My Favorite Bagel
For those of you who are familiar with bagels, this could be a very divisive post: New York City vs. Montreal. But this is no simple battle of H&H vs. St-Viateur (each city’s most famous bagel maker, respectively), nor is my very favorite bagel from either of those two places. Unfortunately, it’s not from Zürich either, where I live. So on my transatlantic travels, I often bring back bags of bagels in my suitcase. Into the freezer pre-sliced (a must), they toast perfectly and taste almost like fresh. So where do I go for the best bagel ? Great Neck.
Great Neck, Long Island, in New York. If you know Great Neck, you’re picturing upwards of 20 bagel shops in this relatively small town. And while I can’t say I have tasted bagels from them all, I still have a favorite. The Bagel Hut, where my family has been getting bagels since they opened, the year my parents were married (1969).
What is a bagel ? A round, thick, hand-rolled bread with a hole in the center, its origins in Eastern Europe. (The first mentions were apparently of bajgiels in Poland and bubliki in Russia.) Food historians show street vendors holding dozens of these ring shaped breads on long sticks, practical for selling and transporting. Jewish immigrants brought them to North America in the early 18th century, but they didn’t become wildly popular until the late 20th century.
There are two schools of thought regarding bagels. New York bagels have a signature chew and flavor and a smooth shine thanks to the dough being boiled in water (after a long phase of “proofing”) before baking in a standard oven. The ingredients include only flour, water, yeast, malt and salt. Montreal bagels, on the other hand, use sugar and eggs; no salt. Smaller, lighter, sweeter and with a larger hole, these are boiled in honey-sweetened water before baking in a wood-fired oven, giving them an irregularly charred surface. Despite my crazy sweet tooth, I’m partial to the New York style bagels of my childhood and have rather high standards for what a good bagel is (harder to find than you may think).
Has anyone tasted both ? If so, which style do you prefer ?
As is the case with cupcakes and macarons, there is no limit to flavor combinations in bagels nowadays… fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective. I say, leave the blueberries to muffins and the garlic to well, garlic bread. Bagels can be plain, sesame or everything (with all those seeds that get stuck in your teeth), pumpernickel or even cinnamon raisin. I’m a big fan of mini bagels too, with more of that extra chewy crust. And they’re also just so cute, if not always easy to find. Best of all, a family favorite: twists. Long pieces of braided bagel dough that we always passed around the table, pulling off pieces like monkey bread. Great vehicle for cream cheese.
Growing up, Sunday breakfast invariably meant bagels and lox, the New York Times for my parents and Newsday comics for us kids. Sliced plain bagels were topped with Temptee whipped cream cheese, cucumber, onion and tomato. On more special occasions, it wouldn’t be just smoked salmon (lox), but also whitefish, kippered salmon (my favorite), sable and herring. We were simply following in the footsteps of my grandparents, who used to walk to Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side of New York City as children and eat all of these delicacies.
While my mom has memories of my grandfather bringing home fresh rye bread every Sunday morning, I’ll always remember taking the brown paper bag from my dad as he got home, and feeling the warmth of fresh bagels inside and smelling that distinct aroma. So maybe it’s not just the twisted dough or the Great Neck water, but a bit of nostalgia that makes the bagels at the Bagel Hut so good. Whatever it is, I’ll take mine with a schmear.
503 Middle Neck Road
Great Neck, NY 11023
The Best Bagels in New York City by CBS Best of NY
The Great Bagel War: East Coast vs. West Coast Bagels on Thirty Mile Zone TV
What Makes New York Bagels so good – it’s not the water says the Village Voice
NY vs. Montreal: Mayssam Samaha gives us the hard facts
The Bagel War of Montreal: St-Viateur vs. Fairmount
BYOB (Bake your own bagels):
Peter Reinhart’s bagels by Smitten Kitchen
A dozen simple bagels by King Arthur Flour
Michael Ruhlman says homemade bagels are a breeze !
Claudia Roden’s recipe on My Jewish Learning
* Zürich bagels: anyone try them from The Swiss Bagel Bakery ?