Consider the bagel.
I was invited to a brunch several weeks ago. The occasion was a 60th birthday and a second anniversary of cancer remission celebration. I should have known that this gathering might be a little unconventional. The morning began with a group walk on nearby rail-trail, and it was to be followed by a sumptuous repast. I might have been forewarned by the threat of gluten-free treats.
There were no bagels at the brunch, and of course there was no lox or cream cheese. There was no bread, full stop. There were flourless quiches, fruit salads, hummus, and cut vegetables — but I felt unsatisfied, and I noticed many of my fellow party-goers making excuses and leaving earlier than I thought polite. On the way home, we did the unthinkable and stopped at Dunkin’ for a toasted everything with cream cheese. It was rural Maryland, so there were not too many options.
I’m not ashamed to say that bagels are a significant part of my life. It’s not just breakfast. It’s part of my humor, my identity as a New Yorker, my cultural Jewishness, and my newfound hobby. You can get a bagel almost anywhere in the United States (see my Dunkin’ lapse), and everyone will argue about where the best bagel can be found. It is one of the first businesses I scope out when I move to a new neighborhood, and in my home at least, it’s the centerpiece of a Sunday morning confab.
Bagels have gotten a bad rep. They are too carb centered, too heavy, not to mention the gluten. Our host for the brunch, always health conscious, had become ever more vigilant about health risks to her and her family. The staple of my Sunday morning existence had to make way for more sensible alternatives. I wasn’t convinced.
The bagel originated in the Jewish communities of Poland and Eastern Europe, which explains their ubiquity in cities with large Jewish populations. They are not just a roll with a hole. What makes them special and separates the real bagels from the imitators is the act of boiling them before they are baked. You can always spot a bagel that’s steamed rather than baked — a cheap shortcut — by the grate marks on its surface. A true bagel is smooth and very chewy. Boiling a bread before baking would seem counterintuitive. It effectively kills the yeast spores on the surface, but the result is a satisfying glazed crustiness not found in any other bread configuration. There does not seem to be a consensus on how the practice started. It was likely a fortunate accident.
I’ve baked bread all my life — challah, sourdough, anadama, rye, and whole wheat — but my crowning achievement has been the bagel. To prepare myself for the challenge, I walked into my local go-to shop at the time and asked if I could shadow the bakers there for the day to learn the technique. To my surprise, they agreed.
I learned how the dough is made in an industrial mixer — it more closely resembles construction than art. I witnessed how, after a short rise in the mixing bowl, small pieces are cut and rolled into six-inch ropes that then are wrapped and rolled around the shaper’s hand one at a time. Next they are placed on a rack and allowed to rise overnight. I watched as they were dumped into a vat of boiling water and stirred, then placed on burlap-covered slats to bake in a rotating oven at 500 degrees for six minutes.
There was no magic. It was systematic and a little boring. It was just a day’s work for the Laotian guy who mixed and rolled out the dough, and for the Italian guy who did the baking.
I could do this.
I’ve heard people from New York, Boston, Chicago, and Montreal argue about whose city has the best bagels. They hypothesize that it’s the water that makes the difference, but I don’t buy it. I’ve had good bagels in many places, including homemade ones, and it seems to be the quality of the bread recipe and really boiling the bagels by immersing them in a steaming cauldron of bubbly froth.
I found a basic recipe in my bread bible, “The Complete Book of Bread” by Bernard Clayton, and I set to experimenting. The results were chewy and satisfying, although I have not yet perfected the rolling art. My product often is misshapen and my bagels are of unequal size, but the crust is right. When it is fresh out of the oven, it is unbeatable. I’ve varied the recipe to use sourdough, whole wheat, and oats — they all are equally exquisite.
Bagels won’t end global warming. Bagels won’t bring world peace. But bagels provide a certain constancy and predictability to my world. I appreciate the necessity of addressing the diversity of brunch food options, but consider the bagel’s place in the pantheon of choice. I love my flourless quiches too — but somehow it isn’t Sunday morning without a bagel.