All about bagels

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I spent my junior year of college at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. When I went through the gate to the campus, I’d pass by a wizened little man holding ring-shaped rolls on a long pole. “Beigele, beigele, beigele,” he’d shout, trying to attract buyers.

I realized that these baked goodies, which tasted rather like soft pretzels, must be the forerunners of the American bagels my family enjoyed almost every Sunday morning with cream cheese and lox (smoked salmon), and which weren’t available in Israel at the time.

In fact, it was hard to find a bagel outside of Jewish neighborhoods. When my brother went to graduate school at Vanderbilt in Nashville, he and his wife would lug back a dozen ore more bagels every time they came home to Philadelphia for a visit.

In the late 1950s, bagel baker Harry Lender and his sons figured out a way to freeze bagels, making them available in supermarkets. Even though the frozen things are just awful and barely worthy of being designated bagels, non-Jewish Americans learned what they were.

Now fresh bagels are available almost everywhere, though purists will scoff at the soft-textured variety offered by most chains (Einstein, Bruegger’s, Dunkin Donuts, Panera) as “rolls with a hole.”

Real bagels are boiled

True bagels need to be boiled in a pot of water before they’re baked, to develop the hard crust and chewy interior texture. Most modern chain-store bagels are baked in ovens with a steam injection system; the steam creates the softer texture most of us have grown used to.

Many of us old-timers, myself included, feel only certain varieties of bagels should be allowed: poppy, sesame, onion, garlic. Cinnamon-raisin is stretching it. But the types of rolls-with-a-hole calling themselves bagels today – granola, cranberry-orange, blueberry – to these I say “Feh!” And green bagels for St. Patrick’s Day are just an abomination.

Bagels have also gotten huge. When I was a kid, bagels were half the size they are now, maybe even less. In my family, each of us would normally eat two bagel-and-lox sandwiches for Sunday breakfast. My brother once ate five!

A European import

Bagels originated in Krakow, Poland. Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yiddish, says the first mention of the word (bajgiel) is in the Krakow “Community Regulations” in 1610; they were given as a gift to women in childbirth. The round shape was considered to be lucky. The Yiddish word bagel comes from a Middle High German word, “bougel,” meaning ring or bracelet.

Polish Jewish immigrants brought the bagel to New York – and also to Montreal. Apparently there’s quite a distinction between “New York style” bagels and “Montreal style” bagels, which originated with Russian Jewish immigrants. The latter have bigger holes and are crustier and less sweet, and they’re baked in a wood-fired oven – probably more like the “beigeles” sold by the vendor at Hebrew University.

Bagels have even gone into outer space. Canadian American astronaut Gregory Chmitoff brought a batch of Montreal-style bagels with him on a 2008 Space Shuttle mission.

Try making your own

If you are among the poor souls that have no easy access to a bagel bakery, or if you’re just feeling adventurous, try making your own.

The traditional bagel contains high-gluten white flour, salt, water, yeast and a sweetener. L.V. Anderson, writing in a blog on Slate in a series called “You’re Doing It Wrong,” says the secret to good bagels is barley malt syrup, but I think that would be rather difficult to find.

I chose a recipe that seems easier, since it uses plain white sugar for sweetening. It appeared on the Allrecipes website, where it earned 4.5 out of 5 stars from hundreds of reviewers.

Purists will say you should create the bagel shape by rolling the dough into a rope about eight inches long and forming it into a ring, pinching the ends together in a rather complicated maneuver. It seems much easier to form the dough into balls and then poke a hole into each one, widening the hole to the right size (about two inches wide) before boiling.

After boiling, and before baking, would be the time to add flavorings by dipping the bagels into poppy seeds, sesame seeds, chopped onion or garlic or coarse salt.

Enjoy your bagels with cream cheese (AKA “shmear”) and lox, garnished with sliced tomatoes and onions. (Photo below by David Lebovitz via Flickr Creative Commons.)

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