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VALLEY 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

The Valley, like many other communities in Southern California, has been inflicted with bagelmania, with new bagel stores cropping up all over the place. Apparently not everyone has noticed.

"I always go to Barney Greengrass in Beverly Hills to buy my bagels," confided a Sherman Oaks balabosta I've known for years, in response to a question regarding her favorite Valley bagel bakery. "I don't like chain stores," she huffed, "and that's all you can get in the Valley."

My research tells me this is pointedly not the case, but I must agree that the newer bagel chains put out products I find uninspiring.

Maybe I'm spoiled. During my childhood, my mother's sister Frances, secretary to a fish broker, supplied our family with wonderful bagels, along with sizable platters of smoked fish: lox, sable, whitefish and sturgeon--briny, buttery fish cut into thick slices and hefty chunks--and huge scoops of Philadelphia-style cream cheese.

In those days, bagels came in three varieties--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.

If you want to get technical, there was also the bialy, an un-boiled flat bread named for Bialystock, a once predominantly Jewish city in eastern Poland. The bagel probably has a Polish pedigree, too. 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--would have been 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 the 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.

I recently conducted a rather free-form bagel tasting in the Valley, visiting several 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.

*

Goldstein's Bagel Bakery was started in Pasadena eight years ago by Michael and Bridget Goldstein. Those living in Glendale can drive up Verdugo Road to the La Canada Flintridge city line, where a newly opened Goldstein's outlet is putting out some of the best bagels east of Fairfax.

The secret may be in the recipe, which the employees protect with the zeal of bodyguards at a rock concert. I was able to discern that the dough is mixed in a roller, hand stretched on a table and then finished in a machine, before being boiled, first, and then baked. There are no preservatives in these bagels, and all of them are made on the premises. On a busy day, this Goldstein's sells more than 2,500 bagels.

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