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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND

Bagel on the Rise

Popularity is growing, along with the available varieties. A purist surveys places to find tasty accompaniment for your cream cheese.

July 25, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ventura County has bagel fever. I got mine 40 years ago.

On Saturdays during the mid-'50s, my mother's sister Frances, secretary to a fish broker, supplied our family with deli-style platters of smoked fish. The platters were enormous: lox, sable, whitefish and sturgeon--briny, buttery fish cut into thick slices and hefty chunks--and huge scoops of Philadelphia-style cream cheese. My aunt also brought brown bags filled with fresh, chewy bagels, usually around three dozen.

In those days, bagels came in three varieties, period: water, onion and egg. Water bagels were eggshell white, with a hard, crisp outer crust. Onion bagels were water bagels with long, blackened onion strings baked onto the bread surface the way polyurethane goes onto a hardwood floor. Egg bagels, which I have never fancied, had a soft texture and a pale orange sheen, the color of melted Creamsicles.

Other varieties didn't exist. Before the onion bagel there was the bialy, an un-boiled flat bread named for Bialystock, a once predominantly Jewish city in eastern Poland. The bagel may also have a Polish pedigree. It is reputed to have originated circa 1683, when a Polish baker created something to pay tribute to his king, Jan Sobiesky. How the word "bagel" became part of our language is sketchy. We know that beugel is an old Austrian word for stirrup, and also that beugen is Middle High German for "to bend."

The best bagels were--and still are, when you can find them--hand rolled by bakers skilled at pinching together elongated strips of dough. Punching or stamping a hole in the dough was considered chicanery to a purist; steaming the dough instead of boiling it, a common way to mass-produce the buns that pass for bagels today, was a sacrilege.

And no bagel ever achieved popularity because it was low in fat. In my childhood, bagels were conduits for fatty, salty foods, functioning like cones do for ice cream. Then some genius figured out that bagels were complex carbohydrates, fuel for runners, triathletes and business people on the run (at around 150 to 200 calories per 3 1/2-ounce bagel, without butter or cream cheese).

What's in a bagel? Well, recipes vary, but ingredients are as follows: high gluten flour, salt, yeast, sugar and, occasionally, malt, plus who knows how many additives in commercial recipes. The '90s bagel also comes gussied up in 31 flavors, laced with exotic substances like chocolate chips, cranberries, jalapenos and sun-dried tomatoes baked into the dough.

Feh is what my grandmother would have said.

So recently, with a little help from my friends, I conducted a rather free-form bagel tasting, visiting eight or nine bagel outlets over a three-day period. As I gathered up the bagfuls, it became clear that uniformity of judgment would not be easy. Bagels taste best about one hour after they are baked, just after they are cool, and it's hard to know how long a bagel has been out of the oven. Another problem is rating criteria. Chewiness, for instance, something I like, is not a quality everyone relishes.

Here is what I found, with a few outside opinions kneaded in. In the end, bagels were evaluated on crispness, chewiness and overall quality. Feel free to take these opinions with a grain of salt. (Or just order a salt bagel.)

And happy noshing, but remember to slice that bagel away from yourself. Bagel injuries are a leading cause of weekend visits to the emergency room.

*

Western Bagel is one of the few remaining bagel chains that actually kettle boils its own bagels before baking. The result is an appealingly chewy product without major flaws. The Westlake Village store is big, sterile and bright. Orders are taken at a chest-high, L-shaped counter, behind which a large staff of smiling young people hustles nonstop.

A few of those in my party tasted pumpernickel, water, rye and cranberry bagels from this outlet about four hours after purchase. Tbe consensus was that the outsides were beautifully crisp, but the centers were undercooked and tasted a bit raw. One of my co-workers decided these bagels were made to be toasted and that the extra cooking time would make them perfect.

That may be. It does not, however, address quality of flavorings, which are somewhat generic. Pumpernickel, for instance, lacks the strongly peasant-y character of good German bread, and the pale pink cranberry bagel comes up short due to an artificial aftertaste. Be sure to try one of the fine flavored cream cheeses, whipped up in the back of the store from Kraft brand cream cheese and good ingredients. Especially good are the honey nut raisin and cucumber onion dill.

* Western Bagel, 3825G Thousand Oaks Blvd., Westlake Village. (805) 496-0344. Bagels are 50 to 95 cents.

*

Noah's Bagels originated in Berkeley. Today, there are more than 50 outlets nationwide, with the number still growing. The Noah's in Thousand Oaks is located next to a Starbucks Coffee. Why are we not surprised?

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