Casting about for Easter brunch inspiration, I happened upon an enticing post in Dizzy Swallows, a wonderfully eclectic blog belonging to my friend Danielle Hendrix. This fearless kitchen goddess had taken on the challenge of bagel making, something I’ve been meaning to try for ages. That’s it, I thought, the perfect bruncheon centerpiece: a mountain of freshly baked bagels with a platter of different toppings. (Cold meats and lox for the carnivores, homemade pesto and cheeses for the veggies.) One look at Danielle’s post and I was elbow deep in a bag of flour, determined to master the art.
The bagel has a strange and murky history. Originating by most accounts in 17th Poland, it was a prototypical convenience food. As with many of the strange foods we eat today, the bagel’s shape was founded not on artistic flair but rather on pure pragmatism, enabling wandering bagel sellers to string a rope or pole through their wares facilitating transportation and storage. Yet this wheaten ring took on deeper significance, it’s unbroken circle symbolizing—even more than other breads—life itself. Furthermore, some sources claim that Polish women in the midst of child labour were told to ‘bite the bagel’ to ease their pain.
With the influx of eastern Europeans immigrants in the 1800’s, the bagel was introduced to the United States and has since become a firm fixture of American food culture. Today, New York is considered the bagel mecca, where, according to fans, you can find the most flavorsome, chewy, and authentic specimens.
For those who have never tried anything but botoxed supermarket bagels (I suspect this is likely for many Britons since the bagel doesn’t have the same standing here), I beg you to search out the real thing, or failing that, to make a batch yourself. Despite requiring a little forward planning, they are easy to prepare and thoroughly worth the effort. Dense and chewy with a tight crumb and the warm aroma of hay, real bagels are a revelation.
I made a test batch today with happy results. The recipe I used (Peter Reinhart’s, via Fine Cooking) calls for a minimum fermentation of eight hours in the fridge before baking. I left my dough to chill out for 24 hours for more development and thus deeper flavor. Next time I want to try some variations such as adding a touch of whole wheat or rye to the dough for a bit more nutty richness.