When the visiting rabbi said, “Focus on the bagel and not the hole,” we all chuckled. Quietly, of course, we were grownups in church. We knew exactly what he meant. Savor what is at hand. Enjoy what you have and don’t dwell on what you don’t have. I think of that moment every time I eat a bagel, which has long been one of my favorite forms of bread. I discovered them in late childhood, when I lived in New Jersey. My parents did not eat bagels, they ate Wonderbread. Newly minted driver’s licenses led to teenage forays into the surrounding suburbs and across the river into the city of Philadelphia, where my generation of scavengers encountered previously unknown foodstuffs. Until then, I didn’t have a bagel to focus on.
I moved to Texas when I was 19. Food-wise, it was a shock to my system. Other than a taco (introduced by our NJ neighbor who was from Texas), I had never had Mexican food. Also, I had never heard of okra, chicken-fried steak or sweet tea. I felt like a food-awkward young transplant in the wrong cafeteria. One morning I entered a restaurant and asked for a bagel, toasted, with cream cheese. The waitress looked at me as though I was speaking a foreign language, which I guess I was in a way. In 1976, it was hard for this Yankee gal to find a bagel anywhere in southeast Texas. I deeply mourned the loss of this comfort food. No amount of fried okra in the world could take its place—though I experimented liberally.
Times changed, of course, with the popularity of bagels and one’s ability to acquire them. I lived in Houston long enough to see the rise of Jewish delis (Katz’s never closes!) and coffee houses (mostly Starbucks, but a few others). I was a witness to and beneficiary of the burgeoning international restaurant scene and an explosion of ethnic-inspired cuisine which helped to make Houston the most diverse city in the country. When Einstein Bros Bagels arrived on the campus of The University of Houston, now my alma mater, I ate a lot of bagels there to make up for my previous loss.
After moving to North Carolina, I started making my own bagels, though I can grab one from any number of bakeries within walking distance of my West Asheville neighborhood. Bagels are so popular now; you can buy them neatly packaged in the grocery store. Every local coffee shop and breakfast-serving restaurant offers them—many baked in small local bakeries around town. I’ve not researched their popularity in say, Criner, Oklahoma, or Deadwood, South Dakota, but I’m sure you can find bagels pretty much everywhere in the U.S. these days. Why has the country gone bagel crazy? It must be the sheer, simplistic beauty of the thing.
The bagel as we know it, a ring of boiled and baked yeasted dough, originated in the Jewish communities of Poland way back in the 1600’s. Over the past few centuries, bakers have tweaked the basic bagel via different baking techniques, ingredients and styles, but the shape has remained that simple ring of chewy goodness. Street vendors of old could slip a few dozen on a rod to display for the hungry masses. My personal theory is that the hole serves the sole purpose of providing a vent for the schmear (usually cream cheese, often mixed with tasty goodies) to flow like lava onto your lap or clean shirt, dress, etc. I’m pretty sure that’s how the Yiddish term “oy vey” came into popular use, and though I’ve done zero research on this theory, I see this as a plausible conjecture.
Modern technology, kneading and shaping machinery, made the creation of bagels a lot easier, faster and profitable. But making your own bagels at home is not a simple process. I got my recipe from King Arthur Baking Company’s website and started experimenting with its ingredients shortly after I moved into the Hobbit House here in Asheville. King Arthur is a confusing sovereign who is constantly posting new bagel recipes on the webpage causing us loyal peasants to question the validity of the previous ones. I found I could make bagels in one day with sufficient results, even if they were a bit lumpy and did not exactly resemble those forged in a professional kitchen. Not a single consumption of these amateur-made bagels resulted in complaint or death, so I guessed they were pretty good. Until the next recipe came around and doubt once again set in.
Then I bought a sourdough bagel-making class from my church auction. I roped my neighbor Susan into accompanying me to this instructional for that most mystifying of baking techniques—the inclusion of a sourdough leavening. For those who aren’t familiar with this type of bread baking, it includes the care and feeding of a culture which grows out of flour and water and naturally-occurring yeasts. If I thought creating edible bagels was a lot of work before this class, the addition of this leavening added to the complexity of the process. My own bagel-making experiences led me to believe I could handle the multi-step process with a minimum of whimpering.
The first whimpering occurred when the instructor (the minister of my church, btw) set up a stand mixer and said this was the instrument one must use to get the best results. Strike one—I don’t have a stand mixer. The sourdough leavening was bubbling away in a pitcher. Two cups of the stuff were added to the mixer. After mysterious amounts of other ingredients were piled on (no written recipe was handed out to us for following along) the dough had to rest. Then the dough was kneaded, then the dough rested. Then the dough was shaped into rings and put on a baking sheet and covered with a plastic bag and left overnight in the fridge to ferment. Luckily some had already been prepared for the boiling step.
Boiling, draining, dipping into the seedy everything mix and finally baking followed in rapid succession. We waited for the delicious results, which we ate with all the standard fixings. Cream cheese, lox, capers, tomato and red onion. My bagel obliged me with small dollop of goop on the pants. Its taste was heavenly, though doubt started rubbing at the back of my mind. How on earth was I going to create this masterpiece of sustenance on my own? How would I get the starter started? Where did she get those big plastic bags? Did I have enough gas in the car to get home? Once the worry wheel gets going, it’s hard to stop.
Our instructor offered to give us all a small amount of starter to take home and feed. At this point I let loose another small whimper. Yes, I wanted some. However, I’ve been the recipient of sourdough starters in the past. They never lived long enough to give vigor to new lifeforms. I am a closet sourdough killer. Oh no! Strike two! This was beginning to look like a baseball analogy, with me being close to OUT!
At this point, I remembered the rabbi’s sage advice. Forget that damn hole and focus on the bulk of the bagel. The rest would follow. I took the starter home and placed it in my special starter bucket (aka sourdough coffin) in the back of the refrigerator. I wrote myself a note to regularly feed it flour and water in unspecified amounts. I figured I can at least keep it alive until I get a recipe from the minister and the stand mixer is delivered. I will soon be heading off to the store to buy whatever ingredients I can remember from the class. I know how to make bagels, right? Google: How much flour and water should I add to keep my sourdough bubbling? I hope to have it all mastered by National Bagel Day in February.
Awaiting the perfect nosh,