What makes the perfect bagel?
Going down the bagel hole with a local baker
One of the many mixed-up parts of celebrating Christmas as a Jew was the elaborate bagel fixings bar my dad and stepmother would set up each year for the six of us. They would use the dining room table and the nice dishes that only came out for special occasions. There would be enough fresh-from-the-bakery bagels for each of us to eat two and all the traditional toppings: cream cheese, tomatoes, capers, purple onions and several types of smoked fish and lox. We would line up at the toaster as Dad would cut our bagel of choice – mine was always garlic – then we’d open our stockings to see what Santa brought.
As a kid, there were many bagel options around Washington, D.C., where I grew up. I never really cared if it was Lender’s brand or fresh from a bakery, but I would eat one most days for breakfast before school. However, the Christmas bagel toppings extravaganza was allocated to that special day, so I never had anything on my bagel other than butter and sometimes melted cheddar for the rest of the year. There was a short time when my mom bought Sizzlean (“Don’t sizzle fat, sizzle lean!”) for some reason – she was a vegetarian who still had a taste for bacon, so she didn’t want temptation in her own kitchen. I would put a couple slices on top of a bagel in appreciation of her efforts to support my carnivorous habits, assuming it was actually meat.
But food fads like fake bacon are just that for me, a fad. The one food that has been a staple for Jews for several hundred years is good enough for me. Note how Matzoh never made it mainstream in the same manner, but who’s complaining? But clearly, just as tacos are not just for Mexicans anymore – i.e. the local Indian taco place opening soon on Main Ave. – bagels are not just for Jews, either.
When I lived in Austin, I remember reading an article about two new bagel places in town that both claimed to be “New York style.” The discourse over this label is limitless and perhaps unresolvable. Some claim it is impossible to re-create a proper New York bagel anywhere without New York water, but others point out that it has more to do with the preparation and the gluten-heavy ingredients. Now that I have the palate to know a Thomas’ bagel is just round bread with a hole, I decided to ask a local bagel expert, Andrew Allison-Godfrey, owner of Durango’s own Mable’s Bagels, what makes a classic bagel.
Allison-Godfrey grew up on the East Coast eating New York bagels and is a traditionalist when it comes to bagels. He fully agrees with Ed Levine, who said in a 2009 New York Times article that “A bagel is a round bread made of simple, elegant ingredients: high-gluten flour, salt, water, yeast and malt. Its dough is boiled, then baked, and the result should be a rich caramel color; it should not be pale and blond. A bagel should weigh four ounces or less and should make a slight cracking sound when you bite into it instead of a whoosh. A bagel should be eaten warm and, ideally, should be no more than four or five hours old when consumed.” In fact, he prefers to eat his daily bagel whole and fresh – and only occasionally with hummus and red onion.
Allison-Godfrey said the key is the high-gluten flour and mixing technique that takes much tweaking to get right, and “one needs to fiddle with the amounts of flour and water, as well as the sugar in the slurry when you are baking at different elevations” or using different ovens. Most importantly with flavor and consistency, shelf life is everything. If a bagel isn’t eaten or frozen the day it is made, he said, its quality will immediately deteriorate (without preservatives).
With all of the local Durango options for bagels, Allison-Godfrey mentioned how this foodie town can support all of the good bakers around.
Allison-Godfrey prefers to deliver his bagels in person, rather than opening a shop, so he can meet his customers and see their faces light up when he arrives with a fresh, hot dozen. He bakes me a dozen garlic bagels on demand every two weeks, and that first day is the best. Anyone who happens to be nearby is blessed with one of these amazing bagels – I have to share the wealth. Like the baker himself, I eat them without splitting them or using any toppings on the first day. It is only as they age or get reheated that I dare add toppings. And in case you were wondering, I still eat lox on Christmas.