak of nothing less than the mighty Bialy, properly known as ‘bialystoker kuchen’ in Yiddish.
Sadly, it is nearly impossible to find ANY bialy – even a bad one – outside of New York City or a few small enclaves with a primarily Polish Jewish population. The fact that a great bialy has never been tasted by most of TFD Nation fills Me with the need to address this heinous situation and preserve a nearly lost recipe through today’s post!
As the Citizens of TFD Nation continue their quarantine-inspired baking frenzy, you simply MUST immediately add this to your repertoire without delay! The dish was brought to the United States by Polish Jewish refugees in the late 1800s, and became a staple of Jewish bakeries in the Northeastern United States. They became a popular bread and also breakfast for people in New York City, and the outlying areas – especially for American Jews.
Bialys used to be commonly baked by bakeries who also sold bagels, however there are differences between the two and the bialy failed to reach the mainstream popularity the bagel enjoyed in the United States (and indeed worldwide). Making bialys in the traditional manner is a time-consuming process, and thus many bakeries – if they make them at all – now make bialys with machines, as is common with bagels as well.
In Yiddish, we call this a ‘shanda’ – a shameful, scaldalous travesty – and with damned good reason!
Bialys are considered an iconic food representative of New York City, and can be difficult to find outside that area. However bialys are sold frozen by a number of brands such as Ray’s New York, and others, in supermarkets across the country. Sadly, they are barely worth the time of cooking them and the joys of a true handmade bialy are only now possible at home.
As noted on the excellent blog polishhousewife.com in this excepted and lightly-edited text:
When my new friend found out that I write a blog about Polish food, he asked if I was familiar with the Bialy, which he pronounced be-alley.
He’d heard about the dish when his colleagues here in Tucson learned that he would be in New York City on business. While not available at the first bakery he tried, my new friend got directions to an old bakery in a neighborhood, outside of Manhattan, and found his Bialy.
He described the Bialy as like a bagel but better. It didn’t have the very crusty exterior, the inside was lighter and more tender, and the best part, it was topped with onions. The folks in the bakery told him that it has a short shelf life, about 6 hours, so that might be why they are not as widely known as bagels, which come to think of it don’t have a very long shelf either.
The story goes that the Bialy comes from the city of Białystok (which means White Slope in Polish) in northeast Poland. Bialy is Yiddish and short for bialystoker kuchen, the Polish name of this roll. Biały is Polish for white and pronounced more like be-oway. (When I see the word, it’s the only way I can hear it in my head.)
The recipe moved to the United States with Jewish immigrants who were escaping the pogroms and Holocaust, although their popularity seems limited to the area of New York City. The yeast dough, which, unlike bagels, is not boiled before baking, gets a depression in the center that will be filled with onions, and maybe garlic, poppy or sesame seeds, or bread crumbs.
Mimi Sheraton has written a book on the subject, The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World (available via my affiliate link). Sheraton, a famed food writer, tells the poignant, personal story of her worldwide search for a Polish town’s lost world and the daily bread that sustained it.
Today in the United States, it is mostly eaten by New York Jews in the morning, heated and topped with butter, or with cream cheese topped with lox. Unlike a bagel, bialys are usually not split – you butter them or put a spread on them directly across the top. It is important to note they do not save well and are best eaten the day they are made – preferably immediately. They do freeze, and at least that enables them to be made and enjoyed later than the day of the bake!
My version of bialy is unashamedly based on the seminal recipe from the legendary baker George Greenstein. While the dough, proofing method and cook times are all his, I HAVE taken the opportunity to update the old-school bialy with modern spicing – fear not, all of my changes are noted and optional!
First off, a surprise move away from the modern and back to the old country – I call for using schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) combined with sunflower oil to mix with the topping spices. Feel free to substitute with just sunflower oil, which is what would have been used as a cheaper alternative by the original Polish bakers. I however love the flavor of schmaltz in my recipe!
Next – rather than just a simple poppy seed and onion mix for the center of the bread, I prefer a FAR more eclectic blend of spices! My version includes not just onion and poppy seed, but also ground onion seed (charnushka) and dried wild ramps for extra onion flavor! You can buy excellent-quality charnushka here and dried wild ramps here. Since bialys were originally baked in wood-fired ovens, I also add a hint of smoked Icelandic salt, as well as gentle heat with a touch of Aleppo pepper flakes. Lastly, I add in an herbaceous element via the middle-eastern spice blend of za’atar.
Citizens, few foods awaken the hidden food cravings encoded into Eastern European Jewish DNA more than a good bialy. These are the BEST bialys you will ever have the pleasure of sampling, I promise! In closing, I wish my Jewish Citizens a happy New Year of 5781 and am confident we are all praying for a better year not only for ourselves but the world-at-large as well. I might suggest serving these with another classic of Ashkenazi cuisine – chopped liver with gribenes!
Battle on – the Generalissimo
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