Holy, Wholly bagel
by: Chef Jim Berman
My earliest memory comes from sharing bagels with my grandmother. It always seemed liked a Sunday morning when we would sit at her foil-speckled topped diner table with a tub of margarine and a brown bag on its side with the warm bagels spilling out. And the bag was always the stiff, cardboard-like paper bag. The piping hot bagels were never packed in plastic, as the just-baked bagels would surely melt flimsy packaging. The bagels came from the back seat of my parent's car just after sunrise. My mother explained that the bagels were not allowed to ride up front because my dad had the habit of reaching across the car to snatch a warm specimen from the bag, just to realize that they were too hot to successfully navigate the car and enjoy the mercilessly hot bagel. So, the bagels rode in my car seat in the back of the family Oldsmobile 77. The breakfast was usually the end of my weekend outing at my grandmother's house. I always got to take some of my breakfast along with me, neatly wrapped in parchment, on my way back home. But, the real treat was always sitting at that table, usually helped over the horizon of the table's edge by sitting on a telephone book or two; the radio always played and there was not even a hum of television anywhere in the house. It was our time together, the bagels were our treat and there was nothing else going on in the world for that time.
When I got my first paper route, my dad and I always stopped for breakfast after hauling the 8-foot pile of the five-pound Sunday edition of the Pittsburgh Press. Up steps, open screen door, drop paper, close door, down steps, retrieve paper from the sliding door of the dented, dirt-smelling work van that my dad wore like a comfortable pair of jeans. Repeat. A kid could work up a healthy appetite after ensuring timely delivery of the paper to the still slumbering 47customers. There was never any discussion; the van always made its way to the curb in front of Bagel Land (yes, real name). Just after seven, the doors had just opened and there was already a line. It was not a pilgrimage by the gourmets nor was it a calling by eaters of 'fancy' fare. It was routine and expected. As the doors opened to the anxious leer of the onlookers peering from the sidewalk, the wafting smell of just boiled-then-baked bagels was almost, but not completely, overwhelming. The burnt onion smell mingled with the cinnamon-raisin perfume that blended with the garlic stink (I was a kid - garlic stunk!) that mixed with the humidity that hung in the air as the bagels were first dunked in a hot water vat prior to baking to ensure their crispy exterior.
We would make our way to the all-white garbed, very old Jewish grandma working behind the flour covered counter. Nestled amid her purple-grey hair there were no fewer than 4 pencils behind her ears for which to scribble the orders. A mere "1" or "2" indicating the number of dozens contained within the industrial strength bag was all that made it on to the bag's exterior. And dad's role was to utter "1 onion, 1 plain" to indicate a dozen of each variety. No other exchange of dialog was necessary. I carried a tub of Philly's best whipped cream cheese past the other huddled masses waiting on line. The bagels were cheap, back then, so dad dropped a ten-spot at the register and we would make quick work of little distance between the van and us.
The iconoclastic masterpieces get their distinctly crunchy exterior and soft interior from boiling the rather stiff rings in starch-rich water and then finishing the process by setting the bagels in a ridiculously hot oven. Just recently, I crossed paths with a critic measuring the palatability of tray of bagels just pulled from the oven.
"I never like those bagels that are crunchy on the outside," he started "and the inside is all soft." The audacity to continue with "I like a nice, soft chewy bagel." And so the battle begins and the war is waged.
In the mass marketer's mission to put a bagel in every hand with little expense and equally little invested time, we have made coal out of diamonds. As bagel shops be speckle the landscape in an attempt to keep pace in numbers with Starbucks, the picture of what product they are trying to sell has become so muddled, it bares little resemblance to the blueprint from which it arose.
The good ones taste something like this:
2 teaspoons, instant yeast
3 teaspoons, dark brown sugar
1 ½ cups, room temperature water
1 Tablespoon, salt
4 cups, bread flour
2 teaspoons, baking soda
About ½ cup cornmeal & flour for dusting
1. Mix the yeast in a large bowl with the brown sugar and the warm water. Stir in the salt and flour, ensuring all the flour is well hydrated. Knead the dough 5-7 minutes, until it is smooth. Cover the bowl and set aside for 2 hours.
2. Lightly dust a cutting board with flour. Turn out the dough onto a floured board. With a dough knife, cut a 4oz portion and mold into a ball. Allow the dough balls to rest 5 minutes. Pierce the ball with your finger and rotate the dough around until the hole is of desired size. Set the bagel on a cornmeal-flour dusted sheet tray and repeat. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
4. Preheat the oven to 450 F. Dust another baking sheet with a mixture of cornmeal and flour.
5. Fill a large, wide pot two-thirds full of water, and bring to a boil with the baking soda. Drop the bagels in batches into the water; they must not touch. Boil on one side for 2 minutes. Turn the bagels and boil on the second side for 1½ minutes. They should firm and puff up. Carefully remove from the water and drain for 1 minute on a rack.
6. Place the bagels on the prepared baking sheet. Immediately place the sheet in the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Rotate the sheet tray 90 and cook for another 5 minutes, or until the bagels are tan to medium brown. The finished bagel should reach 185 on an instant read thermometer. Remove from the baking sheets and cool for 30 minutes before attempting to cut.
The quick dip in the water ensures the authentic taste of a true bagel; the interior is tender and flavorful. The blast in the extremely hot oven goes a long way to establish the definitive bagel look and crispy exterior. The combination cooking method is unbeatable and irreplaceable. If there is no tank nor caldron nor vat of steaming water to be seen in the bagel shop, all they are selling is a chewy piece of bread with a meaningless hole in the middle. Bagels are not just bread and, as such, should not be cooked in the same way. The oven alone will not accomplish successful bagel making.
And whilst we talk about holes, that characteristic void at the center must be made by hand rather than punched out with some time-saving-product-bastardizing implement. Let the dense dough rest between shaping and the hole-making step to make an indelible puncture that will keep its form in the hot water bath as well as in the oven.
Variety matters, as my students are quick to point out, "hey chef, there are more flavors than vanilla," when I go on a tirade about how overlooked vanilla is equated with plain. Oscar Wilde gave us wisdom in "the world would be a boring a place if we all shared the same sense of humor." I agree. Variety is, after all, proverbially speaking the spice of life. Except with bagels. The best bagel is the plain bagel. In all seriousness, when trying a new pizza joint, you do yourself a disservice by sampling the first slice garbed in mushrooms, onions, pepperoni and sweet peppers. The real experience comes from taking in the flavor of the sauce, cheese and crust. The same goes for bagels. Sure, there are countless shmears, smears and spreads. And a little cream cheese does well to accent the flavor of a good bagel. But, why mask the real flavor of a bagel with some horrific concoction? Fear the sundried tomato and pesto bagel. Run the opposite direction of the rosemary and olive roll with the hole.
Why not enjoy the wholly roll for what it is? The litmus test for purity of flavor, appeal of texture and success of the bagel maker is in the unabashed, plain bagel. And if it is worth its dough, it will taste anything but plain; the Polish royalty from whom the modern bagel has descended ate their bagels unadorned. If there should be a small pile of little, crispy onion pieces at the bottom of the bag, well, that can be good, too. As long as the bag is paper and the windows of the bagel shop are foggy from the copious humidity from within, you will be treated well.