Picture the setting, it’s happy hour at a local watering hole, I’m meeting friends of friends. Everyone around the table, while we all have other professions, is interested in food. 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 Bialy 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 the Bialy has a short shelf life, about 6 hours, so that might be why there 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 Bialys, 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.
Since Bialys have been referred to as bagels that aren’t boiled before baking, I used my bagel recipe and shaped the rolls with an indentation rather than a hole in the middle. They are fabulous. If you’re going to eat bread, this is what you want to have. The texture is lightly chewy, and the savory warmth of the topping adds a smidge of yummy interest to every bite. There are a lot of steps to the instructions, but don’t let that put you off. I easily whipped these up one evening after work. They’re so worth the effort!
A gentler, less chewy version of a bagel
- 1 cup warm water (110 degrees F)
- 1 package active dry yeast
- 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 1/2 to 3 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons oil, divided
- 1/3 cup finely diced onions
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1/4 teaspoon poppy seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds
- salt and pepper
- 1 egg
- Place water in a mixing bowl, sprinkle with yeast, stir in sugar
- Let sit for about 5 minutes, until a foamy layer begins to form on top
- Stir in 1 teaspoon salt and 2 cups of flour until combined
- Add the additional flour to make a stiff dough, kneading for about 5 minutes
- Grease a large bowl with one tablespoon of oil, add the dough to the bowl and turn to coat all sides with oil
- Cover and let rise for about 90 minutes or until doubled in size
- While the dough rises, saute the onion in 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat until it just begins to get a little color
- Add the garlic and cook for 2-3 minute
- Remove from heat, add poppy seeds and sesame seeds, season with salt and pepper
- Punch down the dough and divide into 6 portions
- Gently stretch the surface of the dough, tucking it to one side and pinching together, to give you a smooth surface
- Place the pinched side down on a lightly floured surface, cover and let rise for about 20 minutes
- Preheat oven to 475 degrees
- Make an indentation in the center of each bialy using your thumb or a tool
- Place on a parchment covered baking sheet, spacing as far apart as possible
- Fill the indentation with a spoon full of the onion mixture
- Beat the egg with a tablespoon of oil and gently brush over the bialy
- Bake for about 10 minutes, until golden with brown spots
- Keep wrapped in plastic after the bialy cool, freeze if you’re keeping for longer than a day, but I doubt they’ll last that long
The tool I used to make the indentation in my Bialys is a mini tart shaper (available from my affiliate link)
An accountant by trade and a food blogger since 2009, Lois Britton fell in love with Polish cuisine during the years she lived in Poznań, Poland. As the creator of PolishHousewife.com, she loves connecting readers with traditional Polish recipes. Lois has a graduate certificate in Food Writing and Photography from the University of South Florida. She is the author of The Polish Housewife Cookbook, available on Amazon and on her website.