Eastern European Flatbread Is Pure Comfort Food
The weather has just turned cool and crisp. The last tomatoes are ripening in the garden, and the sky is blue, blue, blue.
Soon, for me, it will be soup and bread weather. One of my favorite flatbreads is one I first tried when I was developing recipes for 200 Fast & Easy Artisan Breads: No Knead, One Bowl.
When I made a big bowl of the no-knead bagel dough, I had enough to try a flatbread called "pletzel" that I had read about. Pletzel is a sort of Jewish deep-dish pizza topped with beaten egg and sautéed red onions, then sprinkled with poppy seeds.
As it was baking, the pletzel filled the kitchen with that sautéed onion aroma that always signals “homemade” to me. Then, when I tasted it, the combination of pillowy dough, crunchy poppy seeds, and caramelized onion was true comfort food. With a bowl of homemade soup, this would be a lunch or casual dinner to banish thoughts of the stock market, your retirement account, or the state of the world in general.
Bagels and bialys came to North American from Eastern Europe with Polish and German émigrés. The hallmark of a good bagel is a shiny texture—from boiling them first—and a chewy crumb—from unbleached bread flour. The secret bagel and bialy ingredient is barley malt or malt syrup, a thick and dark brown sweetener made from sprouted barley. You can find this in the syrup section at better grocery stores, health food shops, or online.
Makes bagels, bialys to serve 12 to 16
Measuring cups and spoons
Instant read thermometer
8-cup (2 L) bowl
Wooden spoon or Danish dough whisk
6 1/2 cups bread flour, plus more for dusting
2 1/2 tbsp instant or bread machine yeast
1 ½ tbsp kosher salt
½ cup barley malt or malt syrup
2 large eggs, beaten
¼ cup vegetable oil
1. Measure. Spoon the flour into a measuring cup, level with a knife or your finger, then dump the flour into a large mixing bowl.
2. Mix. Add the yeast and salt to the flour. Stir together with a wooden spoon or Danish dough whisk. Mix the barley malt, eggs, and vegetable oil together in a 4 cup (1 L) glass measuring cup. Pour in enough hot water to reach the 4-cup (1 L) mark and carefully whisk to blend. Pour this mixture into the dry ingredients, stir to create a lumpy dough, then beat 40 strokes, scraping the bottom and the sides of the bowl, until the dough forms a lumpy, sticky mass.
3. Rise. Cover the bowl plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature 72°F (22 °C) for 2 hours or until the dough has risen near the top of the bowl and has a sponge-like appearance.
4. Use Right Away or Refrigerate. Use that day or place the dough, covered with plastic wrap, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days before baking.
A pletzel is a flatbread made with bialy or bagel dough, sort of a Jewish deep-dish pizza topped with sauteed onion and poppy seeds. True comfort food, pletzel is delicious with slow-simmered soups and stews, salads, or beer.
Makes 1 large pletzel to serve 16
1 large baking sheet lined with parchment paper
2 medium red onions, chopped
¼ cup vegetable oil
1/2 recipe prepared Bagel and Bialy Dough
Unbleached bread flour for dusting
1 large egg, beaten
Poppy seeds for sprinkling
2 cups hot water for broiler pan
1. Make Topping. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat and sauté the onions, stirring often, until transparent, about 8 minutes. Set aside to cool.
2. Form. To form a pletzel, remove half of the dough—about the size of a volleyball—with a serrated knife and a dough scraper. The remaining dough in the bowl will deflate somewhat. Transfer the dough portion to a floured surface and dust very lightly with flour. Flour your hands. Working the dough as little as possible and adding flour as necessary, roll the dough into a 10 by 12-inch (25 by 30 cm) rectangle. Lightly flour any sticky places on the dough. The dough should feel soft and smooth all over, like a baby’s skin, but not at all sticky. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet.
2. Rest. Brush the beaten egg all over the dough. Spread the topping over the dough, leaving a 1-inch perimeter, then sprinkle with poppy seeds. Cover with a tea towel and let rest at room temperature for 1 hour.
3. Prepare Oven for Artisan Baking. About 30 minutes before baking, place a broiler pan on the lower shelf and a baking stone on the middle shelf of the oven. Preheat to 450°F.
4. Slide Flatbread onto Baking Stone and Add Water to Pan. Using an oven mitt, carefully pull the middle rack of the oven out several inches. Place the pan of flatbread on the hot stone. Pull the lower rack out, pour the hot water into the broiler pan, and push the lower rack back in place. Close the oven door immediately so the steam will envelop the oven.
5. Bake. Bake for 20 to 22 minutes or until the crust is puffed and golden brown. Transfer to a rack to cool. Cut into slices to serve.