Week 10: Secret Jesuit bagels

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It’s the first weekend of a new month, so it’s time for a new bagel recipe. And it’s from this book — oh, this wonderful book! I can’t believe that I have owned my copy for 20 years. In those two decades I have baked at least 18 of the breads in it; for this book only, out of all my cookbooks, I got in the habit of writing down the date I used each recipe, and sometimes a very brief description of my results. Hmm, apparently I made bagels last year.

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I have my friend Amy D. (then Amy B.) to thank for this book. She was living with me and a mutual friend in 1995 and we were at Westland Mall in Columbus, Ohio. Back in the days…. well, don’t get me started on Westland Mall. But back then we were (probably all three of us) at Lazarus for some reason, and there was a little book section just after you got off the escalator on the second floor. I don’t remember where I was or what other thing I was looking at, but Amy walked over to me with a copy of this book. She may have noticed it just because it sounded odd, and was teasing me to see if I’d actually be interested. But when I saw the title — The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking by Brother Rick Curry, S.J. — I had to have it. A little sticker on the back cover reads “7/26/95,” so I must have bought it soon after the store got it in stock. (Perhaps I was buying myself a late birthday present.) And for some odd reason the price was $16.50, not marked up one cent over the list price, which may explain why Lazarus didn’t have a book section forever.

The book is full of wisdom about breadmaking, to be sure, but Brother Curry has also included his personal story of becoming a Jesuit brother, prayers, sayings from the Rule of St. Benedict, and various bits and pieces of Jesuit history. It’s illuminating and entertaining to read even if you never bake a single loaf of bread from it. But if you do, every recipe works.

I baked from this book for quite some time before I realized that Brother Curry had only one arm. He probably mentioned it in an anecdote, and I took another look at the cover and thought, “Well, golly gee, so he does.” It became a source of inspiration to me, because he never mentioned it in a self-pitying way. It was just one of the things about him that was true. Once he told about one of his kitchen tasks as a novice being to slice a huge wheel of cheese with a wire; why should they make an exception for him? He had to do the same jobs as every other brother in the order. This is the kind of job that’s fairly tricky even with two arms, but he found a way to do it. I figured that if he could knead all this bread dough with one hand, I could easily manage with two. And I have.

I loved this book so much that when I discovered that Brother Curry had published a book on Jesuit soupmaking, I bought that one, too. I haven’t cooked from it as much as I have from the breadmaking book because the first recipe in the soup book is for chicken soup from scratch, and that soup is so good that I have never needed to turn the page and look at the other recipes. In fact, I wound up photocopying the chicken soup recipe and taping it to the inside of my kitchen cabinet so I wouldn’t have to get the cookbook out whenever I wanted to make soup. When my kids get sick, this is the soup they ask for me to make.

But I’m sure the the rest of his soups are delicious.


 

This recipe begins quite differently from a bread machine recipe. First, you use a portion of the flour, all the other dry ingredients, the yeast, and some warm water to make a kind of dough slurry that will be the base for the bread dough. You stir that slurry “vigorously” for five minutes, then gradually add the remainder of the 4-to-5 cups of flour.

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Then it’s time to knead the dough for 8 to 10 minutes. (Boy, was it hard to get a picture of that. And can someone come over now and clean the wet dough off my iPhone?)

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Then the dough rests, covered with plastic wrap, for twenty minutes.

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8:20pm
The bagels have been formed and are now resting for another twenty minutes. I used a dough scraper to divide the dough into 12 fairly equal portions. Brother Curry says that you can either roll out the dough into strips and join the ends to make circle, or form the dough into balls and poke holes in the middles. I did six each way, then let them rest. The dough felt pretty good. I can’t remember the last time I hand-kneaded bread dough. Even though my hands feel weak sometimes and I occasionally suffer from pain my doctor says there is no reason to have, it felt good to lean into the dough and really work it. The bread machine is a convenience I won’t give up, but there is something transcendental about helping bread truly become bread that I also don’t want to give up.

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8:55pm
I just put the bagels in for the first bake. This recipe, in addition to baking the bagels at a higher oven temperature (375°F instead of the 350°F I’ve been using all year so far), has you bake the bagels for 1/3 the baking time, then get their egg wash and go back in the oven for the rest of the baking time.

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9:07pm
Out of the oven, egg wash, and back in for 20 more minutes.

This recipe probably doesn’t really take more time from start to finish than one that uses a bread machine, but it seems like more time because the dough simply needs more attention. You can’t just throw everything in the bowl and walk away — you have to check on it, tend to it, keep an eye on it, and fuss with it about every twenty minutes.

When you make these bagels, you have to pay attention to them. It’s a meditative exercise, a mindfulness session. You lose yourself in the bagel making because you are giving it your full attention. Chop wood, carry water, make bagels.

9:17pm
With ten minutes left to bake, the bagels are still pale. They look like a sheet of glazers from Krispy Kreme.

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9:47pm
I tested one of the little ones. It’s crispy on the outside, a little sweet, and chewy on the inside. Brace yourselves, Tuesday tasters!

And if you’re wondering about the secret behind a Jesuit bagel, I hope Brother Curry (as of 2010, Father Curry!) doesn’t mind if I reveal that the recipe was taught to him by a New York brother who had converted from Judaism. Those New York brothers, they know from bagels.

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