Bagels: What’s the Deal?

By on 4 June, 2012 in Cooking, Food, Kate and Stephen with 4 Comments

Globalization has many pros and cons. On the one hand, we are enriched by exposure to other cultures and ideas. On the other, there is always the risk that indigenous practices will be wiped out as technologies and economies spread around the world, erasing customs and languages in favor of a flavorless monoculture.

The South is no stranger to questions of preserving cultural traditions, but there’s one bit of globalization we’d like to promote: bagels.

Look, we love biscuits. But there’s room in Midtown Montgomery for more than one bread-based breakfast item. Unfortunately, the lack of widely available good bagels is the number one culinary complaint by people who move here from other, more bagel-rich environments. We could care less about the occasional whining about the lack of Starbucks density (speaking of monocultural corporate threats). Good coffee is easy to find. But these visitors and transplants have a good point about bagels. Here’s our breakdown:

Don’t buy the ones from the grocery store that come in cellophane bags. These cylindrical stacks of bagels are awful mouth mush, whether they are lightly refrigerated over near the cream cheese section, or merely stocked at room temperature with the bread. These bagel are flavorless and often merely excessively doughy rolls. Over our pained reservations, we made the mistake of purchasing a pack recently, simply because they were two-for-one. With one bag stored in the freezer, we tried to spruce up the low quality bagels by using them as buns for egg and cheese sandwiches. Even that heroic effort couldn’t raise bagged bagels to the level of tolerable. We may make bagels chips out of them, with garlic butter for dipping in hummus. If that doesn’t work, we will at least look for some ducks that lack our discerning palates.

Local grocery store bakeries are also inadequate. Your lower end chains don’t even have them, preferring instead the icing-heavy doughnut or the mass-produced pastry simulation, along with (maybe) some loaves of bread. The higher end chains only sporadically carry them, often in questionable “flavors.” We like onion, poppy seed, or even those charitably called “everything,” which usually means onion and poppy seed together (along with maybe some garlic flakes or sesame seeds). But when you start getting into “cinnamon” or “blueberry,” you are moving into gimmicks that lose our interest. And aside from their exceptionally unpredictable availability, you also add in the fact that you’ve got to wait for the bakery counter attendant, which can be time consuming. And the quality is ultimately only slightly above the aforementioned bagged mush-pucks.

Retail won’t cut it. We love Cafe Louisa. But you can’t make a habit of running in there and standing in line for a $2 everything bagel, waiting for them to toast it, paying a little extra if you want chive flavored cream cheese smeared on it. It’s not practical. It’s expensive. And who in their right mind puts fennel seeds on a bagel? We know it says “everything,” but there also aren’t marshmallows on there, and the fennel seeds make an otherwise decent bagel taste like gross licorice. Furthermore (and yes, we know we’re sounding pretty picky here), they really just don’t have that all-important bagel-ness to them. There’s some notable degree of desirable chewiness to the outer layer, sure, but the insides are really just bread, as the air pockets in the photo below demonstrate. Again, as legions of Montgomery-based northerners will tell you, a bagel is not a roll. It has density, a certain heft. It is chewy. Most existing options are both pricey and miss this crucial point.

One exception we have discovered is Panera Bread. Now, we’re not really fans of the chain for a few reasons that don’t merit unpacking here. But they did move into Midtown recently, decamping to the greater Zelda Road co-prosperity zone across from what must be the busiest Applebee’s in the universe. So we did appreciate their decision to move closer to town, rather than farther away (though what will now happen to that poor shopping center on the Boulevard where there once was a Fresh Market and a Hooter’s and a Panera Bread?). So we tried the bagels – quite a few of them, as a relative turned up in town with a coupon entitling him to 13 bagels per month for a year. And, readers, they were pretty good. The onion and poppy seed were pretty good (could use more onion, less poppy seed), the cheese were acceptable and our relative swears by the cinnamon kind. The best commercial bagels yet in Midtown. But it’s not too hard to do better, if you’re daring.

Make your own. Our house was initially steeping in skepticism that homemade bagels were possible. It was just assumed that good bagels were made by wizards in a deli in New York City and then shipped to the rest of the universe. In fact, it is possible to get your bagel fix in your own kitchen with a bit of work. You make make as many as you want and flavor them as you see fit. It turns out that the Internet is pretty good at teaching you how to make bagels. There is a secret ingredient, but it isn’t New York tap water – it’s something called non-diastatic malt powder, and it’s a derivative of roasted barley that acts as a kind of sugar in baking. You can order it online for very little money (like many baker-dabblers, I swear by King Arthur Flour), and you might even be able to get some around here (maybe at Fairview Homebrew?). If you can’t get your hands on it, they say you can use molasses.

I’m a lousy baker – I should just say that up front. But even I have managed to make bagels at home with an even more lousy stove using this basic recipe. The process is basically as follows: the night before you wish to make bagels, you put some yeast, flour and water together with some malt powder. I used active yeast rather than instant, which is fine except you need to proof it (make it bubble and come alive) before it goes into the mix. Make sure you use good almost-hot water for this, and maybe a pinch of sugar. The dough sits and makes a sponge. A few hours later, you put some more flour into the mix and do a little kneading. Then you make the bagels. They get a second rise, then sit in the fridge overnight.

The next morning they get a water bath with some more malt powder. You know how sometimes people say bagels are boiled to get that chewy crust? Turns out you do put them in boiling water, but only for thirty seconds a side or so. Then they go into the oven. I’ve experimented with some toppings and ingredients, like rehydrated onions – the key here seems to be (as with all baking) to remember that the water weight needs to balance out in the same proportions as the original recipe. Even if you don’t know how to bake and your oven can’t hold a predictable temperature to save its life, you can still make a bagel that beats anything available in the stores.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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There Are 4 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Jim Yeaman says:

    Try the bagels from Costco. The Parmesan cheese ones are awesome!

    • Stephen says:

      Sadly we are not members of the exclusive club known as the Elite Costco Purchasing Society. We will certainly consider their bagel quality though, if provided the opportunity.

  2. Jay Croft says:

    Costco? Heresy!

  3. Nancy C Lea says:

    I am surprised you found the Panera bagels “real” by any rating. They’re not bad, but, still, are “bready” and not the “workout” my jaw muscles remember after 14 yrs in NY and frequent stops at legendary places like “Ess-a-bagel.” Sad, but true. Still the Panera bagels are at least tasty. I agree tht supermarket “baggies” are outrageous, with a nasty, pasty, sticky texture and barely worth eating.

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