Food, History

My Ode to the Bagel

Picture it: Saturday morning of 1986, one hour ’til Pee Wee’s Playhouse airs on the television. These were the days before DVR, so timing was of the essence. My Mom would awaken me and my brother from a deep slumber with one of the only phrases she knew would entice us out of the nest of our warm, blanketed beds. “Wanna go get bagels?!,” she would shout, as she opened the door to my bedroom, closing it as quickly as it opened. She knew I was a sucker for a good bagel.

I would hurriedly pull on the closest pile of clothing I could find and dive into the minivan with my Mom, making the short trip to the adjacent town of Babylon in Long Island, NY. We could have even walked or ridden our bikes to this place. The waterfront town was idyllic and stunningly beautiful. It was one of my favorite places to roam and explore, but we didn’t have time to meander on Saturday mornings. I had and important viewing schedule to stick to.

As we pulled up and parallel parked in the center of town – there it stood. On early Saturday mornings, the only two shops in the bustling town that appeared opened were the bagel shop and the bakery located directly (and conveniently) across the street from one another.

I will never forget it. The bright orange glow of the Hot Bagels sign fixed in the window, the words slightly blurred by the steam from the molten heat of the bagel ovens colliding with the cool, crisp air on the street side of the thick glass.

The windows were always dripping with condensation and as I stepped out of the car, the air aloft was saturated with the mingling scent of toppings. Whiffs of onion and garlic tangled with undertones of cinnamon sugar. It was glorious. I didn’t have a clue at the time what ‘sexy’ meant, but it perfectly encapsulates the essence of this scenario that will be forever embedded in my mind.

The bagel shops of my childhood memory.

I do believe that this was the first inkling that I had in my memory that food and I had a clandestine bond that would flourish from that point on. Foodie wasn’t a term, and if it had been, I would have been far too young to have earned the title at that point in time.

All I knew was that my soul felt on fire every time we would arrive at the store front and fervently swing open that glass door. The sound of the bell slamming against the door frame to announce our arrival, though a moot point in the bustling, tiny store front. The feel of the steam enveloping my face as I transitioned from the brisk air of the outdoors into the warm cocoon of the shop. It gave me a shiver of delight. It still does.

Then came selection time. In New York, your bagel and cream cheese pairings are a competitive sport and often a point of contention. Are you a sweet or savory? Do you mix cinnamon raisin with a honey walnut spread, or are you an onion fan with a veggie spread.

Do you like your cream cheese piled high, or lightly tapered? Do you scoop, or eat full carbs? Do you add lox or no? Or….gasp….do you….butter your bagels (she asked looking aghast)? Or to be even more controversial, do you slather your cinnamon raisin bagel with lox cream cheese?! Double gasp!! These are all questions that could make or break any relationship or friendship in New York. Not really, but…really.

I have a variety of favorites that I have always cycled through. The salt bagel holds a special place in my heart, mixed with a good, pungent scallion cream cheese. I also enjoy a straight up onion or garlic bagel with plain or veggie cream cheese.

When I was a young girl, this was a weekly splurge, so we would always buy a dozen and my Mom would always let me choose my own flavor for the week. I would always plan to eat at least two, usually three. This was another of the reasons I loved tagging along for the journey. My desires would vacillate from week to week, never knowing what the next week would hold in store for my tastebuds.

Out of all of the bagels, I never leaned towards the sweet variety. But the king of all kings for me was the Everything Bagel with plain cream cheese. As shy as I was, I would tug at my Mom’s sleeve as we ordered and relay my flavors of choice, directing her to be sure to ask for the dark bagels.

This is also a thing. I came to find later in life that when you say this in a bagel shop anywhere else in the country, they look at you completely perplexed, and generally ignore your request or instinctually attempt to toast it.

In New York they know…this kid wants the bagels that look almost burned. And I am not talking toasted. I mean a fresh bagel, baked to well done (New Yorkers aren’t bagel toasters). They are golden and delicious and seem to have an even greater glutinous chew to them. You almost feel your teeth shift when you bite into them.

As we selected our bounty, they would get loaded up into a giant paper bag and we would pay at the counter next to the drink coolers lined with glass bottles of every Snapple flavor imaginable. My Mom would place them on my lap for the ride home. “Hold these,” she would say, as she shoved them in my direction and revved up the wood-paneled minivan. I could smell the aroma escaping from the small opening at the top of the bag caused by the protruding size of our haul. I could feel the warmth from the fresh bagels scalding my legs. I loved every burning second of it.

I would rush from the car to the house and quickly cut my first bagel and slather it in TempTee Cream Cheese and dash off to catch the crucial intro to Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Anyone who watched the show knows how great the opening song is – I still remember it by heart.

To this day, this level of love for bagels remains a part of me. Having long moved from our house in New York to the south over 20 years ago, I have been on a quest for bagels everywhere I have resided over the years.

I lived in Bethesda, MD for a bit after college and found that Bethesda Bagels does amazing justice with their recipe. While living in New York City, the mecca for bagels, I tried all of the major players. Bagels are not only delicious, but also cheap and filling for a post college-graduate on a budget in the big city. So let’s just say I ate a LOT of bagels over those few years. Many claim Ess-A-Bagel to be king, and they are undoubtedly amazing, but I am going to put it out there and claim Murray’s Bagels as my all-time favorite, anywhere, ever (mic drop).

Everywhere I go or live, I have searched for my go to shop. Some missions were successful, some dreadful. The Lowcountry has come a looooong way with bagels since I moved here close to a decade ago, but since moving the the lower south, I have found it difficult to locate the perfect bagel of my liking. And this is when it dawned on me to simply make my own.

So, what is the perfect bagel anyhow? This I can’t tell you. It is a completely subjective answer based on where you grew up and what you grew up eating. I truly believe that some of the taste of what you like is tied in with the nostalgia of the memories from eating it, such as those I described above.

For me, the perfect bagel is large. Not the size of my head large, because I have come across those too. I want a bagel that is more like a bagel and a half, because that is the perfect serving size for me. The chew must have a tearing quality to it. When you try to take a bite, it should almost feel like you are going to pull a tooth out, and it should take about ten minutes and a case of TMJ to finish each bite. That is when I know it is perfect.

Smother mine in toppings. I even like to scrape some off of the bottom of the bagel onto my cream cheese for some extra pizzaz. They should have a classic malty flavor, and lastly, they should be baked golden brown to perfection, preferably with those tiny, crispy, micro bubbles that pop up from the burning hot oven temps. You know the ones if you eat a lot of bagels, like me.

In order to make my own perfect bagel, I did what I love doing best. I researched, researched, and researched some more. I have been reading and devouring information on the simple bagel as quickly and voraciously as I like to eat them. What I have found is that there is a LOT of history, even politically so, that resides in the creation of the bagel and all of its iterations of recipes. Bagels have been around for ages and are intertwined so greatly in the history of many cultures.

That said, I will tell you two of the books that I am currently reading that have been fascinating, and entertaining, thus far. There are also a SLEW of bagel recipes online that will show you the way, depending on your likes and dislikes.

The first book is The Bagel – The surprising history of a Modest Bread, by Maria Balinksa. It dives deeply into the historical side of how the bagel came to be and it is truly enlightening, if you are a history fan like me.

I will say that the book Bagels, Schmears and a Piece of Fish, by Cathy Barrow, is told from an autobiographical viewpoint. Her love for bagels is as deep as mine, and her writing style is highly anecdotal and humorous. She notes many old school recipes for what I would call “proper bagels” and she is very good at explaining the steps and reasoning behind them, so it is appealing and doable for even a novice baker who has an afternoon to set aside for testing her recipes.

Since everyone has their own tastes, everywhere from texture to flavor, I won’t post my recipe that I have been tinkering with here. I might keep that one for myself. The same recipe often turns out differently based on the slightest changes, ranging from the time of year and temperature of my kitchen. I work through each batch with love and I am starting to be able to feel for the correct texture of the dough, to know when it is right, and also have the ability to adjust where it is needed.

I have gathered a few tricks to keep up my sleeve for getting the dough to rise faster, for correcting the flavor profile, and coaxing the proper chew.

I could tell you all of what I have learned, but until you try for yourself, it wouldn’t make much sense. It is a subtle art form – a labor or love. It is a relationship that I have nurtured since childhood, and will continue to grow for a lifetime. Me and bagels, sitting in a tree… the one who introduced me to my passion for food and lead me to a love of baking. My first true love, always and forever.