Passover is officially over. What better way to
celebrate than with a whole write-up about bread - bagels specifically.
This is also finally the wrap-up of our trip to New York City. It took
ten times as long to write it up than it did to actually go. Anyway...
the bagel has been firmly assimilated into American culture. Thought of
as a contribution of Jewish cuisine its origins in fact go back to
Genealogy aside, a construct as simple as the bagel has
many incarnations and can be found across North America everywhere from
small family run bagel bakeries
going back decades to faux Jewish bagel
chains (and another, and
another) and even
McDonald’s. As with pizza, the Garden of Eden for this item
is thought to be New York City.
Establishments across the
world claim to want to sell you a New York bagel. It seemed fitting
as we hopped in a cab to head to the airport to fly home from New York
to stop at a bagel place and get an authentic New York bagel.
H&H is commonly thought of as a
premier venue for bagels in New York but multiple sources (publications
and friends) told me the new king was
being Yiddish for “eat”). We stopped there for a dozen. We ate a couple
on the spot and stuffed the rest into our luggage for transport home to
First of all, it is difficult to imagine almost any kind of
baked item that is not delicious when fresh out of the oven. That said,
our bar here has to be higher than that for we’re really seeking out the
world’s best bagels. So out-of-the-oven freshness aside, the verdict on Ess-a-Bagel’s bagels (and New York bagels in general) was “eh”. It was
really big, dense, chewy, and frankly not that interesting. It was like
a more extreme version of what chains like Noah’s and Bruegger’s sell
you. I could see what they were copying, but frankly, I found their
commercialized versions even better.
My suspicions about my lack of
ardor for New York bagels had been forming over years of trying them and
while Ess-a-Bagel is not my only basis for judgment, it was my
confirming evidence. I know lots of people swear by New York bagels but
to me they're like something Texas would be proud of – “hey, it’s big!”.
So the question remains, what constitutes a good bagel?
And where can
you get one? My home Seattle is definitely not an answer as the bagels
here are sad affairs making the New York bagels look interesting. The
answer comes from an unlikely source. Despite its national massive
insecurity complex and its unremarkable contributions (Labatt's,
Poutine Galvaude, and
Vinegar Potato Chips)
to the world food corpus, the best bagels in the world come from Canada
– that’s right Canada.
Who would have ever thought it possible. Someday
I’ll spend several months investigating the genetic history of the bagel
and the reasons why these different strains of bagel have survived in
Canada. That day is not today, but I can still speculate. Much of
Canada’s surprisingly large Jewish community is centered in Toronto and
Montreal – with some significant population in the national capital
Ottawa as well. While I was born and raised in the U.S., I do have
significant extended family located in Toronto and Ottawa. This has led
to my exposure to Canadian bagels.
Battles between Toronto and Montreal
Jews over bagel identity are common. Each city claiming to have the
right bagel angle. After tasting a variety of bagels I’ve come to know
of two specific bagel archetypes that I have found to be the best bagels
in the world. Let’s start with
bagels in Toronto.
They are truly the best I’ve ever had.
Deceptively light, I’ve found it possible to scarf down two or three as
I walk from the store with my fresh “catch” to the car 50 feet away. How
is this possible? They’re incredibly light and airy bagels. They still
have substance and flavor but they are consumable in great quantities.
There are certain bagels known as “bread bagels. I think the Gryfe’s
bagels are different as they really aren’t bread per se but are sort of
To simplify matters, Gryfe’s doesn’t sell 50 varieties or have
any asiago/jalapeno flavors in their bagels (nothing against a little
cheese and pepper of course). At Gryfe’s there’s plain, poppy, and
sesame. My parents grew up friends with one of the Gryfe boys and got to
eat these bagels growing up. In trying to recreate these bagels at home
I’ve grilled my father for any secrets gleaned from his time at the
bakery. He apparently was too busy eating the bagels to see how they
were made. I’m sure that method is a closely guarded family secret
anyway. But that hasn’t stopped me from trying to recreate them.
side note I’ve recently gotten some Gryfe’s bagels delivered to me by
family. They were really delicious. That said, they weren’t quite as
perfect as getting them fresh from the bakery, which seems reasonable
given that they were a couple of days old and had been frozen in the
interim. But even after their cryogenic travails these were still better
than any bagel I’d had anywhere else on the east or west coast.
get into my latest efforts at recreating these bagels at home, let’s
first acknowledge a type of bagel I’ve only recently been introduced to
that I think is also pretty fantastic. In discussions with a friend at
work (Joey) who’s from Ottawa, he’s been good enough to supply me every
so often with a few bagels his parents bring to Seattle from the “old
country”. (Last time he came to my office as if holding an organ ready
for transplant with the clock counting down. Bagels are important!) They
came from the
Ottawa Bagel Shop and
Joey claims that the Ottawa bagel is a "total rip-off of the
Montreal Bagel" and that these bagels are the closest he's seen to
Montreal bagels" - an assertion backed up on their
they talk about being from Montreal. According to Joey,
apparently the best Montreal has to offer.
For the purposes of this
assessment I'm assuming that Ottawa and Montreal bagels are essentially
the same. They're diminutive like the Toronto bagels, but they have
bigger centers whereas the Gryfe’s bagels close in more. (Both are
dwarfed by the Manhattan monstrosities we got at Ess-a-Bagel.) But the
difference in appearance is not the main factor.
Most recently I got six
of these Ottawa bagels – all sesame. In Jerusalem, you can buy these
things that the Israeli’s call “baygeleh” from Arab peddlers standing on
the street in various parts of the city. (I always got mine at Jaffa
gate outside the old city). They are like someone rolled out the dough
for a four bagels and made one huge hoop instead of four small rings.
They are no thicker than a typical bagel (maybe even a little smaller,
but they are much much longer and end up hanging on pegs and settling in
a lopsided oval shape. Most importantly, almost every square millimeter
of them are covered with sesame seeds. The dough itself is strangely
devoid of flavor. But the incredible roasted sesame flavor is the star.
The texture is also a touch crispy on the outside and chewy yummy on the
inside. I haven’t eaten one of these in at least four or five years and
I can still smell and taste exactly what they’re like. That’s the kind
of impression they make on someone.
Now, imagine these same “baygeleh”
in the size of a bagel with all the great sesame goodness, but a
flavorful bagel dough. That’s the Ottawa bagels I’ve been getting every
so often. Frankly? They’re delicious. They may stand up even better to
freezing and transport than the Gryfe’s. To be fair, I haven’t eaten
these fresh, but they were very very good. Again, better than anything
I’ve had in the United States, ever.
So, here’s the question: how do you
get these bagels unless you live there (or have friends and family who
are willing to deliver)? My approach has been to try making them myself.
Since I’ve only (relatively) recently been introduced to the Ottawa
bagels, I decided to tackle recreating Gryfe’s Toronto bagels, and still
my choice for the best bagels on the planet.
A la America’s Test Kitchen, across several sessions (often
with my brother-in-law Gil)
I tried experimenting with different bagel recipes. We started by scouring
every cookbook I have as well as the web for bagel recipes. On the web I
tried to focus on recipes that purported to result in authentic Canadian
bagels. (This is where I first saw the heated battle between residents of
Toronto and Montreal about their bagel supremacy.)
We ended up with about
a dozen different recipes which were then analyzed for ingredients,
quantities, and methodologies. Those recipes that were almost identical
were treated as one. We were really hunting for core schisms in techniques
that could lead to such a wide array of bagel possibilities. Recipes that
claimed to make “real New York bagels” were set aside as we weren’t
interested in making New York bagels.
As mentioned earlier I grilled my
father for secrets from his youth hanging out at Gryfe’s. He thought he
remembered that they used to make the dough, let it sit in the fridge all
night, and then boil and bake first thing in the morning. In some of our
early experiments I tried this to less than successful results. Either my
father’s memory was faulty or I misapplied the technique. I think it was
the latter. I’ve heard of other people doing this since, so it bears
Ultimately we ended up trying variations and
combinations on a few different recipes. For example, we liked the texture
in one recipe, the flavor in another, and so forth. One recipe was for
“Montreal Bagels” adapted from
A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking by Marcy Goldman, and another from
Canadian Living Test Kitchen. I’ve been experimenting mainly with
different quantities of sugar as well as ratios of flour to yeast to
water. I might say at this point that the recipe is a work in progress,
but in this endeavor, the reward may be the journey. Will I ever think
I've hit perfection? Will there always be a slight enhancement and
adjustment to try? Whether we're on the journey or have reached the
destination this recipe makes
some delicious bagels right at home that in my mind are better than any
you can buy in the United States. I’ll continue to update and tweak
the recipe as I experiment over time, but this is
a good snapshot of where I’m at right now. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.
- 1 cup lukewarm potato water (This is essentially the water left over
from boiling potatoes. Covered, this will refrigerate for up to 3 days
or frozen for up to 4 months. You can also dissolve 1½ tablespoons of
potato flour in 1 cup of lukewarm water, but I haven’t tried this.)
- 1 envelope of yeast
- 1 tablespoon beaten egg
- 3 tablespoons canola oil
- 1 tablespoon malt syrup
- ~3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tbsp granulated sugar
- 1½ teaspoon Kosher salt
- 16 cups water
- 1/3 cup honey
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 tablespoon water
- poppy or sesame seeds
- In a large bowl, dissolve 1 tablespoon of granulated sugar into the
lukewarm potato water.
- Sprinkle the yeast on top and let it stand for 10 minutes or until
it gets frothy.
- Stir the tablespoon of beaten egg, canola oil and malt syrup into
the yeast/water mixture.
- Stir together 1 cup of the flour, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, and
the kosher salt.
- Slowly beat these dry ingredients into the yeast mixture using an
electric mixer until smooth. This should take about 2 minutes.
- Use a wooden spoon to gradually mix the remaining flour in to the
mixture resulting in a soft sticky dough.
- On a lightly floured surface knead until the dough is smooth and
stretchy. Make sure to get all the dry isolated flour spots worked out
of the dough. This should take 5-10 minutes.
- Place the dough in a greased bowl, rotating the dough around the
bowl so its outside is covered in the grease. Cover with plastic wrap
(or wax paper with grease on it and a small towel).
- Allow the dough to rise for 1 to 1½ hours until the dough has
doubled and you can poke your finger into it and leave a mark.
- Preheat your oven to 400 F.
- After rising, punch the dough down and knead it several times.
- Divide the dough into 10 pieces (the recipe originally called for 12
pieces, but my bagels were getting even too small for me. I may tweak
the recipe to result in an even dozen). Keep the unformed dough and
formed bagels covered when you’re not directly shaping them.
- There are two methods for shaping a bagel. One is to make a ball
(don’t compress it too much) and poke your thumb through the center. You
work your thumb (on the inside of the bagel) and your index finger (on
the outside) all the way around the bagel until it’s formed. The other
method which I prefer is to roll the dough into a long pipe and then
wrap it horizontally around your hand using your fist as well as your
other hand to seal it into a ring. The pipe of dough just barely wraps
around my hand and I have to stretch it a bit. I like this method
because the shapes end up more bagel-like, whereas for me, the first
method results in more roll-like creations with small depressions in the
- Place your bagels apart on a floured and covered baking sheet. Let
them rise for 15 minutes.
- In the meantime, in a large pot, bring the water to a boil. Add the
honey and stir. This is the poaching liquid.
- Gently slide your bagels into the water a few at a time into the
water over a medium heat for 1 minute on each side. This is to proof
them, they should be noticeably bigger than when they went into the
- Carefully remove the bagels onto parchment paper or a foil-lined
greased baking sheet using a slotted spoon.
- Stir together the egg yolk and water and quickly brush over the
bagels as they come out of the poaching liquid.
- Sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds.
- Bake in the 400 degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes until the tops are
golden brown and the bottoms sound hollow when tapped. Cool on a wire