Category Archives: Pastry

Kentucky Hills + Chicago Snow = World’s Best Sledding

The snow may not be as thick as it is in Boston, but it’s amazing what a foot of snow will do to shut down the City of Louisville. Schools, businesses and government offices are closed. It would all be so depressing if the sledding wasn’t so fantastic. As a Chicago boy I’m no stranger to snow. Heck I spent almost six years of my life in Minneapolis where I saw snow almost 30 inches thick on Halloween. And while the climate favors snow, the topography is mostly indifferent to sledders. Oh sure you can find some decent hills here and there in the Midwest. The City of Chicago once maintained some wicked toboggan runs (all now taken down due to too many cracked tailbones — killjoys!).

However no place I’ve lived rivals Kentucky for the sheer number and variety of steep sledding hills. There are half a dozen within east reach of the house, probably the best being Dog Hill over in Cherokee Park, where if you get the right angle — and don’t hit a tree — you can go almost a quarter mile. Monday’s sledding was good. Yesterday’s, as the show was well packed by then, was blazing fast. Top speeds exceeded 27 miles an hour according to another father’s iPhone speedometer app.

This fellow was going particularly fast. Faster than myself, Mrs. Pastry or the girls, even though we had mostly the same sliding devices: plastic sleds and fabric-wrapped inner tubes. At one point I asked him about his speed edge. “Oh I spray all the bottoms of these things with PAM before we leave the house,” he replied. That, my friends, is a man who has his priorities straight. The girls are off again today. We’re going to hit the hills early before the deep cold sets in this afternoon. Geronimo!

Filed under:  Pastry | 12 Comments

What sort of fat?

Here’s an interesting question. As mentioned below, lard is traditional for this type of rolled laminated dough. That’s probably because pig fat has traditionally been cheap and available in places where you find sfogliatelle and Murcian meat pies: Italy and Spain. The question is: will other types of fats work for this dough? My feeling is they will. Butter should work great even though it’s about 15% water (lard by contrast is only about 1% water). As we pastry makers know, butter works well with other types of laminated doughs, though the lower moisture Euro-style and “dry” butters are generally preferred. Why? Because more moisture means wetter dough layers, which tend to stick together instead of separate. In my research I’ve found recipes that call for a mix of lard and butter which I think is a terrific idea. That way you’d get good layer separation without too much “piggy” taste, assuming that’s a problem. It isn’t for me.

Shortening would work also I would think, though its higher melting point would probably make the dough a little harder to work with. One reader asked if ghee would work for sfogliatelle. My feeling is it wouldn’t for the same reason that liquid fats can’t be used for other types of laminated dough: it would soak into the pastry. Anyway, such is my thinking at this early stage of the game!

Filed under:  Pastry | 8 Comments

What are sfogliatelle?

And how the heck do you pronounce them? Let’s take the second part first. When I’ve heard Italian nationals pronounce the word, it sounds a lot like it’s spelled: sfo-lee-ah-TELL-ay. Of course over on this side of the pond Italian-Americans have their own ideas about it. Sfwee-ah-DELL-ay is how I mostly hear it pronounced back home in Chicago. Who knows which one is correct? Neither. Both. Hell they probably say it completely differently in Philadelphia.

Anyway. In practical terms, sfogliatelle are a type of laminated pastry, made with disks of tightly rolled, well-lubricated dough that are pushed out like paper yo-yo’s into pockets, then filled. Of course the disks of dough are a lot wider than the diameter of a Chinese paper yo-yo, but the mechanics are the same.

The laminating technique you use to create these pastry rolls is fairly simple: you stretch out a piece of dough on a table top like you would a sheet of strudel dough, brush a fat like butter or (more traditionally) lard over then sheet, then roll it up. You cut it into slices and you’re ready to start shaping and filling your sfogliatelle, or your lobster tails, or your Murcian meat pies, as the same technique is used to create all of them.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been wanting to try this for a while now but have yet to work up the courage. The more I learn about it, however, the less intimidating it seems. We’ll see when the dough hits the tabletop though, won’t we?

Filed under:  Pastry | 17 Comments

Next Up: Sfogliatelle

I’ve been traveling on business the last couple of days, not so much because I need to keep the mortgage paid but because I’m trying to avoid doing these. They scare me. But I’ve been promising them to various readers for a while, and what is life without adventure, eh? Let’s get after ‘em!

Filed under:  Pastry | 42 Comments

Making Bialys

Bialys back in their turn-of-the-century heyday in Bialystok, Poland were very large, very flat affairs covered from one side to the other with chopped onion. After a few decades in New York bialys became both smaller and chubbier, with naught but a sprinkling of onion in the center. This is my attempt to split the difference to some degree. These sport the thicker torus shape but contain more onion because, well, I think more flavor per bite is better.

These breads can be made in an afternoon or overnight of you prefer. My version calls for ripening the dough in the fridge overnight to more fully develop the flavor. Other good ideas include making them with old dough or a sourdough starter. If you go the old dough route, simply substitute a 50% hydration, aged (up to 3-day-old, refrigerated) dough for 1/3 of the recipe (be sure to make it with high gluten or bread flour). You can do the same thing with a bread starter, just make sure that you add enough flour in your most recent feeding to bring the hydration to roughly the same 50-50 by weight ratio (make sure you’re feeding your starter with high-gluten or bread flour in the days leading up to the mixing). Or you can skip the ripening altogether and make them by the straight dough method in a single afternoon. They’ll still taste great.

Start yours by assembling your ingredients. Combine the flour, yeast and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle. Stir the ingredients on low…

…and once they’re blended pour in your water as the machine runs.

When the dough looks clumpy/shaggy, switch to the dough hook and knead for 6-8 minutes until the dough comes together into a fairly firm ball.

Sorta like this.

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover it with plastic wrap. Let it rise for 1 hour then refrigerate it overnight. Or if you’re using the straight dough method, just let it rise for 1 1/2 hours.

Take the dough out of the fridge and let it rise about 1 hour, half an hour to take off the chill and another half hour to complete the rise. The dough should increase by at least 50% if not double.

Cut the dough into five 3-ounce pieces.

Pinch the cut ends together, stretching the ball mostly smooth on the top.

Place them smooth-side up on a towel-lined sheet pan. Sprinkle the dough balls amply with flour and cover with plastic wrap.

Let the dough balls rise at least another 2 hours until they’re about double their original size.

Over-proofing isn’t really a concern here. Indeed it’s a good thing as it will prevent the bialys from puffing up too high. When you poke the dough with your finger the impression should NOT spring back as with a well-proofed baguette. The impression should remain there, exactly as it was. Here is a live action movie of what you should see:

Got it? Nothing. If it takes another hour to get the dough to that consistency, so be it. I should add here that if you like flatter bialys, let this proofing continue up to another hour, even two if you like.

While the dough is over-rising, make your oven as brick oven-like as you can and then preheat it to 500 degrees Fahrenheit (or whatever your maximum temperature is). Now then it’s time to shape. Pick up a ball and firmly pinch it flat in the center, rotate the dough in your hands to get an even lip. My other hand appears here courtesy of Warner Brothers.

You want a wide center with a thin lip, like a small version of a pizza. Once there were special rolling pins made for this purpose. Wish I could have found one.

Lay the rounds out on a piece of parchment paper and using a pair of kitchen shears cut holes in the dough to discourage puffing. Cut all the way through to the bottom. The filling won’t fall out and indeed the holes will close during baking.

Spoon in a tablespoon of cooked onions. These are quick-sautéed onions, browned (indeed blackened) in about 8 minutes over high heat. I used one large onion, about a tablespoon of oil and about 1/4 teaspoon of salt.

You can also use sweeter long-cooked caramelized onions or baked garlic. Raw onions are an excellent choice as well. Mix in some poppy seeds to boot if you want a truly Old World look. Slide the parchment sheet onto the back of a sheet pan. Rest them 10-15 minutes to relax the gluten (another anti-puffing measure).

Once the resting is done, bake them in your prepared oven, sliding the bialys with the paper onto your baking stone as shown here. Bake them 8-12 minutes until brown patches appear. Grasping the edge of the parchment paper carefully with your fingers or a set of tongs, slide the paper off the baking stone and back onto the back of a sheet pan.

At which point they’re done. They are best consumed warm with a “schmear” of good butter or cream cheese over the top. Carmy, I hope these meet with your approval!

Filed under:  Bialys, Pastry | 22 Comments

Reports of Polish Bialy’s Death Greatly Exaggerated

A fascinating comment came in late yesterday from reader Ilona in Poland. Seeing the image in the below “Bialysfail” post she suddenly had an inkling of what I’m attempting to make here: cebularze, or Polish onion buns. I performed a quick image search and sure enough, in no time I had dozens of images of the type of thing I’m shooting for.

These buns hail from eastern Poland, which by no coincidence is where the city of Bialystok is located. In my cursory research I discovered that there are competing theories in Poland as to where in the east cebularze come from. Some say the city of Lublin, which is well to the south of Bialystok, however that’s not the really interesting detail. Both sources I came across claim that cebularze were primarily produced by Jewish bakers in large eastern cities in the decades before World War II.

Which would indicate that the things we call “bialys”, which were known in Bialystok by the generic name Bialystoker kuchen weren’t actually unique to that city. Indeed they seem to have been well known outside Bialystok, albeit by a different generic name. And while they may have disappeared from Bialystok after the World War II — perhaps even from all of Eastern Poland — they soon came back, and in a very large way. Just do a Google image search. Judging by the sheer number of results they’re as common as doughnuts in Eastern Poland (though based on the recipes I’ve seen so far the dough is now greatly enriched with butter and eggs).

So it seems the conventional (American) wisdom concerning the post-war history of bialys is actually incorrect. That’s good news on a lot of levels, because these are great little breads no matter what you call them.

On a side note, I find it interesting that the Polish word for “onion” is cebula. That’s almost identical to the Spanish word, cebolla. But Spanish is a Romance language and Polish is a Slavic language. I wonder how they both came to use the same term. Anyone care to enlighten me?

Thanks very much for your terrific insight, Ilona!

Filed under:  Pastry | 14 Comments


Nope. Dinner rolls with a pile of onions on top is not what I was shooting for. Part of the problem is that the slits in the bottoms weren’t big enough, but more than that the hydration is still too high. Also the dough didn’t proof long enough. These need to overproof, at least by conventional bread standards, before they bake. A longer resting of the shaped bialys before baking would also have helped the dough relax. We’ll try again tomorrow!

Filed under:  Pastry | 29 Comments

What Steam Does For Bread

Reader Melody writes this about steaming loaves of bread:

Steaming honestly doesn’t seem to help that much. My baguettes still have a thick and dull crust. Am I doing something wrong? I spray more often than you do. If you can talk a bit about this that would be really helpful. I’ve been talking to our local baker but I think he’s getting a bit tired of me.

Melody, I would be delighted, for there are a lot of misconceptions about steaming bread. It’s widely thought that steam produces thin, crispy crusts on breads. That isn’t strictly true. What steam actually does is delay the formation of a thick crust by moistening the surface of the bread and keeping it supple. This allows the loaf to expand more than it otherwise would in a drier oven. The result is a higher rise and more open crumb since the crust doesn’t harden immediately and hold the expansion in. This is actually the main benefit of steam.

In an ideal situation, once the bread has finished “springing” — about a third of the way through the bake — you quit the steaming and allow the surface of the loaf to dry out. If all goes well, what would have otherwise been a thick and crunchy crust is now a thin and crispy crust.

A further benefit of the steam is that it causes flour granules on the surface of the loaf to absorb moisture, swell and “gelatinize” (read: dissolve into their component starch molecules). Those individual carbohydrate molecules will further break down in the heat of the oven into their component sugars, which them caramelize and turn the crust brown.

So that in a nutshell is what steam does. I should add that trouble starts when you introduce too much steam and/or keep it up for too long. In that case the cool, gelatinized layer gets too thick and the finished crust becomes extremely hard and thick. The prolonged cooling also retards caramelization and keeps the crust from browning.

So that’s probably what’s happening in your oven Melody: too much spritzing! The best of all possible worlds for bread making is a moderately moist oven for the first 20-30% of the bake, then an almost totally dry oven for the rest. Make sense? Thanks for the question!

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Is high gluten flour strictly necessary?

Good question, reader Molly. High gluten flour will definitely give you a better overall bialy-eating experience. Like a bagel, a bialy should be dense and firm and/or chewy. The extra protein in the flour provides that texture boost. Think of the protein (gluten) molecules as little springs. During the kneading process they attach to one another creating a stretchy network throughout the dough. That network stays more or less intact even through the baking process, so when we bite down the result is “chew”.

Here I should point out that not all gluten is created equal. The gluten in European flour differs from the gluten in American flour in that when it’s developed it’s more firm than it is chewy. The result is that European bread dough is not as elastic as our own, and that offers distinct advantages when it comes to shaping and baking breads and crusts. Their doughs don’t “spring back” or need to be rested like ours do. Which reminds me that I’ll need to include a resting step in the recipe if I want a broader depression in the center of my bialys when I bake.

Polish-Jewish bakers in Bialystok never had to worry about their bialys bunching up in the oven — but I do! Thanks for reminding me, Molly!

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Bialy Recipe

I confess the idea of using a starter for these was tempting. I found a few notes here and there on some recipe boards to the effect that a starter would be “traditional” for bialys. I’m inclined to dispute that. Bialys were invented in Bialystok, Poland around the year 1880. Which means they are by any definition a “modern”, “city” bread, made with the packaged brewer’s yeast that would have been commonly available at the time. Considering how much the Poles have always loved light, fluffy, fast-rising breads I think the odds of bialys being sponge-raised are remote. Still I’m not stickler for authenticity. Some of dough or starter would work well here. Substitute either for up to 1/3 of the dough, making sure the 50% hydration ratio is retained, and making sure you use high gluten or bread flour for either preferment.

2 cups (10 ounces) high-gluten or bread flour
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
1 teaspoon salt
5 ounces (2/3 cup minus a teaspoon) water at room temperature
1/2 recipe caramelized onions, chopped

In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle, stir together the flour, instant yeast and salt. Add the water in a steady stream, stirring until the flour is moistened. Switch to the dough hook and knead the dough about 7 minutes. Remove the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and let it rise about 1 1/2 hours until doubled.

At that point remove the dough to a floured board and deflate it. Divide it into 5 pieces and shape the pieces into balls by gathering the cut edges edges together and pinching them closed. Place them smooth-side-up on a tray lined with a floured cloth. Sprinkle them amply with flour and cover with another towel or plastic wrap for another 2 hours.

About an hour into the proofing, preheat your oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, making it as brick-oven like as you can beforehand.

To shape, pick up a piece of dough and, with both hands, start rotating the dough ball, pinching it in the center to flatten it the middle, leaving a cornice around the lip. Put the circles on a sheet of parchment paper. Using scissors or a knife, cut a small slit in the bottom to defeat any large bubbles that might want to rise while the bialys are baking. Spoon about 2 tablespoons of caramelized onions into the centers and let the bialys rest for 10-15 minutes to relax the gluten.

Slide the parchment sheet with the bialys onto the back of a sheet pan or cookie sheet. Open the oven door and, holding the sheet pan (but not the parchment) by the wide side, reach into the hot oven and plant the far edge of the pan on the far edge of the baking stone, then in one quick motion slip the pan out, leaving the parchment sheet with the bialys resting directly on the stone as shown here. Carefully pour about a up of water onto the empty sheet pan and spritz the sides of the oven, then close the oven door.

Bake the bialys about 8 minutes until they’re golden with some darker brown spots. Remove them from the oven with tongs and place them on a rack to cool. Eat them warm!

Filed under:  Bialys, Pastry | 6 Comments