They warned me this would happen: I would leave New York for Chapel Hill, and I would have to give up certain people, places and things. Of course, there's no replacing the people, or The City's thrum, pulse and vibe, which I mostly didn't miss. I even got used to knowing that a decent pizza slice might now be more than a 100-foot walk in any direction. But what I missed most were bialys.
A bialy (bee-AH-lee) is related to a bagel, with some key differences: Bialys are baked, not boiled and then baked like bagels. They aren't pierced in the center, either. Instead of a hole, they merely have a depression—apt, given their Ashkenazi provenance. (Bialy bonus: The depression is filled with delicious onion bits.) The rolls differ in personality, too. Bagels are the leading men, puffed up and a little airy, like George Clooney. Bialys are the character actors, unlovely yet utterly distinctive, a bit like Paul Giamatti.
It did not take me long to track down a good bagel, but after two years, I was no closer to finding a decent bialy. Someone steered me toward Guglhupf and to a new deli opening in Meadowmont, but still, I was left wanting. Even Bagels on the Hill had no clue how to make them. During trips back to New York, I would religiously hit Kossar's on Grand Street, where I'd cram as many as I could into my carry-on luggage. At home, they were divvied with military precision—an allotment for the freezer, a bunch for the fridge, the rest in the breadbox. Then they'd run out, and I'd be blue, bereft, bialyless.
Eventually my better angels took hold. I decided to do something about it aside from yearning futilely. If I tried and failed to make an edible batch of bialys, all I'd be losing would be some flour, salt, sugar and water. I found several recipes online, all similar and none too demanding. They didn't turn out bad at all. I had a few bad batches, but now that I've made 100 or so, I can add Amateur Bialy Maker to my résumé.
My interest in the bialy, I should admit, goes way beyond the fact that, when toasted and spread with butter or cream cheese, it makes for a supremely satisfying breakfast. My grandmother called them kuchens. She would bring me a kuchen (the ch sounds like you have something caught in your throat), and her buttering touch was not demure. She didn't even break up the butter. Even now, eating one fills me with the warm familiar presence of my dear grandma, whose name was Ethel. And of course, my stomach is filled, too; she'd like that.
In Ratatouille, the desiccated food critic Anton Ego takes a bite of the title dish and is whisked back to a state of innocence. That would be pushing it for the measly bialy, but when the house gets the baked, yeasty scent of Kossar's in the morning, it feels like I've gotten damn close.