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History of Bialys, Bialystok Kucken:
Outside of New York City, the bialy is
little known. Bialys came to the United States from Bialystok, Poland,
and they are sometimes known as Bialystok Kuchen. In the early 1900s,
hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews immigrated to American
and settled in New York City. They brought with them their taste and
recipes for bialys. While there were once dozens of bialy bakeries in
New York, the number can now be counted on one hand. Bialys have long
been a staple in New York delicatessens and a favorite of the Jewish
community. True bialy lovers know where the best bakeries are. In fact,
Manhattan's Lower East Side is lovingly called "Bialy Central."
A bialy is similar to a bagel, in that it is a round, chewy roll. But it
is unlike a bagel in three important ways: One, it does not have a hole
in the middle, but a depression; two, bialys never became popular
outside of New York City; and three, bagels are boiled and bialys are
baked. The indentation in the middle of the dough is filled with onion,
garlic, or poppy seeds. Because the bialy has a very short shelf like,
about 6 hours, they do not lend to being shipped around the country.
They can be modest in size, 3 to 4 inches, or the size of a small pizza.
Similar to the bialy is the onion pletzel and the onion board, popular
Jewish breads from other countries.
Jessica (Jess) Selin of Chicago sent the
following interesting story about her family’s history with the bialy:
My great-great-great grandfather, Moshe
Nosovich, was a baker in Bialystok, then part of the Russian empire, and
now part of Poland. Despite the extensive research we’ve conducted, we
don’t know how he became such a successful man – a Jew owning three
bakeries in czarist Russia. It is perhaps doubly curious because the
fashion in those days was for Jewish men to be pale and academic, while
the women were more down-to-earth and worldly. But he did well as a
baker. So much so, in fact, that family tradition holds him to be the
inventor of the bialy, not a mere baker thereof.
Moshe had four children, three girls and a
boy. Two of the girls became involved in the bakeries. My
great-great-grandmother, Neshka, was one of those two girls. She worked
at the bakeries because her husband, pale and academic, and not the man
Moshe had picked out for her (thus defying custom), died young. She and
her four children, all daughters, worked in the bakeries. On very cold
nights, they slept there as well, warming themselves on the residual
heat of the ovens. But we know they didn’t live over the bakery, as
poorer shop owners did. My great grandmother, Bella, talked about
walking past the prison to get to the bakery.
Bella was the oldest of Neshka’s four
children and so started working fairly young. There was a lot of work to
do, as bialys were a central part of the Jewish diet in Poland, eaten at
all three daily meals. Perhaps she tired of this work, because she
immigrated to the Untied States in 1899 when she was seventeen years
old. We don’t know if she brought the family recipes for bialys or
After my family visited Bialystok in 1993, we confirmed
where the family had lived and where the bakery had been. A number of
stories, including this one, went from Bella to Ida to Nina, to me; but
alas, no bialy recipes.
Dean Brettschneider demonstrating how to form the bialys. Photos courtesy of
Dean Brettschneider, author of The New Zealand Baker — secrets and recipes from the professionals
and Baker - the best of international baking from Australia and New Zealand.
Don Damiano, originally from Brooklyn, New York and now living in
California, sent the following interesting story about the bialy roll and the Kuznitsky family:
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.
I thought you might find this Kuznitsky family lineage interesting, going back to Bialystok,
Poland. Before the war, some of the family settled in Chicago, where
this bakery family set up shop making cakes, rolls, bread, bagels, and
the bialy roll. In 1935, my father-in-law and his father, Phillip,
opened a bakery in Los Angeles (Wabash Avenue, in Boyle Heights). He
also opened a bakery in Monterey Park with the aid of his wife, Coy.
Later to have his two sons, Larry and Phil, join their bakery efforts.
Their Atlantic Square Bakery was successful for over 40 years. There is
another Kuznitsky family bakery in Mission Hills, San Fernando Valley,
which has been operated by the children of this family for over 40 years.
The bialy comes from
Bialystocker Kuchen or bread from Bialystok, Poland. In the old country,
rich Jews ate Kuchen with meals - for the poor Jews, Kuchen was the
meal. Now for us in the states, it is mostly eaten in the morning,
heated and topped with butter. The most inventive bialy roll eaters
would put cream cheese topped with lox, and the toppings go on and on.
As for me, I’m old fashion, and I like my bialy roll fresh from the
bakery, heated with a spread of butter and with coffee. This way I’m a
very happy man!
Today, the town of Bialystok is not even a shadow of what it was. There are a handful of
Jews there, no Kuznitsky’s and no bialy rolls can be found. Hard to
imagine, but both have lost their identity in Bialystok, Poland, where
they both ironically originated!
Kuznitsky’s name flourishes in the states, as do the bialy rolls.
Brooklyn Bialy Recipe:
This wonderful recipe was sent
to me by Bonni Lee Brown of Bradenton, Florida. Bonni grew up in New York
City where her father owned a pharmacy in Brooklyn. Bonni says, "This is
the closest recipe I've played with that approximates the fresh bialys my
Dad would bring home on Sunday mornings. I was never a big bagel fan, but
cream cheese and lox on a bialy I could go for anything. My children think
these bialys are the best they've had outside of New York City."
Bonni has a bakery, called Bonni Bakes Edible Art, in Bradenton, Florida's newly organized Village of the Arts.
Everything Bonni bakes is done from scratch in small batches, using only the best ingredients available. No chemicals. No artificial colors or flavors.
Cuisine: New York, Polish
Yields: 8 Bialys
Prep time: 25 min
Bake time: 15 min
Onion Topping (recipe below)
2 cups warn water (110 to 115 degrees), divided
1 package active dry
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 3/4 cups bread
3 1/2 cups all-purpose
Cover two baking sheets with parchment paper
and sprinkle lightly with cornmeal. Prepare Onion Topping; set aside.
In a large bowl, combine 1/2 cup water, yeast,
and sugar; let stand 10 minutes or until foamy. Add remaining 1 1/2 cups
water, salt, bread flour, and all-purpose flour. Knead by hand or with dough
hook of mixer for 8 minutes until smooth (the dough will be soft). If you
think the dough is too moist - add flour, a tablespoon at a time. If the
dough is looking dry and gnarly - add warm water, a tablespoons at a time.
dough into a ball and place in a lightly oiled bowl, turning to oil all
sides. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise 1 1/2 hours or until tripled in
bulk. Punch dough down in bowl, turn it over, cover with plastic wrap, and
let rise another 45 minutes or until doubled in bulk.
On a floured board or counter, punch dough down and roll into a cylinder shape.
With a sharp knife, cut cylinder into 8 rounds. Lay dough rounds flat on a
lightly floured board, cover with a towel, and let them rest 10 minutes.
Gently pat each dough round into circles (a little higher in the middle than
at the edge), each about 3 to 4 inches in diameter. Place bialys on prepared
baking sheets, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise an additional 30
minutes or until increased by about half in bulk (don’t let them over-rise).
Make an indention in the center of each bialy with two fingers of each hand,
pressing from the center outward, leaving a 1-inch rim. Place approximately
1 teaspoon of Onion Topping in the hole of each bialy. Dust lightly with
flour, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise 15 minutes.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Bake on upper and lower shelves of the oven
for 6 to 7 minutes, then switch pans and reverse positions of pans (front to
back), and bake another 5 to 6 minutes until bialys are lightly browned.
NOTE: These are soft rolls, and it is important not to bake them too long or
they will be very dry. Remove from oven and let cool on wire racks.
After cooling, immediately place in a plastic bag (this will allow the exterior to
soften slightly). NOTE: These rolls are best eaten fresh, preferably lightly
toasted and smeared with cream cheese. For longer storage, keep in the freezer.
Makes 8 bialys.
1 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons poppy seeds
1/3 cup minced onion
1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
small bowl, combine vegetable or olive oil, poppy seeds, onions, and salt; set aside.