Desperately Seeking a New York Bagel in London
The now sadly shuttered H&H Bagels. Credit: Wikicommons
There are many things I can live without — New York bagels is not one of them. They are my desert island food.
I’m a sixth generation New Yorker who moved to London in 1996. My plan was to stay three years. One man and a few sporadic years back home later, I am still in London. What remains firmly from New York are cravings: for real pizza, morning dim sum, the cheese counter at Zabar’s, 24-hour coffee shops (They don’t exist here.), bialys (Ditto.) and good, crusty, everything bagels with a schmear of garlic cream cheese.
They don’t speak “bagel” in England.
Ask a Londoner where to get a bagel, and you’re likely to be sent to Brick Lane. If you’re an expat New Yorker in London, caring local friends will bring you bags of Brick Lane beigels. That’s how they’re spelled here: beigel, not bagel.
On Sundays, Brick Lane is Tourist Central, with rows of tables and open warehouse spaces turning the street into an open-air market where you can buy almost everything from an old Rolleiflex camera to a fresh egg-custard tart studded with berries. Walk away from the market, and you’ll reach two beigel shops. In New York, people would cheerfully argue about which one is better. In London, people queue in foot-shifting silence, noses down over mobile phones, fingers busy with texting.
In the shops, you’ll find breads, squares of cheesecake, and round white dough that looks familiar but – if you’re a New Yorker — tastes terribly strange. Don’t let pronunciation fool you. The two words sound the same they share a plump, carby, circularity but that’s all that bagels and beigels have in common.
As an LA friend — a more recent expat — observed, “Beigels aren’t chewy. They’re … squishy. They’re bread, though. They’re definitely bread.” Her words were certain. Her tone was questioning.
That’s understandable. My LA friend has been here for three years. I’ve been here for more than 15. I’m not entirely persuaded about the “bread.” The daughter of a New Yorker who was the daughter of a New Yorker, I inhabit a world in which bread has flavor, texture, and — where crust is concerned — a definite will to bite back.
Bagels have character. They are resistant. Toasted, they can acquire an air of crisp rebellion. You have to work to get your teeth through that crust, and you’re rewarded with a holey, chewy, satisfying dough. It takes a while to work your way through a good New York bagel. A London beigel? Minutes.
What Londoner’s call a bagel. Credit: Flickr/Pete Mcclymont
Not that beigels aren’t well-meaning. They are. Kind of like doughnuts: crust, tender and yielding; crumb, spongy. Flavor options: plain, plain, plain, or plain — not that anybody will ask. There’s no need to name the flavor, because there aren’t any choices. Your beigel will come in soft, round, unadorned and (sadly) unapologetic white.
It’s fine if this is all you have known … and I have to confess that real bagels faded in my expat memory, the crust and the sesame and the poppy and the onion and the hot-from-the-oven “everything” taking on the haze of a mirage that I had only dreamed.
Oh, I grumbled a lot. Every couple of years, the urge would take me. I would make a hopeful pilgrimage to Brick Lane and buy something soft, sweet, and unsatisfying.
London friends argue: “What do you mean, these aren’t chewy? They’re chewy – and the crust is fine.”
It was like arguing the relative merits of Sicilian and Neapolitan pizza crusts with people who had tasted neither. How could Londoners know what was missing from their bagel experience when they had never tasted the real thing?
My bagel story might have ended there, but for the aforementioned LA friend. Last year, she brought me to the breaking point. Her sister flew over to visit, bearing a bag of fresh, handmade American bagels, which she’d picked up in one of the best bagel shops in Oakland.
The next morning, the sisters provided smoked salmon, cream cheese, and toasted bagels — real ones. The first bite brought a tsunami of sensory recall: the snap of a thick glossy crust, the almost recalcitrant chewiness of the dough, the salt-sweet-tang taste, the brilliant death of yeast, the infuriating beauty of sesame seeds wedged between my teeth.
I’m a food writer. I have logged countless hours in the kitchen kneading bread. By the time I was eight, I was baking bread without a recipe. Why was I depriving myself of bagels? Because I didn’t believe I could make them.
Simple and comforting though they are, bagels have a mystique. Everybody says that you can’t make a New York bagel outside New York. But with six generations of asphalt in my blood, I should be able to infuse anything with Manhattan. I’d buy the flour and bring the NYC. Bagels were going to happen, and they were going to have crisp crusts, flavor options, and Upper West Side attitude. Within two weeks, I was baking.
They’ll tell you it’s the water that makes a New York bagel. I’ll tell you that a handful of salt in the water goes a long way. One of my friends from Chicago suggested I try adding baking soda to the water, and sent me links to articles about kitchen chemistry. (Chicago’s food people are generous that way.) I threw baking soda in the water. I swallowed the articles whole. Then, like the good little PhD student I am, I read about gluten. I read about boiling times.
For bakers of ordinary bread, making bagels is an unusual experience. The dough doesn’t rise in the oven. The yeast gives its all when you boil the dough. Boiling is the stage that forms the crust. The dough doesn’t get soggy because the starch on the surface forms a gel. Most of my reading suggested boiling bagels for 60 to 90 seconds on each side. Fortunately, rather than filling the surface of the water with dough, I left a lot of space between bagels. Those rings grew — a lot.
For the first trial, I went with a renegade one-and-a-half minutes per side. I baked the bagels for 25 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. The bagels were golden. The sesame topping was thick and even.
The Brits were thrilled. The Los Angelena was contented. I was stuck in an irritable “almost, but something’s wrong” mode.
A lifelong insomniac, I traded some of my few hours of sleep for baking until after midnight or starting before dawn. There were casualties. One dish towel ruined by water and flour. Black clothing grey from dustings of ground grain. Water boiling until the kitchen was as humid as London rain. The timer was changed: two minutes per side.
Closer. Still not there. I knew where “there” was. What I needed was a road map … and more flour. At my frustrated peak, I was buying flour from a small health food shop every few days.
One day, as I was cramming four bags of flour, containers of yeast and bicarbonate of soda, and cornmeal into my protesting bags, the shopkeeper finally gave up on English reticence. She asked what I was doing.
I think she expected to hear that I was starting a small business or making food for fundraisers. She wasn’t expecting my two-word answer: “Baking bread.”
Obviously bewildered, she blinked. A moment later, she recovered enough to say, “Oh. You have a bread machine?”
“No. I am a bread machine.” It was becoming true. There were bagel experiments every day. The kitchen boasted jars of “everything” seasoning, courtesy of leftover topping that I’d sprinkled on a tray and baked for scant minutes. Friends used the stuff on everything. Everybody had bagels, the cast-offs of frustration.
“What kind of bread are you baking?” She asked as I packed more flour into my backpack.
A lilt of surprise: “Can you bake bagels?”
A grumbled concession: “Not yet.”
A month into experimentation, I took up new tricks. Stretch the dough before forming the bagels. After they boil, let them drain on a cooling rack. Yes, it makes a mess, but messes can be cleaned in moments and bagel gratification lasts forever in the memory.
I gave duration a go: three minutes of boiling on each side. In London water, three is the magical number. It may be different elsewhere. Humidity, sea level … There are all sorts of factors.
Even with a pot big enough to float four bagels, six minutes of boiling eats a lot of time — but patience pays. My three-minutes-per-side experiment left me with caramel brown bagels topped with garlic, onion, poppy seeds and sesame seeds. The house smelled like an Upper West Side bagel shop at six o’clock in the morning. It was bliss.