By Leila Stein
Bagels, the roll with a hole, are a staple in Jewish households across South Africa and the world.
These delicious, crunchy, chewy, semi-sweet rolls can be found in predominantly Jewish neighbourhoods almost everywhere — from the Old City in Jerusalem to Sea Point.
Over the last few years, bagels have taken on more mainstream appeal, becoming a standard in various cafes across the city. Whether these are up to scratch or not presents an enticing opportunity for bagel fans to judge.
A short history of bagels
While popular culture may make one think that the bagel is an invention of the Jewish neighbourhoods of New York City, this isn’t quite the case.
The true history of the bagel is disputed. However, its origin is roughly agreed upon as being Poland and its surrounding countries. According to Maria Balinska’s book, The Bagel: A Surprising History of a Modest Bread, accounts of the bagel have been found in written records in Krakow dating back to the 1600s.
This is entirely unsurprising to anyone who has been to Krakow, where bagel stands can be found dotted around the old town square.
This makes the connection to the Jewish communities in New York understandable. Eastern European immigrants brought over the sweetish-satisfying bread to the new world in the 19th Century. But credit where it’s due — the combination of cream cheese and salmon (lox) has been verified as a creation of the City that Never Sleeps.
Immigration of Litvak Jews is also how the bagel made its way to South Africa. The significant Ashkenazi presence ensured that traditional dishes have lived on through each generation to this day.
However, among all the traditional recipes, bagels have managed to enter the mainstream faster than kugel or cholent.
This has been assisted by famous delis such as New York Bagel, which opened under the name Milly’s in the 1940s, among others that ensured these delicious bread didn’t just stay behind families’ closed doors.
The rise of the popular bagel
While kosher restaurants and caterers have not always offered up bagels for simchas, there is currently a surge in popularity of the bagel among the broader community.
In Cape Town, popular eateries such as New York Bagel and Kleinsky’s have ensured that the traditional boiled bagels are not easily substituted with sub-par options (although, it is easy to stumble upon a non-boiled bagel in various supermarkets and wonder how they haven’t yet learned the trick of boiling them).
These bagel delis have kept to the classics while also experimenting with unique flavours and combinations. While there may be many a ‘schmear’ to choose from, you’ll also likely find some form of breakfast bagel topped with scrambled eggs or even a pizza bagel — the most fascinating collision of cultures.
This availability of the properly boiled bagel has resulted in standards for a good bagel rising across the city.
While previously a restaurant could get away with serving something a little less authentic, dedicated bagel connoisseur destinations have cemented the standard for a good bagel among Capetonians.
Make your own bagels at home
While the idea of making properly boiled bagels might be intimidating, preparing them at home is quite straightforward.
Unlike more complicated bread, such as sourdough, they don’t require any special ingredients; and the real trick is to boil them for the right amount of time. This in itself, however, is relatively simple.
However, one important tip is to always make the hole bigger than you would expect. Nothing is worse than having the perfect-looking bagel rise until the hole is almost completely closed.
As with all bread, patience is necessary to ensure that your dough has developed sufficiently. So take your time and enjoy delicious home-made bagels.
2 teaspoons dry yeast
4½ teaspoons sugar
1⅓ cup warm water
3½ cups bread flour (or cake flour)
1½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking soda (to be added to pot of boiling water later)
Dissolve the sugar in ½ cup warm water, add in the yeast and let it sit until bubbling. Stir together.
In a separate bowl, mix together the salt and flour. Make a well in the centre before pouring in the yeast and sugar mixture.
Mix in ⅓ cup warm water, and then continue to add the remaining ½ cup while stirring.
Once combined, turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes until smooth.
Put the dough into an oiled dish and cover it with a damp cloth. Leave to rest for 1 hour. Punch down the risen dough and let it rest for another 20 minutes.
Separate the dough into 6-8 perfectly round and even balls. Once you’re happy, gently place a finger through the centre making a hole. Stretch the hole until you are satisfied. Remember, the dough will rise, so make it a bit bigger.
Allow the shaped dough to rest, turn on the oven and set at 220 degrees. At the same time, bring a large pot of water to the boil.
When it’s boiling, lower to a simmer and add one teaspoon of baking soda before gently placing the bagels into the pot. Don’t overcrowd the pot.
Wait until the bagel floats to the top, leave it for 1 minute, turn it over and leave for another minute. The longer you leave it, the chewier it becomes.
Add any toppings as you take the bagels out of the water. This is when they will stick best.
Once the bagels are boiled and ready, place them on a well-oiled parchment-lined baking tray and cook for 20-25 minutes or until they are golden.
• Published in the PDF edition of the February 2022 issue – Click here to get it.
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