Building the perfect bagel

When I started this project — not that long ago — my goal was to produce a “real” bagel, something iconic and archetypal.

When I told people that I was going to learn how to make bagels at home, a frequent comment was “isn’t that hard?” I didn’t know how I should reply, because I remembered having made bagels once before (though I don’t recall which recipe I used), and I didn’t associate it with any difficulty. (I also felt guilty about assigning a degree of difficulty to bagels when a bread machine would be doing most of the work, but that’s a separate issue and entirely mine.)

Once the project was underway, though, people wanted the bagels they wanted. A cheese bagel. A whole wheat bagel. And, soon, a healthy bagel, or a smaller one, or could you make a gluten-free version?, or, do these have any eggs in them? because I shouldn’t eat such a rich food so often….

I was bringing in my challah to work, but heard “what are you trying to do to us?” so often that now I supply challah only to people who have requested it. It’s a joy to make. I’d be happy to make more of it for an appreciative audience — and I’ll be trying a new challah recipe this weekend — but when a bread really is rich and sweet (five egg yolks and 3/4 of a cup of honey over two loaves, but who’s counting?) I don’t want to impose or make anyone feel guilty, overindulgent, or excluded.

Bread is a food of sharing. It may, in fact, be the food of sharing. Baking bread that some people cannot have seems close to an act of cruelty.

I’ve adapted recipes before, to accommodate psychological reactions (“anise tastes like medicine to me; can you make the pizzelles with vanilla instead?”) and physiological reactions (one of the scouts in the troop was severely allergic to almost everything, so it was better to bring fresh fruit and dip). If pressed, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you the last time I put nuts in my Toll House chocolate chip cookies, even though I make them so often I have memorized the recipe. If it’s going to exclude someone, I’ll find a way to change it so that exclusion doesn’t happen.

I understand that for some people, potluck is the chance to brag: the opportunity to put their signature dish in the spotlight it deserves. That’s not quite the way I bake. I find myself looking for the needs of the outsider, the potentially excluded one. I might look at a lunch menu and notice that nothing there is kosher. If I know that there are a few Jews in attendance — or even one — who might have nothing to eat because of this oversight, I will probably decide to make or order something I know they can eat. If someone has a nut allergy, I won’t be putting cashews in my chocolate chip cookies or roasted almonds in my fudge. If there’s a vegetarian in the house, I’ll dig out the recipe for the black bean chili. How much can you enjoy an event when you can’t eat any of the food?

I’ve been the fussy one, or been cast as such (I never thought I was a picky eater until someone served three of my “I just don’t eat that” dishes on three consecutive nights). I’ve been the phobic one, the naïve one, the allergic one, and sometimes the what-the-heck-is-that one. But you’re not supposed to be hungry when everyone else is celebrating. I know how it feels to think you have been forgotten, because I’ve also been the hungry one who just thinks it would be rude to complain.

So. If poppy seeds on your challah just don’t do it for you and you’d rather have yours plain — just tell me. If you’re allergic to wheat, eggs, milk, peanuts, or cinnamon — just tell me. I will find a way to include you as a partaker of the menu.

So. If there is a way to make not just acceptable, but delicious bagels for people who can’t eat gluten, I will find a way. If there is a way to make a diabetic-friendly bagel, I will learn it. If there is a variety of bagel that needs to be invented, I’m willing to go down to my laboratory within my secret lair, set my minions to their culinary research, and perform the necessary experimentation.

When someone has a special request for me — and I know they can be hard to make — they’re not saying they hate my bagels. They’re tying to say that they want to eat my bagels — if only they were made a different way. They’re asking to be included. Remembered.

So. What kind of bagel would you like to see — and taste? It could be a bagel with everything, or a bagel with nothing at all. I’ll give it a try. Bagels are definitely a learning experience, but it’s a labor of love and I’m still willing to learn.

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