Once sold at eastern European bakeries or delicatessens in Jewish neighborhoods like Manhattan’s Lower East Side, bialys have become scarce. I grew up eating the round Polish bread whose dimpled center is topped with onions and, sometimes, poppy seeds, and was excited when New York City pastry chef and baker Melissa Weller told me she wanted to bring it back. She gave me her recipe for this book, but not before adapting it for a cast-iron skillet to yield a large, sharable bialy. Her instructions for kneading the dough were specific—she found that splitting it and putting each half in the food processor for a quick, intense spin, four times on and off, with one resting while the other whirls in the machine, results in the best-possible bialy a home kitchen can produce. She cooked down the onions—lots of them!—with great care, sweating them slowly on the stove at a low temperature before moving them to the oven and baking them, covered, for a half hour.
I did everything she instructed until, as my crispy, brown-crusted, chewy bialys cooled, I decided to leave off the poppy seeds. My brain had jumped from deli to Delhi, and I wanted to make a tempering—a fried blend of assorted spices used in Indian cuisine. I grabbed nigella, mustard, coriander, and cumin seeds from my spice cabinet and quickly toasted them in sizzling ghee until they popped and crackled. I threw in caraway seeds as well, to bring a hint of the Jewish bakery to my mix. At the last minute, I put some curry leaves in the pan. Then I spooned the hot aromatics and their golden cooking liquid over the bialys, letting the crunchy bits and unctuous fat settle into the onions.
Photo by Aubrie Pick
Note: The second and third bialys can be made right away, or, as noted above, the dough can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
1 ½ cups plus 1 tablespoon cool water (about 65°F)
Coarse whole-wheat flour (e.g., graham flour) or rye flour, for dusting
Onion Topping (see recipe below)
6 teaspoons bread crumbs
¾ teaspoon flake sea salt, plus more for finishing
For the spice mix
2 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon nigella seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
9 curry leaves (fresh, preferably, but dried is okay)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 very large Spanish onions (about 2 pounds), thinly sliced
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
How to Make It
Make the dough. In a large bowl, whisk together the all-purpose flour, yeast, and fine sea salt. Add the cool water and, using your hands, mix everything together until you don’t see any flour.
Preheat the oven to 300ºF. Preheat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet on the stovetop, gradually raising the heat from low to medium. Once the pan is hot, melt the butter, then add the sliced onions and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook for about 5 minutes, without stirring, so the onions start to shrink and become easier to move around the pan.