NYC Onion Culture

I love onions!  As both a gardener and a cook, I find the onion fascinating and immensely complex.  Because our SW Oregon gardens are literally mud early in the growing season, I’ve had little luck growing onions that needed to be in the ground by April – so I’m engaged in oven-wintering four kinds of onions this year, and I’m eagerly awaiting the result.  And I’m one of those who wouldn’t be at all surprised when medical science announces that onions have amazing curative powers beyond our imaginations.  Yup, the onion in my estimation is the king of the garden!

Some of my most vivid onion memories are of of the many delicious ways the Jewish bakeries of my youth would use onions to make some of their mind-blowing creations – as I was browsing through one of my favorite bread sites recently, I was stopped in my virtual tracks by a page on old-fashioned NYC onion rolls, just like those made famous by the NYC Jewish bakeries 50 years ago.


Now, I must make a distinction here – plain old ordinary onion rolls are not what we’re talking about here.  If your onion rolls only have flaked onion on top, they are not legit NYC Jewish onion rolls.  They may be delicious, but they’re not the real thing.  To be the real thing, the onion topping needs to have poppy seeds mixed in there too – in fact, the topping mixture probably has as many variations as there were bakeries in NYC.  And those of you who share my memories will recognize this topping as the same stuff that crowns one of New York’s most famous bakery achievements, the bialy!  (I’ll hold this for a more through treatment another time – it deserves it)

OK, so here’s my take on the rolls you see above – they’re good, but not the rival of those I remember of old.  For one thing, in his recipe, Norm talks about how stiff this dough is, and how ten minutes on the stand mixer will create a silky dough that bakes up with a delicate, satiny texture.  However, I didn’t get a real stiff dough with Norm’s recipe – in fact, it wasn’t even stiff enough to avoid having the dough creep up the dough hook as it will do with a wet dough!  I added more flour than Norm suggested, and even then I still had a somewhat wet dough.  Don’t know what the deal was, but next time I think I’ll use one of the other versions listed on the site (there must be a reason why there are so many versions – if the original one was a killer version, why try to improve it?).

And while I’m talking about things I’d change, I’d also use a beaten egg glaze on the roll before rolling in the topping, so the topping sticks a little better than it does without.  And I’d also make the topping mix a bit more like the bialy topping of my memory, which was somewhat more sweet – a good bialy topping needs to have a sweet/salt punch that Jewish bakers have mastered – Norm uses salt, but needs more sweet.

Please don’t misunderstand, there’s nothing wrong with Norm’s recipe – it makes damn good rolls – my wife thinks I’m nuts; she loves them.  But I’ve become a sort of perfectionist baker – I always have a vision in my head of what it will be and if it doesn’t match that, or better it, I’m disappointed.  So my quest is for the silken, delicate crumb – I’ll get it, and when I do, I’ll be back to tell you how.


About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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2 Responses to NYC Onion Culture

  1. teresa freeburn says:

    hi john,

    those rolls look soooo goood! wish i had one to go along with the omelette i just ate. i’ve taken to eating my meals in front of the computer while reading blogs or e-mails.

    so john, can i clone you? if i ever marry again i would love to have a man who enjoys cooking and baking as much as you do.

    say hi to sandee for me.


  2. drfugawe says:

    Hey! I know an empty tummy talkin’ when I hear one.

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