Assemble the dough as directed and, after completing its rise, deflate the dough. Rub an even layer of flour mixed with cornmeal onto your work surface and turn the dough out onto one end of that surface. Rub some flour into your rolling pin and roll the dough out to an even thickness of 1 inch.
Using a floured 3-inch round cutter with a plain edge (not fluted), cut out as many rounds as possible and transfer each round to the other side of your prepared work surface (if the round ever sticks, run the blade of a pastry scraper underneath it). Cover the rounds as you continue to dip the cutter into flour and cut the remaining rounds. Gently knead your scraps, trying to make them cohesive, then roll them out the same way as before and cut out more rounds. You should be able to get eleven three-inch, 1-inch thick rounds. Cover the rounds with a clean kitchen towel and let rise 30 minutes.
(Alternatively, after the dough has its initial rise, deflate it and chill overnight, in the original bowl, well covered. The next morning, take the dough out of the fridge, then roll and cut the dough into rounds as described (cold) and let the rounds rise until billowy and close to room temperature (1 to 2 hours).
Heat a large cast iron skillet or fajitas pan (or a large nonstick skillet), over medium heat with enough clarified butter to create a thin, even layer across the bottom. When the fat is hot, reduce the heat to medium-low and lay the muffins in the pan, in a single layer, with 1 ½ inches in between them (you won’t be able to cook them all at one time unless you’re using two pans). Sear the muffins on the first side for 5 minutes, or until light golden brown. Turn the muffins over and sear on the second side. Cover the pans (with a lid) or with a large, inverted stainless bowl) and reduce the heat to low. Steam the muffins for 5 minutes (8 to 10 minutes if they are at all chilled), then uncover and raise the heat to medium. Sear again on the bottoms, and then turn the muffins to make sure that both sides are crisp and golden brown. The exterior centers will be light and will feel soft but set. To serve: Using a fork, pierce the center of the circumference of the muffin, repetitively, going all around the soft center. Gently pull the top and bottom away from each other, exposing the interior. Toast the muffins (or, if freshly cooked, simply broil the muffin, inside facing toward heat source) until golden.
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Saute 1/3 cup minced onions in melted shortening until fragrant and softened, about 3 minutes. In the bowl to your electric mixer (fitted with paddle attachment), combine 2 cups warm water, sauteed onions (with any shortening), optional pepper and barley malt or sugar. Dissolve yeast in 1/4 cup warm water with a pinch of sugar and add, when creamy, add to mixing bowl. With the mixer on low, add 3 cups bread flour. When the flour absorbed, turn machine up to moderate and beat for 3 minutes, then scrape down sides of the bowl. If you do not have a mixer, use a wooden spoon. (Beat vigorously in one direction with the bowl of the spoon never leaving the bottom of the mixing bowl.) Cover bowl with plastic and allow sponge to rise for one hour and fifteen minutes.
Brush a 6 quart mixing bowl with some melted butter and set aside.
While sponge ferments, saute 1 cup minced onions in vegetable oil with poppy seeds for 3 to 5 minutes or until the onions are softened and fragrant. Allow to cool to warm. When fermentation is completed, replace bowl with risen sponge onto your electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Beat in salt and 2 cups bread flour at low speed. When well combined, raise speed to moderate and continue to beat for 3 minutes to develop. Use a rubber spatula to help turn shaggy mass out onto a lightly floured wooden surface. Knead until smooth and very elastic. Add additional flour only if necessary, and always use your pastry scraper to keep dough from sticking to your hands or work surface. When sufficient texture is achieved, place dough into greased bowl. Brush surface of dough with more melted butter and cover bowl with buttered plastic wrap. Lay a clean kitchen towel over bowl and allow dough to rise for 1 to 2 hours. (Do what’s most convenient.)
Heat a 10 inch skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add vegetable oil. When oil is hot, add onions and poppy seeds. Saute onions until softened and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Grind in some fresh pepper and set aside to cool. Position oven rack in the center of the oven . Place a cast iron pan or a heavy sheet pan on the rack below. Place sheet of quarry tiles or a large pizza stone on rack above the skillet. (If you own a double oven, do the same to the remaining oven.). Sprinkle your baker’s peel with cornmeal. (Alternatively, if not using quarry tiles, brush the interior of 2 shallow dark steel baking sheets with vegetable oil and sprinkle with cornmeal.) Sprinkle two clean kitchen towels with cornmeal.
Preheat oven to 500 F. Although this recipe yields twelve bialys, I suggest baking only six at one time to allow each one enough room to bake properly. If you have one oven, turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead briefly. Divide dough in half and replace one half to bowl and refrigerate. If working with a double oven, dough in half then divide each half in half. Cut each quarter into three equal pieces for a total of 12 pieces. Cover all the pieces while working with one at a time. Shape each piece of dough into a flat round by rolling patting the dough out with your hand. Create a 1-inch rim by turning the rim round in towards the center to form a one inch raised border. Using your fingertips, pinch to seal. Using the tines of a fork, dock the center. As each bialy is shaped, carefully place onto prepared towels. Cover each shaped bialy with a kitchen towel.
After the last bialy is shaped, begin with the first bialy shaped and dock (prick) the center. Slightly flatten each risen bialy while gently widening the interior of the circle. (The flat middle portion should be quite visible.) Lift each bialy and place on prepared peel (6 bialys per peel or baking sheet). Spoon some of the onion-poppy seed filling into the center and continue until all are filled. (Make sure the onions are nicely coated with vegetable oil to help keep them from burning during baking.) Place 4 ice cubes into a 1-cup liquid measure and add enough water to meet the 1/4 cup mark. Place this next to the oven. Just before baking, pour the ice water into the preheated pan and shut the door. Lift the peel holding bialys and place it deep into the oven and, with one swift jerk, pull out peel, leaving the bialys on the hot tiles. (If not using tiles or a stone, simply place baking sheet(s) into the oven. Quickly shut the door to help trap steam. (If you have a double oven, repeat immediately with the remaining six bialys.)
Bake bialys for 10 minutes. If planning to eat bialys right after cooling (without toasting), turn the oven off and leave bialys in a turned off oven for 5 minutes. If planning to cool, store and eventually toast bialys, remove from the oven after the initial, 10 minutes of baking (they might seem light and slightly underdone). Remove bialys to wire racks to cool thoroughly before storing.
Note: If planning to toast bialys (which is most traditional), the tops will become overly brittle in the toaster if the initial baking time is too long.
Before serving, use a serrated knife to slice each bialy and toast until golden and crisp. Top lavishly as desired and enjoy hot.