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Bagels and Lox, the Full Schmear!
The Participant Observer Recipe of the Month is for Homemade Bagels with Nova lox. A quintessentially Jewish-American creation, if you follow this recipe you can greatly improve on most store or shop bought bagels. When you are up for a superior breakfast or brunch I can think of nothing else that is more glorious.

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Evolution of a Bagel

In "The Yada Yada" Seinfeld episode Jerry is disturbed when his dentist converts to Judaism and becomes a stand-up comedian. What gets Jerry's goat is that he believes that his dentist's conversion is only because he wants to tell "Jewish Jokes". I grew up in an area of Philadelphia that had a large Jewish population which for me was in all ways wonderful. In high school I got to try a variety of Jewish food both in people's homes and in restaurants. Nearly every time I visited my friend Richard, I pestered him for a toasted bagel with butter. I have often joked that I might convert to Judaism, "just for the food". Tops on my list of Jewish culinary delights is real Jewish rye bread, and, of course, what I consider to be the "King of All Breakfasts"—Bagels and Lox. What I didn't realize when growing up is that this noble concoction is a relatively recent invention, the combination arising in Philadelphia and New York in the late 1940's. Bagels were brought to America by Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century; but their pairing with smoked salmon is far more recent. The first mention in print of "Bagels and Lox" was in 1954 advertisement by Kraft Foods, which makes Philadelphia brand cream cheese. It's a uniquely Jewish-American creation.

Lox originated in Scandinavia (particularly Sweden) and is smoked salmon. For many, including myself, the highest expression of this delicacy is "Nova". Regular lox predates nova and is cured in salt. Lox is not smoked and is very salty. Nova, which denotes it comes from Nova Scotia and is short for Gaspé Nova. Gaspé is a city in that Canadian province. Gaspé Nova is first cured in salt and sugar and then is "cold smoked". So if you find yourself in a good Jewish deli and you order "lox", more than likely you will be served "nova". If you really want cured un-smoked salmon, you need to ask for "belly lox". There are many other types of cured and smoked salmon available, but these two are most often associated with bagels.

The other components of the ultimate lox and bagel experience are cream cheese, capers, red onions and slices of juicy tomato. If you say "cream cheese" most people immediately think of Philadelphia because Philadelphia Cream Cheese is the the leading brand of cream cheese since 1800. However, the cheese was made in upper state New York and has never been manufactured in Philadelphia. The name was chosen because the Philadelphia area was known for quality dairy products. So the name is pure marketing. Many bagel shops now offer a "bagel with schmear" denoting a bagel with lox-infused (or some other flavoring) cream cheese. But originally a "full schmear" that is simply a bagel with spread cream cheese.

Unfortunately it is rather difficult to find traditional Jewish rye bread or great bagels anymore. Great Jewish rye is dense and has a chewy texture. This is achieved by "steam proofing" by injecting steam into the proofing oven while the dough is rising and also injecting steam into oven when the bread is baked. In the last couple of decades, most Jewish rye doesn't undergo this treatment, and as a result they are, in my opinion, "cakey" in texture. The preferred technique for bagels is "kettling", the raw dough is formed into a bagel and then dropped into a large pot of boiling water. George Greenstein who wrote the wonderful book Secrets of a Jewish Baker recommends placing a cooking tray at the bottom of the oven and then tossing 6 to 8 ice cubes onto the tray right after you put the bread or bagels in to bake. I have yet to encounter a truly great bagel in San Diego, and some say that it's even difficult to find a great bagel in New York or Philadelphia nowadays. This pressing desire for bagel euphoria compelled me to learn how to make my own. The results (on the 2nd try) were outstanding!

In researching this recipe, I looked at a number of printed recipes, online recipes and more than a few YouTube videos. More so than other foods that I have worked in the many years writing recipes, the recipes for bagels have a huge variation in preparation instructions. Recipes range for proofing from 50 minutes to 2 hours, some call for "cold proofing" the dough for 24 hours, and some 48 hours. Some recommend kneading the dough for 5 minutes while other recipes say 12 minutes. Some call for lots of yeast, some call for a scant amount. Probably the greatest variations between recipes are baking temperatures; some suggest 200°F while most other 450 - 500°F! Some suggest rolling the dough into ropes that are formed into circles, some call for poking a whole in the center of a dough ball and then stretching the hole. Either bagels are the most forgiving of preparation techniques or people want vastly different results. I strove to create a bagel that was chewy, a bit on the dense side with a crunchy crust. My first attempt was not particularly successful. The bagels were not particularly chewy, and I think they were insufficiently crusty. They were under baked, just like the bagels one finds in most bagel shops where the crust is nearly white. I also used what too much salt sprinkled on top. I stared from scratch again, this time with longer kneading, and a longer boiling time. I achieved a much better result the 2nd time around!

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups of warm water
  • 1/2 package (1 1/2 teaspoon) active dry yeast
  • 4 tablespoons (split) malt barley syrup (or 2 tablespoons sugar)
  • 6 cups bread flour
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • Olive oil
  • 1 egg beaten
  • Dried minced garlic, onion flakes, poppy seeds, sesame seeds and medium coarse kosher salt for toppings
  • For serving: Cheese, capers, Nova lox, a quality red tomato, red onion sliced thin

Preparation:

  1. Heat 2 cups of water to 100 - 105°F. and pour into a bowl or measuring cup.
  2. Sprinkle yeast on water and mix in. Note, if you are concerned that your yeast is old, add the syrup or sugar at this point and wait a couple of minutes to see if bubbles form.
  3. Add the flour, salt, 2 tablespoons barley malt syrup* to a mixer bowl. If you are using a stand mixer, set on the lowest setting for about a minute, then slowly pour in the water with the yeast.
  4. Raise the mixer setting to the next highest speed and mix for 5 - 8 minutes. At intervals you might have to stop the mixer to push down the dough if it tries to escape.
  5. The dough should be a tiny bit sticky. If you take a small piece of it and stretch it out and it becomes very thin and translucent, you have got it right.
  6. Remove the dough from the mixer and knead it into a big ball.
  7. Oil a mixing bowl with just enough oil to coat the entire bowl, not so much that it pools up in the bottom of the bowl.
  8. Place the dough in the mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a wet kitchen towel, and place the bowl in a warm place.
  9. Proof the dough for 1 hour; it should double in size.
  10. Place a rack in the center of your oven, set the oven to 500° and push start.
  11. Remove the dough, use a pastry cutter (I used a thin cleaver) to cut the dough into 12 equal portions. I cut the ball of dough in quarters and then each quarter into three. If you use a kitchen scale (which I did), each portion should be about 4 ounces (1/4 pound).
  12. Individually, take each portion and with your fingers repeatedly pull the sides up and over the center of the ball, rotating as you go. This will leave a (mostly) smooth surface on the bottom.
  13. Flip the dough over on a work surface and cup your hands over the dough pushing down on the center with your palm and pulling the bottom in with your fingers, rotating to dough. Repeat for all 12 portions. See picture for what the dough balls should look like
  14. Fill a wide 6 quart pot 3/4 full and set to boil. When the water gets hot, add 2 tablespoons of the malt syrup.*
  15. Cover the dough with a damp cloth and let rest for 10 minutes.
  16. Take each ball of dough and pierce the center with your thumb and middle finger until you break through and your thumb and finger are touching. Then poke each of your index fingers into the hole (from opposite directions) and rotate your fingers to make the hole large. There will be a bit of contraction of the dough when you remove your fingers, so make a hole slightly larger than you want the hole to turn out.
  17. Cover a sided baking sheet with a sheet of parchment paper.
  18. Place each bagel on the sheet in a 3x4 grid pattern.
  19. Beat but don't whip an egg and a very small amount of water in a bowl.
  20. The water should be boiling by now; turn it down to a gentle bowl.
  21. Using a "spider" (a large round spoon filled with holes), place 4 bagels in the bowling water at a time. Do this "bottom side up".
  22. Boil the bagels for 1 1/2 minutes a side. If all goes well, this step will make the outside of your bagel more chewy and create "micro blisters" on the crust that with make them crunchier.
  23. Return the bagels "top side up" to the parchment-covered baking sheet.
  24. Brush a thin coat of the egg wash on each bagel.
  25. Sprinkle the toppings on each one the bagels. Add the toppings in whatever manner you like, but if you want to make "everything" bagels, don't mix all the toppings together before you sprinkle (as many recipes suggest) because all the smaller ingredients (like sesame or poppy seeds) will migrate to the bottom of the mixing bowl and you won't be able to distribute things as evenly. Instead sprinkle each ingredient separately.
  26. Bake the bagels at 500°F for 20 minutes or so. The onion and garlic will become very dark brown. If you don't use those ingredients, you can even bake long enough to get a good brown on the bagels. Every oven is different, so after 15 minutes, keep a close eye on the bagels. Most store-bought bagels are very under baked and even bagel shop bagels are frequently under baked and soft on the top.
  27. The book Secrets of a Jewish Baker, in which this recipe somewhat follows, suggests placing a sided baking sheet on the bottom of the oven and pouring several trays of ice cube on the hot tray right after the bagels are placed in the oven. This creates a low-pressure steam in the oven. I did this when making rye bread, but not with the bagels (I will try it next time!)
  28. After the bagels are fully cooled, they are ready to be sliced. There is a trick to slicing bagels evenly. Don't try to saw through the bagel from side to side. Instead slice only as far as to when the blade cuts through to the center hole and then rotate the bagel as you slice. There is an unsafe way (which I tend to use) and a safer way to do this. I hold the bagel in my left hand and slice with my right, rotating the bagel with the hand that is holding the bagel. Obviously I am breaking the cardinal rule of cutting anything (don't cut towards yourself), but thankfully there is another way that is safer. Hold the bagel vertically gripping the top with your left hand, insert the bread knife between your hand and the bagel cutting downward while rotating the bagel.

To serve:

I prefer toasted bagels—I even have a toaster that has a bagel setting which toasts one side more than the other (oddly it does so of the wrong side and I have to put the bagels in with the outsides toward the center). But a toaster oven provides much better control. If you do toast the bagel, you need to let it cool a bit, otherwise when you smear it will cream cheese the cheese will liquefy. I then sprinkle the cream cheese with capers—this keeps the capers from running loose all over the place. Then I add the Nova lox; only one layer is necessary. I follow this with a nice juicy slice of red tomato and then top everything off with thin slices of red onion. A sunny place to eat, a glass of orange juice and the Sunday New York Times, and a little slice of heaven on earth is yours!

Enjoy!

Recipe and photo by T. Johnston-O'Neill
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