In my New Jersey youth, bialys were the sad, dusty cousin of the chewy bagel. Crowned with poppy seeds or the sticky goodness of not quite burnt onions, fresh-baked bagels released a pleasing genie-like waft of steam when torn. They achieved their full, God-given glory when spread with cream cheese and topped with lox and onion.
But the bialy? It did not receive the ritualistic schvitz bath in simmering water before baking. Even with its pocket full of melted onion, it sat forlorn on the plate, looking every bit like the confused Eastern European immigrant it still was. The only one in our house who appreciated its humility was my father, a child of the Depression who grew up knowing that what wasn't eaten today would be eaten stale tomorrow.
Thanks to artisan baking communities from Brooklyn to Berkeley, the bialy is enjoying a resurgence. A recent story in Huffington Post declared that today's bialy is "better than any bagel you've ever had."
That's a big boast, but Bon Appetit apparently agrees. The magazine, which bestows sales-boosting credibility to a handful of locally produced goods each month, featured a full-page beauty shot of bialys from Loaf Bakery in Durham in its September issue.
Manager Mary Turner recalls when Andrew Knowlton, Bon Appetit's globetrotting bon vivant, came into the shop last April with Mark Overbay of Big Spoon Roasters. Not long after purchasing a bialy, Knowlton posted a photo of it, stating: "I like finding a bialy outside of its native habitat. This was a good one."
"We recognized him, of course, and it was a thrill to see the post," says Turner, who tucks trays of fresh bialys in Loaf's temptation-filled display cases each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning. "A few days later, he asked us to send a box of them to his office to be photographed."
Co-owner Ron Graff first experienced bialys in New Jersey while earning a graduate degree in toxicology at Rutgers. About a year after Loaf opened in November 2011, they added bialys as part of their savory breakfast offerings.
"We thought about bagels but didn't want to mess with boiling" the dough, Graff says. "Initially people weren't sure what they were, but that happens a lot. They either haven't seen it before or don't know how to pronounce it. 'Oniontastic' was one of the words people used."
Graff is very much a traditionalist, so those looking for funky tweaks will have to look elsewhere. "I would hate for someone to have a bialy of ours and then go to New York and see that we were doing something completely messed up," he says.
Long the butt of sour humor—the scheming Max Bialystock of Mel Brooks' The Producers takes his name from the Polish town where bialys were first made—bialys are no longer something to laugh at.
Fulton Forde of Boulted Bread in downtown Raleigh also takes bialy making seriously. He has to, given that customers start lining up soon after the shop opens at 7 a.m. to grab a traditional bialy or his "Southern" version, which features country ham and cheddar. It sounds like something that borders on blasphemy, but it's just too darn good to complain.
Boulted Bread makes bialys every morning and keeps a batch of dough ready in case anyone comes in desperate for a fix. As at Loaf, they only take about 12 minutes to bake. Boulted's version, however, has a higher whole wheat content that lends an appealingly nutty flavor.
"We bake a lot of fancy things, but not everyone wants to eat croissants and sweets all the time," says Forde, who made bialys for several years at Asheville's acclaimed Farm & Sparrow Bakery. "These aren't entirely typical, but we do have people who come in for them every day."
Barrett Jenkins is among them. He prefers the traditional bialy and nibbles around the circumference to save the oniony center, which glistens with fruity olive oil, to savor "like dessert." Matt Wickwire, who painted the mural on their building, prefers the ham and cheese version. "I usually have a biscuit for breakfast, but this is so much better," he says.
While the bialy is not typically a food enjoyed as part of the Rosh Hashana observance—the Jewish New Year officially begins today at sunset—round foods are symbolic of unity, wholeness and eternity, good things to ponder when observant Jews ask to have their names once again written in the Book of Life.
Foods consumed during Rosh Hashana typically include apples and honey, which are intended as harbingers of a sweet year ahead. So this year, why not live large? Stop by Loaf Bakery and Boulted Bread for a fresh warm bialy, dunk it in some honey or add a dollop of apple butter. Whether you observe or not, it's a great way to start the day.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A beauty of bialy"