Rolling in Dough
I’m a bad Jew. Which isn’t to say I’m a terrible human being. I like dogs. I give change to the homeless. I smile at babies. I’m just not what a rabbi would call a “good Jew.” I never had a bar mitzvah. I don’t keep kosher. I married a shiksa (that represents a significant portion of my Yiddish vocabulary).
Growing up, I didn’t celebrate — let alone know the difference between — Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Come December, we always decorated a Christmas tree, while feasting on mid-morning bagels with lox. So my connection to Jewishness remains secular, but even there I’m no expert. Sure, I’ve studied the Woody Allen canon, but I couldn’t tell you what constitutes a “good” bagel, beyond the subjective. Which is why I decided to learn how to bake them. After all, my last name — before being mangled at Ellis Island — once had something to do with bread-making. Of course, since I’m both a bad Jew and a San Franciscan, these bagels would have to be anything but traditional.
It is 7 a.m. when I arrive at the Mission apartment of Danny Paz Gabriner. The mustachioed 20-something behind Sour Flour teaches classes on how to make baguettes, pizza, and other baked goods. Every Monday, he bakes, distributes, and sells bagels with homemade cream cheese. He’s churned out 3,000 in the last year, so I figure I’m in good hands. He directs me to his tiny kitchen, complete with one standard convection oven and a long raised wooden table.
A typical bagel is comprised of wheat flour, water, salt, and yeast. Some call for honey, malt, and/or sugar. Local shops like the Bagel Bakery and House of Bagels offer popular variations including rye, pumpernickel, whole wheat, egg, and blueberry. BLUEBERRY!? No way any Leckart ate those in Russia circa 1810, let alone the Bronx in 1910.
Danny prefers sourdough, an appropriate choice considering we’re in San Francisco. Sourdough starter generates a bacteria called Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis , which sounds like something you’d catch on Haight Street. Since the bread requires no leavening agents, it’s ideal for travel and became a favorite of Gold Rush prospectors. Hence, the bacteria’s nomenclature, and why Bay Area bakeries — including Boudin and Panorama — specialize in sourdough.
Danny points to a 20-pound plastic tub on the counter. Whoops. I’ve already missed a key step — creating the dough. We’re using a starter he concocted and smuggled back from Central America in 2009. It somehow seems fitting for two California-born, nonpracticing Jews to be baking unconventional bagels with a starter born in Costa Rica. I chuckle. Danny does not. Instead, he covers the dough with a towel, sprays it with water, and explains how he mixed 7,900 grams of the stuff the night before, based on his own calculations:
I learn that hydration is especially important, since a very dry dough is what gives the inside of a bagel its texture. Any wetter, and the finished bread’s “hole structure” will be wider; baguettes, for instance, require about 70% (and yes, “hole structure” is actually a legit baking term). Any drier than 50%, and you’ll get the density of a pretzel. A 2% difference seems so minor, I’m relieved Danny handled all the chemistry, a subject I never excelled in when I was a little pisher .
For the last 12 hours, the dough has been rising in the tub, doubling in size due to the carbon dioxide from the yeast. The flour is as crucial as time. We’ve chosen Type 75, because the high gluten content allows the dough to hold more gas, and also promises chewiness. As I help him dump and scrape our dough onto the wooden table, Danny notes its stickiness, which he attributes to the recent hot spell. Sticky dough makes it difficult to shape a “good” bagel. I’m just not convinced the massive khaki blob on the table is going to yield 60 perfect and (presumably) delicious bagels.
Weighing out portions, though less scientific, proves challenging. We use a digital scale to get as close to 130g per bagel as possible. If there’s too much, the inside will remain uncooked. Not enough, the inside gets overdone. It’s enough to make a stereotypically neurotic Jew start shvitzing . My first stab with the combination dough-cutter/bench-scraper yields 87g. I add some dough: 112g. Then a bit more: 121g. Finally, I get to 131g. By the sixth bagel, I’m Fucking. Killing. It.
For obvious reasons, the most fun and important part of baking bagels involves the hole. I’d always assumed you simply rolled the dough and attached the two ends. Wrong. If the ends aren’t married properly, they’ll separate in the oven. And, man, why would you ever want to eat a “C”?
I lay the back of my hand flat on a rolled-out, 130g hunk. Using my thumb to hold one tail, I roll my hand over, bringing the two tails together under my palm. From there, a few pushes and pounds at a 45-degree angle fully melds the ends. Granting the bagel its distinctive bagel-ness is actually quite thrilling. Derived from the German for “bracelet” or “ring,” the bagel became a symbol of good luck in Eastern Europe. That hole also proved useful for marketing and transport, Danny tells me. Bakers are said to have walked the streets carrying long poles adorned with tall stacks of bagels. Watching my right hand generate bagel after bagel, I become convinced that some bearded pre-American Leckart surely took advantage of this convenience as he hawked homemade bagels on the streets of a Russian village. The assembly line continues.
On the stove, a large pot of water rolls to a gentle boil. We add a teaspoon of lye (sodium hydroxide), an alkaline that hydrolizes the proteins in the flour and encourages the Maillard reaction once the bagels are in the oven. Translation: lye helps the crust brown, providing a certain flavor, look, and consistency. (Pretzels require a higher ratio of lye to water.)
I drop in the first batch of 10 bagels. Each sinks, then floats to the surface after about 30 seconds. They begin to puff up. We flip them over to ensure they’ll brown evenly in the oven, then use a spatula to place them on a pan. I dash salt on a few, carefully sprinkle dried garlic on a couple more, and poppy-seed-bomb the shit out of the rest.
Inside the oven, a FibraMent stone has been preheated to 530°F. Thicker than your average pizza stone, this 3/4-inch rectangle conducts more heat and costs about $70 online (or you can have oven stones cut to your own specs from places like Broadmoor Landscape Supply . Each bagel sizzles as it hits the stone. Danny defaults to handling this step. Coloring his forearms are burn scars left from grazing the roof. It’s not that I’m a klutz or don’t have the chutzpah to risk an oven tattoo. I just don’t want to get in his way like an absolute putz .
We shut the oven and return to cutting, rolling, and boiling the remaining batches. A wonderful smell begins to permeate the kitchen. Ten minutes later, the first 10 are browned and ready. Two hours later, I’m sitting in Danny’s backyard watching steam rise from the inside of a garlic bagel, as he explains the intricacies of keeping the sourdough starter on a regular feeding schedule. I pause from listening to indulge in a well-earned and altogether more enlightened nosh.
Take a bagel-making class via Sour Flour. Danny also delivers his homemade organic bagels and cream cheese to homes and offices in San Francisco on Bagel Monday. Or if you’re feeling more adventurous, buy all the necessary ingredients at Rainbow Grocery and try going it alone.