I have something that I want to tell you about: a robot herding cows.
I knew some engineering students at uni, and one of them has been telling me about our university’s robotics research. Basically they are making robots that – one day – will be able to do all kinds of clever things by remote control or (gasp!) autonomously.
One of their experiments is cow herding with a robot called Shrimp. And it was picked up on Canadian TV, the BBC and lots of other media sites! I think Shrimp is kinda adorable, in the Wall-E style, and it looks like the cows just accepted that there’s a robot ushering them around – !!
Bialys, the stories
I digress from bialys. This bread seems about as far removed from cow herding robots as you can get. The stories about bialys are a little sad yet appealing to the romantic imagination. They look into the past, not into a robotics future.
Bialys, or bialystoker kuchen, comes from the city of Bialystok, Poland; it was part of Czarist Russia at one stage. Bialys look similar to the bagel, except it has an indent and not a hole, the indent is traditionally filled with an onion and poppyseed mixture, and it is baked without being boiled first.
Bialys seems to have been eaten at all meals by the Jewish people in Bialystok, but now is much less commonly found. Some stories from people who have migrated to the US are here. Mimi Sheraton also wrote a book, The Bialy Eaters, The Story of a Bread and a Lost World.
(Mimi Sheraton’s book title made me think of the Lotus Eaters from Ulysses, except eating bialys in other parts of the world probably reminded people of home and Bialystok, not forgetful of it.)
Bialys was this week’s Tuesdays with Dorie assignment. Could I do it justice?
I don’t know if what I made is like a real bialy, but it was really, really tasty. They had the soft crust and chewy texture that are said to be characteristic of bialys – like bagels, but perhaps a bit less dense. The onion filling really lifted the roll out of the ordinary, even if I did not have poppy seeds and subbed nigella seeds instead.
The only cautionary note is the onion filling didn’t stick to the bread, and so I nearly got a shower of onion bits on the dining table!
Recipe for bialys emphasise that it should be made with high gluten flour (14-15% gluten), or at least bread flour (12-13% gluten), to get that characteristic soft crust and chewy texture. (from this page)
The tricky part of making bialys seems to be making a large enough indent in the middle of a risen ball of dough, without squashing the air bubbles that had formed as the dough was rising. I just sort of went with the flow, and tried to imagine I was making a pizza with a super-thick crust. I also picked up on tips to make a bigger indent than you think you’ll need, because the dough will rise again in the oven, so the indent in the bialys will become quite a bit smaller.
I also made these changes from the recipe: I did not add onions into the dough, as most other recipes I found used a plain dough. And I had some egg wash left over from Chinese New Year baking, so the bialys got a very light brushing of egg wash.
Bialys should be eaten on the day they are made. I froze mine and had them for lunch – bliss, except for the shower of caramelised onion on a suit!
Sending this to Yeastspotting.
(recipe from Baking with Julia. I also found it reproduced on bakespace.com, so here it is as published on the site with some edits like adding metric measurements)
2 1/4 cups warm water (not more than 115F / 46C)
2 teaspoons sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons yeast
2 tablespoons shortening (only if you add onion to the dough)
1/3 cup sweet onion, finely chopped (I did not use onion in the dough)
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 cups (approx 400 grams) bread flour
2 tablespoons canola oil (I used peanut oil)
1 cup sweet onion, finely chopped (I used white onions)
2 teaspoons poppy seeds
1 tablespoon salt
3 cups (approx 400 grams) bread flour
1. For the sponge: In a large glass bowl, whisk together the water, sugar and yeast and allow to stand about 5 minutes or until foamy. If using onions in dough: In a small saute pan over low heat, sweat 1/3 cup onion in shortening until it’s soft and translucent.
2. With a wooden spoon, stir the flour and onion mixture into the yeast mixture. Stir for about 3 minutes then cover tightly with cling film and let stand about 90 minutes or until doubled and bubbly.
3. For onion topping: Sweat remaining onion in canola oil with poppy seeds over low heat until translucent, set aside to cool.
4. For the bialys: Preheat the oven to 500 F. Place an oven proof pan or baking tray in the bottom of the oven and your baking stone or heavy baking tray in the center.
5. When the sponge is ready, add salt and 2 cups (approx 260 grams) bread flour and begin to knead the soft dough right in the bowl. Add as much flour as is needed to obtain a workable dough and knead until it’s soft and pliable, about ten minutes total.
6. Cover the bowl tightly with cling film and allow to rise until doubled in bulk, about 90 minutes.
Divide the dough into 12 portions and shape each into a round about half an inch thick. Create a depression in the center and prick well with a fork.
7. Divide the onion mixture evenly between the breads and prick the centers again before baking.
Put ice cubes or cold water into the skillet or baking tray to create steam. Transfer the breads onto your baking stone or baking tray with a bit of cornmeal to prevent sticking. (I used a cookie sheet to help transfer the bialys onto a baking stone)
8. Bake ten minutes at 500 F, reduce temperature to 450 and bake a further 5 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack
Other bialys recipes:
Bialys, from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Bread Bible, apparently recipe is from Kossars in NY. This recipe has a different flour:water ratio. Reproduced on blogs including Smitten Kitchen.
Zusman’s recipe from the Artisan Jewish Deli, from npr.org.
Bialys stories and recipe from What’s Cooking America.