Friday, November 2, 2012

Rosie Makes Bialys.

Every now and then,
someone suggests something for me to cook.
Such is the case today.
My friend, the Ever Alert Marion,
 knew I was writing a column on galumpkis
(Polish stuffed cabbage rolls)
for the Outer Banks Voice
and proposed I try my hand at bialys.
Of course, I had no idea what bialys were.
A little research revealed that bialy
is a cousin to the bagel.
It's a small round yeast bread.
A bialy doesn't have a hole;
it has an indentation
into which you add poppy seeds and chopped onion.
A bagel is boiled then baked,
giving it a shiny brown crust.
The bialy has lightly crispy crust.
A bagel is chewy;
a bialy is not.
Bialys originated in Bialystok,
 the largest city in northeastern Poland.
It was a staple of the 60,000 Jews who lived there 
before they were murdered or forced to flee during the Haulocaust.

From Mimi Sheraton's new book,
"The Bialy Eaters:
The Story of a Bread and a Lost World:"
'In the true spirit of bialy culture,
and for the full experience of entering the fragrant domain
of the bialy bakery with its bustle and air of savory expectancy,
bialys should be store-bought.
But because I have not found any really good bialys
other than Kossar's in the United States...,'

Kossar's is a neighborhood landmark
in Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Established in 1935,
 it is the oldest bialy bakery in the United States.
Owner Debra Engelmayer, "The Queen of Bialys,"
handcrafts 120 dozen bialys daily.

The name Kossar's was familiar to me,
then I remembered that Kossar's Bialys
was featured on Season 8 of The Next Food Network Star.
I remembered Kossar's,
but for the life of me,
I couldn't remember the winner of Season 8's crapfest.
I had to Google it.
Turned out to be Justin Warner
And Justin was the contestant
who did the Food Network interview at Kossar's.
I remembered Kossar's, but not Justin.
And naturally, that's who wins.
I don't think I'll be watching
Justin's upcoming show, Rebel With a Culinary Cause.
I'm not a fan of the ruby lipstick or his coiffed do.
Can he cook?
Don't know,
but that's never stopped Food Network before.

Researching the history of bialys, 
I found poignant memories of this bread.
One gentleman wrote this:
While glancing through the Sunday papers, a familiar word caught my attention, Bialy Roll. It happened to be an article by a book critic; the book’s title was The Bialy Eaters. The author was on a mission to find the origin of this delectable roll. A simple flat roll with a dimple in the center, much like you would make with a thumb imprint. This indentation carried a delicate layer of onion, lightly sprinkled with poppy seeds. The dough was very much like that of pizza. I found this article very interesting, as I am well aware of the delicious bialy roll, as an Italian boy from Brooklyn. I came to California 38 years ago and married my beautiful Jewish bride, Janice, whose parents have been in the bakery business forever, going back to the town of Bialystok, Poland, where the Kuznitsky family originated.

I attended a funeral for my father-in-laws’s sister. After the services, we came back to the house to “nosh,” as a old video was set up to show the Kuznitsky family in the old country of Bialystok, Poland. How endearing to see the entire Kuznitsky family gathered together, as the children frolicked and adults waved with joyous broad smiles for the camera, knowing the video was going to the USA. The video was taken by my father-in-laws’ uncle, Jacob Kuznitsky. Uncle Jake traveled to Bialystok, Poland around 1938/1939, to visit all the relatives in the old country. Fortunately, he brought back the film with the lasting images and memories of the family.

This big Jewish family, I thought to myself, was very much like my Italian family, very close knit. The video panned the entire group of over 50 people. Then, one by one, they approached the camera for a close up smile with waving hand to say “hello.” As we watched the silent black and white video, the “oohs” and “aahs” came from the audience along with “Oh, there is Marilyn, there is Philip,” and so on till the video ended. Then the mother shocker was announced, “All the people you saw were swept away by the Nazis, taken to concentration camps, Auschwitz and Dachau, all killed, no survivors!” The Kuznitsky family, over 50 people, were wiped out – lost family history.

And this painful reminiscence:

When I was an adolescent in Auschwitz lying on the hard shelf that was my bed and hallucinating from hunger, I would often try to recall the shape and savory aroma of the kuchen we used to eat at home in Bialystok.  By then I had lost all of my family and school friends.  Years later, when I was in New York, I would often watch those street-corner wagons that sell coffee and bread in the morning.  I marveled at the whites, blacks, Asians, and Latinos as they munched on their bialys.  I felt as though I was from another planet.  To each of them, it was simply a tasty snack.  How could they know they were partaking of something sacred - a bread that evoked bittersweet memories of a cultured and tragic corner of eastern Poland?  A bread that, in my psyche, summons up even today the mystical dream world of Marc Chagal and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
- Samuel Pisar

After Mimi Sheraton, restaurant critic and food writer, discovered the bialy in New York at Kossar's, the former New York Times food critic set out on a quest to investigate the history of this bread.
She writes:  "The story began with my passion for the squashy, crusty, onion-topped bread roll known as a bialy and eaten as an alternative to the bagel  ... Knowing that the bialy's full and official name was Bialystoker kuchen and that it originated in Bialystok, a city in northeastern Poland that belonged to Russia until 1918, I wanted to make a pilgrimage to that town and sample the roll on its native ground.

 This passion led Sheraton to the Polish town of Bialstok, in search of the people who invented this wonderful bread.  Her desire was to learn what a bialy would look and taste like in its place of origin.

In the early part of the 20th century, about 1 1/2 million Polish Jews immigrated to New York City, bringing with them their culture, their recollections, and their cherished recipes. In 1941, the Nazis ordered the establishment of a Jewish ghetto in Bialystok and most of the Bialystok Jews were exterminated.

When Sheraton journeyed to Bialstok, in 1992, what she found was a place of desolation - both culinary and otherwise.  She encountered the Bialystoker kuchen fressers' vanished way of life. Turn of the century massacres, years of prejudice and pograms, followed by the Holocaust, had reduced the Jewish population from 50,000 to 5.  Sadly, no bialys were to be found in Bialstok.  A once vibrant culture and its iconic bread were gone.

Sheraton's passion led her on a world-wide mission, traveling to Paris, Israel, Buenos Aires, Chicago, Argentina, Melbourne, and New York's Lower East Side.  Sheraton wanted to revive the exiled memories and rescue the stories of those scattered Bialystokers and their once vibrant culture and cuisine. In her quest, Sheraton tracked down and spoke with former Bialystokers throughout the world.  One of her more moving interviews was one with Pesach Szsemunz, an ex-Bialystoker and bialy baker who survived Aushwitz, Dachau, and "other concentration camps" and now lives in Australia.  From Szsemunz:  "In 1941, the Nazis came to us, and since then there are no more Bialystoker kuchen, no more kuchen bakeries, and no more Bialystok Jews. No other Bialystoker can tell you more."  As Sheraton sought out Bialystokers in all corners of the world, they were eager to share memories of the kuchen that was the literal and figurative staff of their lives.  Food is the collective icon that recalls home and family and evokes an unrequited yearning for a lost world. The story of the bialy is a tribute to endurance itself

Chinese writer and statesman, Lin Yutang, wrote,  "What is patriotism but the longing for the foods of one's homeland."  Few facets of life evoke such tenacious nostalgia as the foods of one's childhood.  It is a joyful reminder of the security of family and home.  And among foods, I think no food has a greater resonance than bread - the staff of life.  Bread is the true and original soul food.

Bialys is the story of a Polish town's lost world
and the daily bread that sustained it.

By studying the history of a food,
 I gain a new perspective and respect 
for both the food and the people
 who produced that food. 
 It is humbling
and I want to do right by the food, the culture, the people.

 Sheraton wrote,
My desire to learn what a bialy might look and taste like in its place of origin was one of many such quests I have made during the past forty years.  What some might consider gastronomic obsessions are partly a sort of hobby, prompted by simple curiosity. But, inevitably, there are professional concerns, for as a food critic, I look for the best and most authentic products and preparations to serve as benchmarks...  As an adjunct pursuit, I also look for varying interpretations of ethnic classics as they emigrate from native grounds.

As usual, I researched numerous recipes for bialys
and picked and chose different parts from the recipes.

Rosie's Bialys
(Makes 8)
1/2 cup warm water
1 package active dry yeast
2 tsp sugar
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 3/4 cups bread flour
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Onion topping  (recipe follows)

Cover two baking sheets with parchment paper and lightly sprinkle cornmeal over.

In a small bowl, mix 1/2 cup warm water, yeast, and sugar.  Stir to dissolve.  Let mixture stand about 10 minutes until "proofed,"  i.e. foamy and bubbly.

Pour into large mixing bowl and add remaining 1 1/2 cups warm water, bread flour, all-purpose flour, and salt.  I usually knead by hand, but today I decided to go with my Kitchen Aid and the dough hook.  I kneaded this for about 10 minutes.  Keep kneading until smooth.  If you knead by hand, I'd double the time.
Form into a ball and place in a lightly oiled bowl. Turn to coat all sides of the dough.  Cover with plastic and let rise about 2 hours or until tripled in bulk.  Punch down bowl, form into a ball, turn over, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise about another hour, until doubled. Punch down.
Turn dough out onto lightly-floured board and roll into a cylinder shape.  Cut roll into 8 rounds, cover with plastic, and let rest about 10 minutes.

Pat each round into a circle and place on cornmeal-dusted parchment sheets.  Cover with plastic wrap and let rise another 30 minutes, or until increased about half in bulk.

Make a depression in the center of each bialy, pressing from the center outward, leaving about a 1-inch rim.  Fill each indentation with the Onion Topping and let rise 15 minutes.

Heat oven to 450 degrees.  I placed a baking stone on the top rack and an iron skillet on the bottom.
After the oven reaches 450, wait 30 minutes before putting the bialys in.  You want the baking stone and the skillet sufficiently hot all the way through.

The above step is a reason why you always need to read a recipe in its entirety before you ever think about starting.

I used a pizza paddle to slide the parchment sheets with the bialys onto the baking stone.  Throw a pint of ice cubes into the iron skillet and immediately close the oven door.  The steam from the ice on skillet helps form a crust.  Cook about 10-12 minutes, until a light golden brown.

Cool on racks.

Let's go to the step by steps, 
shall we?
I have the fixin's ready for the guts of the bread -
the yeast mixture.

Mix together 1/2 cup warm water,
1 packet yeast,
and 2 teaspoons sugar.

Add yeast to the warm water.

Sprinkle sugar over top of yeast and watch 
as the sugar wrestles the yeast granules to the bottom.
Or maybe, just maybe,
the yeast, since it's a living organism,
has a death-grip on the sugar
and is consuming it violently.

You stir.
And you wait.

You wait for the yeast to "proof."
The yeast needs to prove it's alive.
It does so by feasting on the sugar
and emitting carbon dioxide.
In the process,
it gets all foamy and bubbly and happy.

If your yeast doesn't "proof,"
throw it out and start over again.

I added the yeast mixture
and all the rest of the ingredients 
to my mixing bowl and kneaded away.

About 10 minutes.
Until smooth.

Turn out onto lightly floured board
and form into a ball.

Place in oiled bowl,
turning to coat,
and cover with plastic.

Here's a Rosie Tip #871:
Rosie nukes a wet kitchen towel
for about 80 seconds.
Then she covers the bowl of dough
with the warm towel.
Place inside the microwave
and let the warmth and steam do its magic.

While the bread is rising,
make the topping.

Topping Ingredients:
2 TB olive oil
3/4 cup minced onions
1 tsp poppy seeds
1/2 tsp sea salt
black pepper
Combine all ingredients and set aside.

Mix ingredients all together
and set aside.

This smells good.
I'm thinking about making a dressing with 
the oil and onion and poppy seeds. 

After 2 hours,
my dough has tripled in bulk.

Flour your fist
and go for my favorite part -
the punch down.

Form into a ball
and turn over.

Cover with plastic and let double again.


Roll the dough from a ball into a cylinder.
This takes a while.
You have to work the dough, 
then let it rest.
Then work it again.
The dough has an innate tendency to contract on itself.
You have to keep working the dough
to let it relax.

I start by rolling the dough.
Then I pick it up like a rope
and make some jump rope action on it
to make the cylinder lengthen and relax.
Then you might let it rest for a few minutes.
Then pick it up at one end and dangle it.
Pick up at the other end and dangle.
Jump rope.
This takes a while.
Be patient.
Work it until you get at least a 12-inch log.

I cut my cylinder in half.

Yeasty, holey goodness.

Cut cylinder into 8 rounds.
We're talking about 2 1/2 - 3 inch diameter
and about 1 1/2 inches high.

Make an inch deep depression in the middle.

Fill with onion/poppy mixture.

Final rise.

Bake at 450 until light golden brown.
10-12 minutes.
Your house will smell wonderful.

Here's a serving tip:
Mix your favorite extra virgin olive oil
and poppy seeds in a small bowl.
Add some herbs if desired.
Dip the earthiness of the bialys into the oil.
And don't forget a schmear of cream cheese.


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