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Q: If we accept the significance of the water in bagel making, at which step does the water matter most: in mixing the dough, in boiling the bagels, or both?

Maybe it’s a cop-out to say both, but both it is — in the making of the dough water is important because there is less of it in relation to the flour than in ordinary bread, and of course the boiling is all-important to retaining the bagel’s shape and — by gelatinizing the starch on the surface — to creating the distinctive glossy crust. As to whether New York City water is the all-important ingredient — the bread scientists I consulted were not convinced.

Q: In other countries, I’ve seen street vendors carrying bagels on long poles — which would explain the need for a hole. In New York, I’ve never seen this. Why, then, maintain such a design?

A: It is the other way round: the poles are needed because of the hole! I have seen pictures from the beginning of the 20th century of baskets like these in New York. And in fact until the ’70s, bagels were distributed on rope or string from the wholesale cellar bakeries around the city to delis and supermarkets.

As to why the hole in the first place: It allows the bagel to cook faster, since there is a greater surface area for the volume of dough. It also means that you get more crust for the same amount of dough. And then there is the intrinsic attraction of the ring shape. It’s a draw for children, both because it is easy to grasp and because you can play with it.

And the hole itself has intimations of eternity in the way it goes from being a finite space in the middle of the dough to an infinite space once you have finished eating the bagel! Heady stuff.

Q: Is a toasted bagel more popular than the untoasted bagel? When were bagels first sliced and ingredients placed in the middle akin to a bread sandwich? I can’t get my mouth around some of the monster-size bagels being produced these days, but I’ve given some to my daughters as bracelets, and after a day they do quite well as such as long as it doesn’t rain!!!

A: These days I get the impression that people reach for their toaster even with fresh bagels — which is a shame. Toasting day-old bagels, on the other hand, makes all the difference In the days before toasters and fluffy bagels, the only way to deal with stale bagels was to dip them in tea or some other beverage.
Like the bagel bracelets — you could always shellac them to keep them from going soggy in the rain. In the 1970s, you could have picked up shellacked bagel jewelry in Bloomingdale’s!

Q: Regarding why bagels are round — perhaps they were indeed hawked on poles by bakers at the market; I’ve heard that the word “bagel” is Yiddish for bangle. As to the bialy — they hail from the town of Bialystok. As to cinnamon, blueberry, bacon bagels and the like — grounds for jail time. Some crimes against cuisine must be stopped!

A: They were indeed hawked on poles and on ropes, at the market and on street corners. Lots of pictures and words to confirm. The word bagel comes from the Yiddish beigen, which means to bend.

Q: What is an objective set of standards for judging bagels? (I.e., not the circular logic of “The best bagels come from New York City because New York City makes the best bagels.”) Where would those objective standards come from?

A: Everyone has his or her own particular standards, but for me the crust has to be shiny and crunchy; the inside consistency chewy and slightly damp; the taste should be yeasty with a tangy bite, and the overall effect of eating a bagel should be that you feel like a stone has landed in your stomach — in the best possible way, of course.

Q: In my opinion, H & H and Ess-a-Bagel dominate the New York City bagel scene. After numerous attempts at homemade bagels, I can’t come close to replicating the perfect ratio of crusty outside to fluffy inside (using the traditional boil and bake method along with many others). I’m a decently skilled chef, and the bagel is the one item that I always seem to duff. … What’s the secret to perfect homemade bagels?

A: One thing I would try is “retardation,” or the process of stopping the dough from rising by putting it in cold area (a fridge or pantry if it’s fall/winter) before you let it rise and then boil and bake. I have been told that this is what gives the crust its heft and also the taste its bite, since the process of retarding the dough creates lactic acids. See what you think!

Q:  Do you have a favorite bagel joke?

We used to buy day-old bagels. They were so hard we had to hammer the butter on. Then my uncle came up with a brilliant idea. He went to Israel and made a fortune selling Cheerios as bagel seeds. If you believe either of the previous, there’s some border property along the Golan Heights I’d like to sell you.



1990 NE 123rd St
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