In our quest for a great bagel, we first tried some local stores that sold such questionable combos such as the BBLT—bacon, bagel, lettuce, and tomato. What they lacked in quality (a lot) they attempted to make up for in variety. Sometimes when I see the flavors of bagels on offer—pumpkin raisin, chocolate chip, pesto, jalapeño-cheese, and so on—I don’t know if I’m at a Ben & Jerry’s or a Taco Bell, but I do know that I’m certainly not in an old-fashioned Jewish New York deli with its dried apricots, pickled herring, and a world-class knife handler who can carve lox so thin that you could read the Times through it. The old-time bagels sold in those bakeries were all that a bagel should be: chewy, crusty, dense, wheaty, and ever so slightly sweet. They were a far cry from what passes for a bagel these days, which is usually a roll so swollen that the hole in the middle is almost nonexistent.
Our first stop was Black Seed, on Elizabeth Street in SoHo. There, Noah Bernamoff has taken on the bagel quest in much the same way that his Mile End deli has revived and advanced the tradition of pastrami, chopped liver, and other delicatessen standbys. His bagels are quite good, but they are made in the Montreal style—smaller and more cakey than what we were looking for. In addition, the dough is unsalted, and the bagels are boiled with honey—a faithful and flavorful representation of the Montreal style, but not a classic New York bagel.
We put in a call to Ed Levine, who as a journalist and the guiding force behind the website seriouseats.com, has done much to promote honest traditional food across the United States. Ed has been everywhere and eaten everything. He suggested that we meet for lunch at Russ & Daughters Cafe, a dressed-up table-service offshoot of the famous smoked fish store on the Lower East Side.
When you think of bagels on the Lower East Side, it conjures up images of pushcarts, pudgy grandmas in babushkas and sensible shoes. That was then; this is now. Russ & Daughters Cafe is stylish, light, and airy. The crowd (and the servers) are, for the most part, svelte and young. A waitress put a bread basket in front of us. The bagels were toasted. We asked for untoasted. A great bagel doesn’t need to be toasted, but somehow that has become the modern default. Ed, who has written at length about bagels for the New York Times, said he thinks the memory of food is sometimes better than the food really was, and that he suspected this was true of bagels. Peter wasn’t so sure. He maintained that over the years bagels’ holes have got smaller, and the bagels themselves have gotten bigger and squishier. I just ate and listened to these old-school bagel connoisseurs discuss their bagel philosophies.
Ed reprised the history of the modern bagel: that it was considered an ethnic food until the 1960s, when a few chains went national and quality started to go downhill. The same thing happened with pizza, he said, and on that note, he made the logical leap—at least for him—to discussion of pizza. There is no such thing as a single-topic conversation with Ed. He said he was crazy for Chris Bianco’s pizza, at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. “It may be the best in the country,” he said.
“Next time, I’m in Phoenix, I’ll try it,” I promised, wondering why nobody ever talks about the second best pizza in the country. After all, it has to be pretty decent.
“Um, Ed, about bagels, ya know?” Peter asked, trying to steer the conversation back to our current quest.
In midsentence—and midbite—Ed said, “Right now, I think the best bagels I know of are being done by the chef Mark Strausman. He bakes them on a cedar plank.”
I made a mental note. “Good idea.”
On Ed’s recommendation, we headed up to Strausman’s restaurant, Fred’s, which is located in Barneys—a famous department store on Fifty-Ninth Street and Madison Avenue. That part of town is definitely a high-rent neighborhood and a far cry from the Fiddler on the Roof villages of eastern Europe where the bagel was born. So on a perfect summer day, I packed my daughter, Alex, in the car, along with my wife, Kate, and Peter, and braved the Manhattan traffic.
We strode into Fred’s, sat down, and proceeded to order two baskets of bagels, some coffee, and a bowl of Estelle’s Chicken Soup (Estelle being Mark Strausman’s grandma)—the cheapest items on the menu. When we said we were excited about the bagels, which we’d heard were the best in town, they proudly presented us with two baskets filled with plain bagels, everything bagels, and bialys. They were so good that two-year-old Alex was content to chew on her bagel in silence—a sure sign, I have learned, that she likes a particular bread.
Strausman’s bagels are smaller in diameter than the puff balls you find these days, so the crust-to-crumb relationship was more balanced. To eat one, you work your way through a firm, slightly cracking crust, which is balanced correctly with the soft (but not white bread soft) interior. There was a hint of sweetness, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t from sugar, and just enough salt to make the other flavors pop. I couldn’t taste a lot of fermentation. I left a note thanking the chef for opening my eyes to something exceedingly simple, done exceedingly well. By the way, the chicken soup was worthy of a grandma.
I believed I was ready to make a Bien Cuit bagel. I thought I had figured it out, but it took more trial and error than any other recipe in this book to get it right. I tried to track down recipes that New York bagel makers used in the old days, but I couldn’t find any. This seemed odd at first, but in the course of my research I learned that bagel bakers had their own union and guarded their recipes jealously. So all I could refer to was Peter’s taste memory and a few recipes written by longtime bagel bakers. What they shared in common was using a lot of commercial yeast, the goal being to produce bagels without long fermentation. This went against my mantra that long, cold fermentation is always essential for developing flavor, and the bagels I attempted with the over-yeasted method confirmed my misgivings.
It occurred to me that before the widespread use of commercial yeast in the latter half of the nineteenth century, bakers who wanted to make bagels had no choice but to use a sourdough starter. And to sweeten the dough, the most readily available and economic sweetener would have been rye malt extract. So I incorporated both into my recipe. The resulting bagels were better, but still not great. Then I realized that traditional bagel making methods didn’t involve fermenting shaped bagels for a long time; they used bulk fermentation, with an entire batch of dough being fermented for a longer time in cold conditions. It wasn’t apparent to me why that would produce a better bagel, but I figured it was worth a try. So on my twenty-fourth attempt at a bagel recipe, I baked a bunch of bulk-fermented bagels alongside an identical batch that had first been shaped and then cold fermented. Voila! The sourdough-based, malt-sweetened, bulk-fermented bagel won hands down.
By the way, I eventually found evidence vindicating Mark Strausman’s cedar plank method. As it turns out, old-time bagel bakers baked their bagels on blocks of wood that had been soaked in water so a crust wouldn’t form on the underside too quickly during baking. Steam from the wood gently heats the bagel, leaving the surface supple until it’s removed from the wood and baked a bit longer, crisping up in the process. Instead of using oak blocks, I use cedar grilling planks, the kind you can find in fish stores, cooking supply stores, or online.