Friday, October 22, 2010

The Bialy and Pletzel

Have you ever heard of a bialy (or pletzel for that matter)???  Everyone knows bagels, but bialys… not so much (aside from Mel Brooks hanging the name on his naughty Max Bialystock in the Producers) and that is a crying shame.  The bialy is the ‘other’ NYC roll -- flatter but with attitude since it’s got a savory onion poppy-seed filling that is just too delicious for words.  The bialy has such a great back-story that Mimi Sheraton wrote an entire book about it called The Bialy EatersFor 8 years (1975-83) Mimi Sheraton was the food critic for the NY Times and if anyone knows NYC food, this is the lady.

The book is a great read, and opens with a sage observation: “few aspects of life inspire such persistent nostalgia as the foods of one’s childhood, reminders of the joyful security of home and family.”  This nostalgia (could it be saudade?) was acknowledged by the Chinese poet-statesman, Lin Yutang, when he wrote “What is patriotism but the longing for the foods of one’s homeland.”  The book covers the history of the bialy or bialystok kucken from their birth in the Jewish Quarter of the small Polish town of Bialystok (decimated by WWII) to the lower east side of NYC where they became a favorite in NY delicatessens (always eclipsed by the more popular bagel). This may have been because they have a very short shelf life and must be eaten or frozen within 6 hours of baking (old timers would pass up rolls that were less than an hour old for those just out of the oven).  They are easy to make however and a minute (or less) in the microwave and they are thawed and ready to toast for a perfect breakfast.

Sheraton actually went to Poland to separate fact from legend.  Bialys were hard to track down even with rock-hard samples brought from NYC, but many people had small glimmers of recognition and a 1939 film showed local children eating them… they were from Bialystok!

Although they may have been related to the Polish tsibele pletzel  (the sheet version is called an “onion board” in America and the name of the Jewish ghetto in Paris— with a texture like crisped pizza), it had none of the earmarks of the flatbread save the onion poppy seed topping.

The extra dusting of the dough with flour may have had something to do with the name since bialy means white in Slavic languages and the coat of arms of Poland is the Orzel Bialy or white eagle (chosen by Lech, the founder of Poland) so white is a popular appellation in Poland… but that is pushing it.  I think it’s just named for the place that invented it. 

The bialy is soft and chewy when fresh.  Delicious split, toasted and shmeared with butter or cream cheese and/or stuffed with smoked salmon (from Russ & Daughters if you can manage it), it is a rough tough little guy from the old neighborhood that makes the well-upholstered bagel seem so… bourgeois.  Pletzels were a huge hit in my household. Try bialys and pletzels for your next NY style brunch, oy, you’ll thank me!

Bialys (based on Mimi Sheraton’s Bialy’s with a little help from Kossar’s Bialys in NYC) 
Makes 12 - 3 ½ to 4” bialys

1 ½ to 2 Lbs (5-6 cups) bread flour
3 cups cold water
2 T kosher salt
1 package yeast

1 m onion, finely chopped (do not process)
2 T coarse toasted breadcrumbs
salt to taste
2 t oil
3 T poppy seeds

Mix the crumbs into the onion and set aside for a few hours till there is no liquid… add more crumbs if this doesn’t happen.  Add the salt and oil and the poppy seeds.  Some people sauté the onion first… your call.

Put the yeast in a bowl with ½ c of the water and blend, then add the rest of the water.  Put the flour and salt in a mixer and blend for 8 minutes… it should be sticky.  Put in a clean bowl and allow it to rise till double in volume 3 to 3 ½ hours.   Then knead the dough with a dough hook for 10 minutes and by hand 5 – 10 minutes.  Allow it to rise for 1½ hours till it springs back when touched lightly (I let mine rise overnight).

Preheat oven to 450º with pizza stone or sheet pan upside down. Make 4 ropes of dough and cut each into 3 rounds.  Make a circle out of these and make an impression using your thumbs… make the bottom thin, if it isn’t it will blow up and you will lose the filling.   Sprinkle the filling on each bialy and put them on the preheated baking surface.  I put mine on parchment and slid them on the baking sheet on the parchment… if well floured on the bottom you can just use a spatula to move them.

Bake for 15 – 20 minutes.  Cook and freeze or eat.

The recipe for the Pletzel, comes from George Greenstein's Secrets of a Jewish Baker: Recipes for 125 Breads from Around the World


3/4 cup yellow onions, chopped
1-2 tsp. poppy seeds (more to sprinkle on pletzel
1-2 tsp. olive or canola oil
salt to taste (about 3/4 tsp.)

Mix all topping ingredients in a bowl and set aside.  Some people like to sauté the onions in oil before putting them on the top… the French like them soft and cooked and sliced in rings or half rings
1 1/2 T. dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
3/4 cup ice water
2 large eggs
4 cups bread flour
2 1/4 tsp. salt
2 T. canola oil
2 T. sugar
2 T. malt syrup

Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water, stir. Add remaining ingredients and mix until dough forms a ball in the mixer. Add additional flour if needed. Knead for 5 minutes in a mixer. Let the dough rest for 15-30 minutes.

Oil two large cookie sheets. Divide dough in two, and roll as thin as possible, letting dough rest if it is hard to roll. Place dough on the cookie sheets. Brush with canola oil. Stipple all over with a fork, spread with onion topping, sprinkle with additional poppy seeds, and bake at 400° (with a pan of water for steam in the oven) for 20-30 minutes until brown. The texture will be somewhere between pizza and a cracker.  It is addictive!  You could also put some whole wheat in them if you want them a little healthier.  I might add, since they do not raise really, I am not sure why all that yeast is needed.... see what you think.

Thanks to Gollum for hosting Foodie Friday


Diane said...

I see your computer is behaving again as well!! I have never heard of bialy or pletzel so I learnt something new today. You have my vote. Diane

La Table De Nana said...

I thought of The Producers right away..the only play I ever saw in NYC..Always an interesting read~Thank you.

Barbara said...

Loved this post. So THAT'S what they're called?? I've eaten them, but never heard the words bialy OR pletzel!
Shouldn't be reading this right before lunch either. My, wouldn't I love to have a tray of these in the kitchen waiting for me.
I personally have never met Mimi, but my daughter rented their garden apt. years ago. Funny!

Linda said...

This Jewish girl says you did an amazing job on both the bialy and the pletzel! These are both favorites of my childhood and very difficult to find here in New Jersey now as most of the Jewish bakeries and bagel places have closed ,with the exception of a few.I must try the Mimi Sheraton recipe. Bialys you can get, pletzel...almost impossible. I have the George Greenstein is fabulous!
You go girl! I would love a bite right now! Of either!

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

Although I have never tasted either one, I'd love to try making them. They look wonderful! Once again, great background info, Deana!

Lazaro Cooks said...


Don't sweat the whole contest thing. These events invariably turn into popularity contests, or who has the most friends. Your chili was creative and flavorful. You did an amazing job.

Onto this post. I have yet to try these tasty treats. Both look great. I am really intrigued by the use of malt syrup in the dough recipe. I may have to steal that one.

Glad to see you on facebook, I am on there quite a bit.

Have a great weekend.

Faith said...

Jewish breads are really fantastic! Wonderful as always!

Erika Beth, the Messy Chef said...

I hadn't heard of pletzels, but we have bialys every morning at my office. :)
PS You got my vote! :)

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

OMG. I remember being told by a Jewish colleague that these things were heaven on earth. I tried one and of course, my eyes rolled back with sheer delight! AND YOU ARE FEATURING THEM HERE? If there was one food on my death bed that I could request it would have to be anything made with bread and herbs. Pizza, whatever! And this recipe looks exceptionally good. I used to bake a lot of bread and pizza dough, I even tried FOUGASSE with orange water and olive oil. And dearest, thank you for your kind, kind comments and visit. OH, your chili recipe was BEAUTIFUL as well! As always, your history lesson, photos and recipes are a banquet for the soul....Fondly, Anita

Ana Powell said...

I don`t take part on those events.
I do not find them honest and the entries are not fairly judged.
Wishing you great luck.
Honestly, I do admire your work a lot and always love visiting you.
Take care ♥

Karen from Globetrotter Diaries said...

Wonderful and informative post as always! Love bialys :)

Mo said...

I actually have heard of both, but I have NO idea where, and I don't think I could have told you what they were before this post. XD It's what happens when all you read about is food. Some stuff sticks, some stuff doesn't, and some stuff half-sticks. ;)

They both look delicious! I think I'm leaning more towards the pletzel, though. :) Thanks for the recipes! <3

Sarah said...

These look like true comfort good. Another 'must try'. This is what I miss being so isolated in a small town. But, there are always those wonderful opportunities called vacations! You have my vote!

~Lisa~ said...

I've never heard of pletzels either. But would love to try. With a onion poppy seed filling, i'd most likey eat way too many! Voted for you too (=

Fresh Local and Best said...

I know I've had a bialy but not a pletzel, and actually since the bialy was not from New York, it might not have been a real bialy. I am intrigued, and will seek a sample of both.

Needful Things said...

I've heard of neither and they both look wonderful! Learning something new with each visit to your blog, as usual!

Jane said...

Wow! I just made bialys a couple of weeks ago and did a post on them too, inspired by having read Mimi's book this past summer. I love the way yours turned out. Mind did indeed lose their flat middles! I was surprised by all the comments I recieved from readers who said they've never heard of bialys. I didn't realize they were quite so uncommon. I, also, love that quotation about the food of one's childhood and patriotism. I encountered it last year in a quotations website and thought, "Gosh, that really sums it up!" This is a lovely, evocative, informative post.

Not Quite Nigella said...

I have tried bialys but not pretzels before! bialys are so good I wish they were a bit more common here! and I really hope that you win the mushrooms Deana! You deserve to and you would do some absolutely wonderful things with them too!

Chef Dennis Littley said...

I have heard of Bialys but never pletzels, thats a new one for me....thank you for such an informative post, and the authentic recipes!


tasteofbeirut said...


what a discovery! love that bread and you seemed to have baked them perfectly!

Anonymous said...

The breads you made are amazing!

Unknown said...

I love biyalis. You don't see them around too much though. I've never seen one in the UK. I think i might try making one, why not, I've tried bagels, and that worked out ok. Yours certainly look fabulous :D. I'll take mine toasted please, with buttah.
*kisses* HH

Quay Po Cooks said...

I have never taste either but would like to try making them. Your pictures are lovely!

Medifast Coupons said...

Are these served like a bread then?

blackbookkitchendiaries said...

these look absolutely good. i can almost smell it:) thank you for sharing.

Deeba PAB said...

Both the bread look absolutely delish!

Magic of Spice said...

I have never hear of either of these but they both sound delicious...The bialy stuffed with cream cheese and salmon sounds delightful :)

Sanura said...

I've always been curious about Bialys when I see them next to the bagels. The next time I'm in a true bagel place (where they make it from scratch), I will try one for the experience. As always, I love your historic posts that accompany the recipes.

pigpigscorner said...

I've never heard of either of the names! At a glance, I thought you said pretzels, but it's obviously a totally different thing. Looks so good!

Marjie said...

Deanna, I missed this last week, but they both sound like great snack foods. These are good candidates to solve my new lunchbox problem!

daphne said...

you give me a good dose of information and I like that with a slice of an amazing recipe. I'd definitely try this out one day. Really cute!!

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