Whole wheat, sour dough, rye, pita, challah, foccacia, poppadom, and naan – no matter what form you serve it in, I have an obsession with bread that amounts to gluttony. One of my most memorable meals was in San Francisco in 1992 with Margo Skinner, where we sat long after closing while the cook — delighted that Margo had lived in India — served us bread after bread, and I still wasn’t sated. But for me, no bread comes close to matching the bagel. Whether Montreal or New York style, the smell of a bagel causes me to salivate uncontrollably.
Understand that I am not talking about the round pieces of bread that are sold by the half dozen in grocery stores that purport to “New York Style Bagels” – a euphemism for “not a bagel at all.” The only thing that these upstart buns have in common with an actual bagel is their round shape, and the hole in the middle. These alleged bagels are frauds, one and all, and in a civil society would not be tolerated for a moment.
For one thing, a true bagel is not sprinkled with onions or bits of cheddar cheese. Nor is made from whole wheat flour. No! These ingredients are a snare and deception played upon the unwary. All these innovations may be fine on other breads, but the true bagel is covered, both top and bottom, in either sesame or poppy seeds, regardless of whether you eat it with cream cheese and lox, or simply hot, melted butter.
A true bagel uses a touch of malt to activate the yeast and harden the outside when they are dropped into boiling water before cooking. Even more importantly, a true bagel rises for half an hour before being punched down and rolled into shape, and for another twenty minutes, making it the sort of dense foodstuff that sentients of taste and refinement must eat on high-gravity planets across the galaxy. Such a bagel is the breakfast of heroes, the yeasty equivalent of a bowl of Scottish oatmeal whose dozen bites, when eaten at 6am , can sustain you until noon even when you are doing heavy labor.
Yet this is the sort of bagel you rarely find in most cities. In fact, you can forget Pokémon Go – what I want is an app that can locate a proper bagel when I am traveling. In Vancouver, Solly’s makes a decent bagel, although the true masterpiece of all its branches is challah. Seigel’s is genuine, too, with the mild sourness of malt as an aftertaste, and is, in fact, the only bagel found locally on grocery shelves that is worth buying.
Stray out into the suburbs, though, and edible bagels are rarer than Tsonqu’a. In fact, before you are fifty kilometers down the highway in any direction, the prospects of a true bagel is several thousand kilometers down the road.
For that reason, a few years ago I finally learned to make my own. Even, as sometimes happens, I have to substitute sugar for malt, the result is better than what I can buy in most places. But the do-it-yourself approach does help me to understand why bagels worth eating can rarely be bought. Bagels are labor intensive, and making them circular is a craft that takes several batches to learn; my own approach is to poke a hole in one end of the dough when it is rolled out into a flopping rope, then insert the other end into the hole and twist the ends together. Personally speaking, though, I would rather go to the trouble than condemn myself to lesser breads for breakfast.