Call it pletzel, call it onion board, call me when you're baking some
In the world of Eastern European cookery, especially those items that are a part of the Jewish food culture, breads are front and center. Breads are a deep part of the religious practice (the unleavened Passover matzo of biblical renown and weekly sabbath challah) but they are also a big part of the more cultural dining practices. Sunday brunch bagels and bialys, seeded rye for corned beef sandwiches, and sweet breads like babka—the bread game of my people is strong.
And yet no one talks about one of my favorite Jewish breads, the pletzel. No, not pretzel, that is a German thing. Delicious, but not the same. Pletzel (sometimes called onion board, which is less fun to say) is sort of a Jewish focaccia topped with caramelized onion and poppyseeds. This flatbread is, in my humble opinion, one of our greatest contributions to the world of carbohydrates, and if you’ve never tasted one, I am here to assist.
My Great-Aunt Frieda’s pletzel was legendary. Crispy on the edges, soft in the middle, with lots of sweet onions and great chew. On visits to snowbirding relatives in Miami, the bread baskets at both The Rascal House and Pumpernicks had rectangular slices of the stuff, ready for a schmear of soft butter or to sop up the sweet and sour sauce of your stuffed cabbage rolls. In Chicago, visiting celebs and glitterati chowed down on pletzel at Fritzel’s, where it was a perfect companion to their stellar Steak Diane.
And yet, it has fallen out of favor. I suppose it stands to reason. When I would ask my grandmother about pletzel, she had one standard reply: “Delicious. But a pain in the ass.”
As it turns out, that was very true when one had to knead bread dough by hand. Pletzel dough is barely dough, it’s more like a puddle of flour barely suspended in water, and it never ever comes together in a nice little elastic ball. It just becomes a more cohesive and stretchier puddle, if that is possible. Apparently, you would knead this stuff for 30 minutes if you were a pro, but it could take as long as 45 or even an hour for it to come together if your kneading was in any way lackluster. Nobody has time for that nonsense, not even for something this good.
But we are going to resurrect pletzel from the archives because we have access to stand mixers. Stand mixers can handle the puddle admirably and dispatch the dough in a fraction of the time, making homemade pletzel an achievable thing. Since the dough is the hard part, getting that down makes the rest super easy. It is great in your brunch bread basket, or instead of toast next to your eggs. It is fluffy enough to split down the middle for a killer sandwich. And it makes a great big sheet pan, which might seem like too much, but will likely not remotely be enough.
Go forth, pletzel, and thank me later.
Makes 1 large sheet, enough to serve 12-16 rational people, or 4 members of my family
4 cups all purpose flour
17 ounces room temperature water
2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
4 medium onions
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
Put the flour in the bowl of your stand mixer along with 3 teaspoons of kosher salt, and add in the water. With your hands in sort of a claw, with your fingers spread out and bent at the knuckles, stir the flour and water until you have a pretty cohesive mixture. Using a rubber spatula, go around the sides and bottom of the bowl to be sure any loose flour is pulled into the mix. Put the bowl onto your mixer and attach the dough hook. Mix on the second lowest setting for 3-4 minutes, until the dough is well mixed and no dry flour can be seen when you run the spatula around the sides or bottom. Cover with a damp cloth and let rest at room temperature for 20 minutes. This will help the flour fully absorb the water, so don’t skip this step.
After 20 minutes, sprinkle the sugar and yeast over the top and turn the mixer back on to the second lowest setting until the additions are fully incorporated. By this time you are looking into the bowl and thinking that this will never be more than a weird stretchy pancake batter, but stay with me! Once the sugar and yeast are fully mixed in, take a deep breath and crank that puppy up as high as it will go. If your machine starts to dance on the counter, just use your forearm to lean on it as you watch the glop in the bowl. And you need to watch because this dough comes together quickly when it finally decides to give in. This can take anywhere from 8-12 minutes, which feels like a long time to be leaning on your mixer watching a puddle of dough, but it really is the best way. You are looking for the dough to start pulling away from the sides of the bowl, while not making a ball. When it starts to make slapping noises, you are getting close. And to be clear, it won’t ever fully clean the sides of the bowl, but it will definitely be pulling away noticeably while the mixer runs. Once it does this, shut it off.
Using about a tablespoon of olive oil, grease a large bowl and pour the dough puddle into the bowl. Coat a rubber spatula with more oil (or spray it with nonstick spray) and use it to coax the dough puddle over on itself until it is well coated in oil. Cover with plastic wrap (I use a clean disposable plastic shower cap like you get in hotels for this) and leave to rise for about 2 ½ hours at room temperature. You are looking for the dough to triple in size.
While the dough is rising, prepare the topping. Peel and quarter the onion. Pulse the onion chunks in your food processor until you get a fine chop. Mix 1 teaspoon of salt into the onion and transfer the mix to a sieve set over a bowl or the sink. Let sit and drain for 10 minutes. Press with a spatula to remove as much moisture as possible from the onion. In a large nonstick skillet, heat a tablespoon of the oil to shimmering, then sauté the onion until it is tender and just lightly golden brown. You don’t want too much caramelization because the onion will continue to cook during the bake. Once the onion is done, remove to a small bowl and stir in the poppy seeds and set aside.
Preheat your oven to 500°F and put a rack in the lowest level.
Spray a large rimmed sheet pan with nonstick spray and place a sheet of parchment on the bottom. Then pour in a tablespoon of olive oil and spread it evenly over the bottom and sides of the pan. Once the dough is risen, dump it onto the sheet pan. Oil your hands, and gently push the dough to stretch it over the bottom of the pan, don’t worry if it doesn’t fully cover, you just want most of the pan covered with an even layer of dough. Leave uncovered at room temperature for another 30 minutes for a second rise. It won’t increase much in volume, it will just get slightly more pillowy.
After 30 minutes, oil your hands again and gently press the dough out one more time. Dock with a fork all over, about every inch and a half. Drizzle an additional tablespoon of oil over the top, and gently brush it evenly to coat the dough surface.
Sprinkle 1 ½ teaspoons of kosher salt evenly over the top, then using your hands to break up the onion mixture into small pieces, put the onion mixture evenly over the top of the dough, trying not to press down too hard and leaving a good half inch of bare dough around the edge.
Bake for 18-22 minutes, rotating halfway. The bread should puff up, get golden brown around the edges, and the onions should deepen in color.
Rest on a rack for 10 minutes, then use a metal spatula to loosen any places on the edges where the bread might have stuck, and slide the whole bread onto a cutting board. Lift up 1 long edge and peel the parchment paper off the bottom if it is stuck there. Slice and serve.