The High Holy Days are coming and once again we won’t have traditional gatherings and meals. But Beth Lee has come to my rescue. Her new book, The Essential Jewish Baking Cookbook, got me back to my roots with lip-smacking goodness. Marcel had his madeleines. And I have Pletzel – Jewish onion board topped with onions and poppy seeds.
One of my favorite childhood memories is driving back from the bakery with my dad. Sure getting home to pull everything out of the goody-laden bag was fun. But the best part was sharing a piece of newly baked corn rye bread or a torn-off corner of pletzel as he drove. We could cover up the bread shenanigans by taking a piece from the middle. However, there was no hiding the “pre-tasting” of the pletzel. Still, we ripped off a corner and downed it with glee.
What is Pletzel?
Beth describes pletzel as “[I]f focaccia and a bialy had a baby, it would be a pletzel.” For those unfamiliar with bialys (which I do love, though not quite as much as pletzel), I’d put it like this. If focaccia and flatbread got together and decided to raise their child Jewish, their baby would be pletzel – Jewish onion board.
Basically, pletzel is a bread board with a rim. A nicely browned bottom and a soft top are essential. So are the diced and cooked onions that you spread over all but the rim. How tall the rim is and how thin the center becomes are up to you and what you like.
In my memory, the pletzel of my childhood was quite thin in the middle (sort of like Jewish onion pizza with poppy seeds and no cheese) with a high rim and a few crunchy bubbles around the edges. Beth’s is a bit thicker in the center and the rim doesn’t rise as high. But the basic idea is the same.
Traditionally, poppy seeds are spread out over the onions before baking. Could you omit them or substitute another seed or similar topping? Of course.
Why Pletzel – Jewish Onion Board at this time of year?
Of course the High Holy Days are not just about food. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, starts the 10-day High Holy Day period on a serious note. As the Union for Reform Judaism puts it, Rosh Hashanah is “a time of prayer, self-reflection, and repentance.” Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, ends the High Holy Days. The holidays remind us to ask forgiveness of those we have wronged, vowing to do better in our relationships with God and other people during the coming year.
Still, food and eating together are central to all Jewish holidays. The High Holy Days are no different. From apple cake for Rosh Hashanah or Lokshen kugel (sweet noodle pudding) to break the Yom Kippur fast, traditional foods play a central role in creating memories of the religious observance.
While not necessarily a traditional High Holy Day food, pletzel is a traditional Ashkenazic Jewish food. Beth Lee’s version is simple and scrumptious. We’re planning a simple Rosh Hashanah picnic this year instead of traditional large group (kallah) pot luck at our house. People can bring their own food if they don’t want to share. But I’m definitely bringing pletzel for anyone and everyone who wants a piece of edible Jewish heaven.
Even if you’re not a bread maven – and I’m definitely not – you’ll find pletzel simple to make. There are only a few ingredients. A dough that is basically flour, water, yeast, and oil with a bit of salt
and a simple topping of slow cooked onions and poppy seeds with the option to add flake or kosher salt.
Plus, pletzel doesn’t keep your oven on for long. And the reward is exceptional. By the way, it goes without saying that you don’t have to be Jewish or celebrate the Jewish holidays to enjoy pletzel – or any of the other traditional Jewish baked goods in Beth’s book.
In case you’re still hesitant about pletzel, here are a few tips on how to make it.
Tips for Making Pletzel – Jewish Onion Board
- Pletzel timing. Judging how long to proof bread has always intimidated me. (Proofing is letting the dough rise after you add the yeast and liquid to the flour.) But this pletzel is quite forgiving on that score. Beth’s recipe calls for making the dough and letting it rise in the refrigerator overnight. Although she doesn’t specify when you begin to make the dough, it would make sense to do that in the late afternoon or the evening before you want to bake it. However, I started my dough around noon and let it rise in the refrigerator for over 20 hours hours instead of 12 -16. No problem. You could even make the dough in the morning, let it rise in a warm place for a few hours rather than refrigerator overnight, and bake the pletzel the same day.
- No worries about how you stretch the dough. This pletzel dough is malleable. And whether you keep to Beth’s specified dimensions or make it slightly larger, the final result will be delicious. I measured my stretched out dough this time on the quarter sheet pan before adding the onions. But next time, I won’t bother.
- The onions are key. I like my onions diced (by hand) into tiny pieces like the onions on the pletzel of my youth. But if you want to save time and energy by chopping them in a food processor, be my guest. As long as you cook them low and slow, to get that nice transparent, slightly caramelized glaze, you’ll be fine. Although Beth doesn’t mention it, lightly pressing the finely diced onion into the dough with the back of a spoon is worthwhile, to keep the pieces from falling off the dough when you cut into the pletzel. Poppy seeds are the traditional accompaniment to the onions. But if you prefer the now-ubiquitous “everything bagel topping,” that would work fine.
- Which salt to sprinkle on after the onions and poppy seeds? Either kosher or flake salt will work. I prefer flake (Maldon is the brand mostly commonly found in my area) because it is so large and irregularly shaped. I love the burst of flavor the flakes provide and find that I use less than if I sprinkle kosher salt on. Don’t use fine or table salt – you’ll end up using more and they tend to get lost when you sprinkle them.
- How to get a crusty bottom. Cathy Barrow taught me to put my sheet pan on a baking steel. It’s a game changer, helping to get the crusty browned bottom that makes pletzel so incredible. If you don’t have a baking steel or a pizza stone, use an inverted baking sheet below the parchment-lined baking sheet that the pletzel sits on. If you use this trick, your baking time may be a few minutes shorter than Beth’s 30 minutes, so keep an eye out toward the end of baking.
- Cutting the pletzel. You could use a variety of sharp kitchen tools for cutting. My preferred tool is a good pizza wheel. I can imagine using kitchen scissors too. A knife seems possible, but not the best choice.
Why I love The Essential Jewish Baking Cookbook
- It has quite a few recipes I want to make. I was pleased to see that it contains traditional Sephardic as well as Ashkenazic recipes. The Jewish world is diverse and many of us in the Ashkenazic community do not know enough about the traditions of our Sephardic brethren. The book has recipes for a number of dishes I’ve tasted but never made. From an Ashkenazic Passover sponge cake made with matzo meal to Sephardic Malawach, (a crispy, layered flatbread from Yemen), I’m starting my list. Her versions look tempting and definitely do-able.
- The dedication to her Bubbe (grandmother). When an author dedicates her book to her grandma, I’m 100% on board.
- Beth is knowledgeable and creative as well as lovely. I do know Beth (virtually) as a fellow food blogger. Our paths cross online and I have admired her from afar. But I had no idea how knowledgeable and creative she was until I spent time looking through this book.
- The book is laid out well, as are the recipes; headnotes are great. The recipes are well written and easy to read, with dark ink, lots of white space, and good headings at the beginning of each step in the directions. I have a minor bone to pick about using grams some places and not others, but that’s about the editing, not the book itself. The recipe headnotes are informative, fun to read, and helpful. Dianne Jacob (editor extraordinaire and author of Will Write for Food) would love them because Beth’s voice really comes through.
Pletzel - Jewish Onion Board
This traditional Ashkenazic Jewish flatbread is loaded with diced, cooked onion and poppy seed. Although cream cheese is delicious spread on top, I prefer it "as is," letting the onion and slightly salty taste shine.
- 3 cups all purpose flour 375 grams
- 2 & 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast or instant yeast 7 grams or 1 packet
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for topping
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to coat the dough
- 1 & 1/4 cups warm water (105-115 degrees F) 294 grams
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, finely chopped (about 3/4 pound)
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons poppy seeds
- Flake or kosher salt to taste (optional)
Mix: In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and yeast. Add the salt, olive oil, and warm water and mix with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula until all the flour is incorporated. Rub a teaspoon or less of olive oil over the dough, cover with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and set in the refrigerator overnight. It will get bubbly and double in size.
Make the topping: In a medium sauté pan, heat the olive oil and onion over medium-low heat. Sauté the onion, stirring frequently, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until translucent and just starting to brown. When nearly done, stir in the salt.
Preheat: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
Stretch the dough: Line a baking sheet with parchment, and brush with about 2 teaspoons of olive oil. Gently scrape the dough onto the baking sheet. Let it rest for 5 minutes. Using your fingers in a dimple motion, stretch the dough into a 13-by-10 inch rectangle. If the dough shrinks back, cover loosely and let it rest for 230 to 30 minutes. Stretch again.
Add the toppings: Spread the sautéed onion all over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border. Sprinkle with the poppy seeds and a touch of salt (if using).
Bake: Bake for 30 minutes, rotating the pan half-way. Transfer to a wire rack. Cool slightly and cut into squares to eat warm.
This recipe is almost exactly as it appears in Beth's book. However, she calls the bread "PLetzel, Not PRetzel."
The recipe does not specify the size of the baking sheet you should use. A half-sheet pan, which measures 18 by 13 inches is the right size. At 13 by 9 inches, a quarter sheet pan is just a bit too small.
I received a copy of the cookbook from Beth’s publisher. In any event, all views expressed here are my own and I made no commitments regarding a post in connection with the receipt of the book.