Coming Around to the Bagel
I have altogether stopped eating bagels, which is kind of sad. Not sad because I am technically Jewish, but sad because I hold fond memories of really liking bagels. My reasoning is twofold: the first reason is that it is simply just a lot of bready-carbs to be consuming in a single sitting, and two, that bagels have strayed far from the simplicity and integrity that made them great. Not to say that I am an utter traditionalist, but once you get into the Asiago pesto bagel, or the cranberry nut bagel, you are talking about a whole different round bread experience.
Bagels, an item that used to be largely exclusive to small ethnic bake shops and eateries, are virtually everywhere in the country…even in the world. You are just as likely to happen on a bagel in Fargo, ND as you would in Osaka, Japan. Bagels are in every grocery chain, every breakfast eatery, and in countless chains across the country that specialize in bagel production/approximation. Besides big chains like Einstein Bros, Noah’s Bagels, and Brueggers all keep the country round in bagels, while name brands like Sarah Lee, Pepperidge Farms, and Lenders take care of the retail set. But bagels, in their more simple form, are something far more primal (and some would argue desirable) and subject to some historical and elemental observation.
According to a piece, which recently ran in The Jewish Daily Forward, the bagels origins are very much a thing of mystery and dispute (there is a nice timeline here). Some think the bagel was born in 9th-century Prussia when Jews were forbidden to eat baked bread because of its Christian significance. Jews took the hint and went off to boil the dough — and then toast it just a little to produce a bagel. Whereas others contend that it was created in Poland, as a bready competitor to the bublik, a lean bread of wheat flour designed for Lent. What cannot be argued is that, beyond what weird round things pass as bagels, there are two basic bagel representations out there – the famed New York bagel and its northern cousin, the Montreal-styled bagel. The Montreal bagel contains malt and sugar with no salt; it is boiled in honey-sweetened water before baking in a wood-fired oven; and it is predominantly either of the poppy “black” or sesame “white” seeds variety. The New York bagel contains salt and malt and is boiled in water prior to baking in a standard oven. The resulting New York bagel is puffy with a moist crust, while the Montreal bagel is smaller (though with a larger hole), crunchier, and sweeter. On the whole (or the hole), the New York bagel is the recipe that is more closely followed when creating the contemporary bagel approximations.
But as mentioned before, bagels are ubiquitous and very much open to interpretation. While I have no problem with chocolate chip mocha bagels (granted I have no desire to eat them) I do wish that there were more traditional bagels, with that crisp exterior and soft and chewy interior, made available. As with many artisan food movements, there are artisan bagel makers popping up in certain cities across the U.S. who specialize in traditional recipes and techniques.
Are you a bagel purist, or do you have a consistently open mind when it comes to bagel interpretation? Do you have a favorite or a most despised creation? Has anyone out there ever attempted the home bagel?