In case you don’t know, the bialy is a roll shaped like a bagel, only flatter and not boiled before being baked as a bagel is. The bialy has an indentation in the middle rather than a hole, a flat surface onto which finely chopped onions should be sparingly sprinkled to crisp and caramelize during baking. Kossar’s on Grand Street (there was once another branch on East 14th) also sold a non-traditional garlic version, which was additionally dotted with poppy seeds. The bialy originated in the small city of Bialystok in northeastern Poland near the border of Belarus, where many Lower East Side Jewish immigrants originated. In fact, you can still find the Bialystoker Synagogue on Willett Street just off Grand Street, now renamed Bialystoker Place.
Mimi Sheraton details many of these facts in her history and reminiscence, The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World (1992), wherein she journeys to Bialystok, Poland to seek out the origins of the roll. And it was to her that I turned with a bagful of Kossar’s post-renovation bialys that damp morning to see if they were as good as she remembered them. I, too, was a bialy lover, who used to acquire them at the uptown branch of Kossar’s, when living in the East Village was relatively cheap.
In spite of the snow, the weekday, and the newness of the operation, Kossar’s was jammed when I arrived at 9 a.m., with a line that twisted around the gleaming new premises, lined with white subway tiles and staffed with salesclerks in jaunty red hats and bandanas. A window looked into the bakery, which was much smaller than I recalled it. A single baker (one used to see at least three or four) was retrieving dough from a balling machine and arranging it on the same wooden flats that had historically been used.
I ordered every kind of bialy that was in stock, including onion, garlic, and the newfangled sundried tomato. (Sheraton was later to exclaim, "I don’t like sundried tomato bialys — too sweet! — but I understand they do it for the young people.") I also ordered a bulka and an onion disc, two bialy offshoots that had also been available in the original incarnations of Kossar’s. The former is a long tapered roll paved with poppy seeds that my friends and I learned to make Italian-Jewish hero sandwiches with; the latter something like a pizza sprinkled with onions and poppy seeds. In fact, the new place makes them into actual pizzas with the addition of tomatoes, onions, and peppers.
We sat down at Sheraton’s West Village townhouse around 10 a.m. with a tableful of baked goods in front of us, and dug in. Naturally, we picked up the onion bialys first. Observed Sheraton, before we even tasted them: "These look horrible," pointing to the center of the bialys, which each had a big wad of greenish onion paste, "that’s not appetizing; it looks like snot." After taking a bite, she concluded, "The flavor is pretty good but the center should be bigger."
We both agreed that the texture was too doughy and the crumb too dense. She later theorized that the dough was less wet that it should be, partly as a result of the need to use a balling machine to speed production. "This is the sort of thing Sigfried Giedion complains about in the bread chapter of Mechanization Takes Command," Sheraton noted.
We next turned to the garlic bialy, which had a clump of pale chopped garlic in the middle and a very scant strew of poppy seeds. Sheraton believes that all bialys should have poppy seeds, an ingredient beloved of Eastern European Jews, known in Yiddish as "mohn." The problem with this bialy was that the garlic was undercooked, causing Sheraton to kvetch that it tasted too strongly of raw garlic. When we tried the sundried tomato bialy, it proved too sweet. Said Sheraton, "It looks bloody."
In her book, Sheraton posits that the bialy is descended from the pletzel ("small bread"), known by the less-euphonious English name of onion disc. We had an example of this ur-form before us, beautifully browned and dotted with sesame and onion. "Not enough onion," Sheraton observed, "but the flavor is very good." I noted that the thing was stale. The next day she emailed, "Onion disc was delicious when reconstituted. Moistened slightly, wrapped in foil, 400 oven, 7-9 min, then unwrapped and crisped."
Indeed freshness was a problem with all the baked goods we acquired that day, making us think that maybe Kossar’s had stocked the store a little too early before its actual public opening. The worst thing we tried was the bulka. Rather than being a cigar-shaped roll studded with poppy seeds, it was like a big, damp Kaiser roll with none of that lightness that that form of bread possesses.
The last thing Mimi Sheraton and I tried was one of the bialy sandwiches now being offered at Kossar’s. Eight were listed, mainly heaped with things like smoked fish and egg salad. I’d picked the most outlandish, one of the new menu additions that reflected Sephardic influences. The "open sesame" ($8.50) finds an onion bialy split in half and served open-faced, with humus, avocado, tomato, cucumber, parsley, olive oil, and zaatar (a Middle Eastern spice blend) layered on top. The tomato was yellowish; the humus a little sour and neither creamy nor nutty.
Quoth Sheraton, a little sadly I thought, "It’s horrible in every possible way it could be horrible."
Former New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton is the author, most recently, of 1000 Foods To Eat Before You Die. A bialy is one of those things.