What's your favorite hot-bread memory?
Butter-slathered cinnamon toast, set before you by your smiling mom as you seated your grumpy, school-bound self at the table?
Tender, golden cornbread, mopped through hot bacon grease in a cast-iron skillet?
Or how about a simple dinner roll, soft as a pillow and gold as sunset, plucked hot from the cloth-covered basket on your grandmother's Thanksgiving table?
My hot-bread memories include all of the above. But my very favorite is a bit edgier. And certainly much darker. Dark as midnight, as a matter of fact.
As a financially strapped college student back in the ’70s, I early on decided the school's meal plan was for the birds – which is where their bread should have ended up every day, stale as it was. Armed with a mini-fridge in my room and a two-burner stove in the dorm lounge, I was able to feed myself pretty well on tacos, spaghetti, and Kraft macaroni and cheese enhanced with sliced hot dogs (don't laugh – I love it to this day!).
One problem: there wasn't a bakery near enough campus to satisfy my hot-bread jones. The best I could manage, back in my pre-yeast days, was to detonate one of those pressurized cans of biscuits and make what inevitably turned into hard little nuggets of over-baked badness.
One cold winter midnight, trudging home from the library, I decided to abandon the main drag, with its all-night diner serving the BEST pecan pie – remember, money was an issue here. I cut down a side street, congratulating myself for successfully avoiding temptation, and almost immediately ran into a boy carrying a white bakery bag.
A BAKERY BAG. My mouth started to water. How could I have missed the presence of a bakery just blocks from my dorm? I looked around me – everything was dark. Except for the glow coming from the steamed-up windows of the basement-level shop in front of me.
I took the three steps down, opened the door, and found Nirvana: a Greek coffee shop.
A counter with stools. Four booths. A griddle with sizzling burgers, bacon, sausages. And one of those food-service toasters, the kind where a conveyor belt grabs whatever needs warming and spits it out the other end, toasted.
I quickly took it all in. Not a bakery. But, the bakery bag... I fastened on the toaster. Bagels, toast, English muffins, and... something else. Something that might have been an onion roll, only it was too flat. And the fried onions were collected in a center depression, not scattered throughout.
I tentatively asked the counterman for “one of those onion things.”
"Bialy," he said.
Bialy? That was Greek to me. “Sure, whatever.”
Hot, buttered bread? Absolutely.
Two minutes later, my bialy having made its way along the conveyor, it was slathered with butter, wrapped in a piece of waxed paper, and tucked into a BAKERY BAG. Things were definitely looking up.
The hot bialy warmed my mitten-clad hands as I jogged the final blocks home, melting butter leaving translucent grease blots on the bag. In my room, I drew the still-warm bialy out of the bag and took a bite.
The taste of caramelized onions, melted butter, and hot bread – my first experience with a bialy – crystallized into what is, to this day, my favorite hot-bread memory.
“Hey, a bialy!” exclaimed my roommate, a Tel Aviv native/New Jersey transplant who immediately recognized my treasure. “Got another one?”
“Nope,” I mumbled ungenerously, still consumed; it was love at first bite. And for once, I wasn't sharing.
Warning: the following bialy is NOT a classic New York City bialy. It's a reconstruction of a Greek coffee shop bialy, Providence, R.I., ca. 1973.
So Kossar me no Kossar's. Don't hand me the “anything other than H & H is heresy” line.
This is my bialy story, and I'm sticking with it.
Looking for that signature chewy texture of a real bialy? Use what the pros use: high-gluten flour. Sir Lancelot is King Arthur's highest gluten bread flour.
Boy, did I go through a lot of incarnations of this recipe before I reached the final version! The above shows the results of a test using different shaping/baking methods. The winner? #8. At least for shaping/baking. I made additional changes in the ingredients in order to reach the recipe you'll read below.
...then switch to the dough hook and knead till smooth, about 7 minutes in a stand mixer.
Can you use a bread machine set on the dough cycle? Of course. Can you knead by hand? If you're a really good kneader; high-gluten doughs are tough to fully develop by hand, but go for it if you're game.
OK, I can hear those questions flying in already – can I use all-purpose flour? Yes; you'll want to reduce the liquid by a couple of tablespoons. And you won't get a classic chewy bialy, though it'll still taste good.
“Can I use whole wheat flour?” Yes. You won't be making a classic bialy; you'll be making a flat whole-wheat roll with onions in the center. If that's what you want - go for it!
Place the dough in a lightly greased container, and cover it while you prepare the filling.
Peel and dice 2 medium-large onions. Place them in a hot frying pan with 2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil.
Fry the diced onion over high heat; it'll brown very quickly, so stir often. Fry till it's a dark golden brown, with even darker charred bits. Sprinkle with 1/8 teaspoon salt, stir to combine, and remove from the heat. Transfer to a small bowl to cool.
After 90 minutes, your dough should have risen nicely.
Start preheating your oven to 450°F.
Gently deflate the dough, and divide it into 8 pieces. Roll each piece into a smooth ball.
Cover the balls after they're shaped, to prevent them drying out.
Shape four of the pieces into 4” to 5” circles, each with a small rim.
Place the shaped circles on a parchment-lined or lightly greased baking sheet. Use a sharp knife or pair of scissors to snip a 1” hole in the bottom of each bialy; this will help keep their centers flat.
Evenly spread the filling into the center of each bialy – the part defined by the rim. A tablespoon cookie scoop is a good measuring tool here.
Place the “sandwiched” bialys in the oven. I know, it looks weird. Work with me here.
After 4 minutes, remove the baking sheet and parchment. The bialys will be set enough that they won't rise any farther.
Bake for an additional 7 minutes, or until they're a dappled brown.
Like this. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough.
I like my bialys warm, with butter. Probably not traditional; but this is the way they served them at that Greek coffee shop. I don't miss the studying, but I sure miss the bialys! Last time I was in Providence, I found the coffee shop had been replaced by a high-rise. Sigh...
Read, rate, and review (please!) our recipe for Bialys.
Buy vs. bake
Buy: Kossar's Bialys, Lower East Side, New York, NY: 90¢ ea.
Bake at home: Bialys, 35¢ ea.