Bialys are round piece-breads distinguished by a central dimple that is traditionally filled with chopped onion. A product of Jewish cuisine, they are named after the Polish city of Białystok and are often compared to the bagel. Although relatively obscure in most parts of the world, bialys have achieved popularity in New York, where many Jewish emigrants settled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I’m no great fan of bagels, finding them dense and gummy. Bialys, on the other hand, deserve more widespread attention.

I’ve tweaked a recipe from Jeffrey Hamelman’s book Bread, which starts off with a straightforward white bread dough hydrated to 58%. In fact, I’ve tweaked it so much that it barely resembles the original. Hamelman generally favours longer bulk fermentation than is usual with straight doughs, and in his recipe stipulates a first rise of two hours, gently folding the dough after the first hour, before dividing it into individual portions, proving for an hour and then shaping and filling the bialys just before baking. The purpose of the longer bulk fermentation and the folding is mainly to improve gluten strength. That’s all well and good, but not ideal for the average time-poor home baker with work and family commitments to juggle. So I’ve stripped it down.

400g strong white flour
232g water
7g easy blend or dried yeast/15g fresh yeast
4g salt
1 large onion

Combine the flour, water, yeast and salt and knead for 10-15 minutes. Leave to rise for an hour or until doubled in size. Then divide the dough into six pieces and place them on a floured baking tray or linen couche covered with a tea towel to prove, again for an hour or so.

Hamelman’s formula for the filling involves finely chopping an onion, mixing it with breadcrumbs and leaving the mixture to rest for a while in the fridge. The only cooking the onion gets is during the fairly short bake. I prefer to fry the onion gently for a few minutes and don’t bother with the breadcrumbs. This ensures the onions are soft, and it brings out their sweetness.

Close up of a bialy
To shape each bialy, lift a ball of dough using the fingertips of both hands, press your thumbs firmly into it and gently move them apart, stretching the dough. Repeat the stretching with your thumbs while rotating the dough with your fingers; this makes more sense when you actually try doing it. The aim is to create a fairly thin membrane surrounded by a thicker ring of dough 5-6 inches across. Once shaped, place a spoonful of the fried onions into the dimple and scatter some poppyseeds over the bialy. Bake for about 10 minutes at 210°c.

How do you pronounce bialy? Białystok is pronounced ‘bee-ah-wiss-tok’; that curious ‘ł’ is unique to the Polish language and, although it’s difficult for beginners to get the pronunciation spot on, it sounds a bit like an English ‘w’. However, the American English pronunciation is ‘bee-al-ee’. I suppose the British English equivalent would be ‘bee-ah-lee’. Whichever way you say it, they’re well worth a try.