This piece was written in 2005. Since then, Michael and Nick Zukin have written an excellent book, The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home. For Jewish deli devotees and DIY food fanatics alike, the book is a collection of over 100 recipes for creating timeless deli classics, modern twists on old ideas and innovations to shock your Old Country elder. I recommend it highly. FD
Back when most of the Jews here in town lived clustered in and around Old South Portland, through the mid-20th century, there were plenty of good bagels around. Find an older Jewish person who grew up in South Portland and you will hear:
Older Jewish Person (actually my dad): When I was young, I sold newspapers downtown on the corner of 5th and Morrison. . .
Me: No, no, dad. That’s a great story, but what about the bagels?
OJP: You know, you and your brother hardly ever come over to visit any more.
Me: OK, I promise to stop by more often, just tell me about bagels.
OJP: Did I mention I sold newspapers on the corner of 5th and Morrison when I was a kid?
Me: Yeah, sure dad. A couple times. Hang on a minute.
According to my favorite local history book, The Jews of Oregon 1850-1950, three Jewish bakeries competed for the local trade during first half of the 20th century. There was the Star, Gordon’s and Mosler’s. After World War II, only Mosler’s remained. Harry Mosler was a tough guy and his bagels, it is said, were the best anyone ever tasted. There were many other Jewish-owned food businesses in those days: Mrs. Levine’s Fish Market (Mr. Levine was a shochet, the man who slaughtered cows and chickens in the kosher way); Korsun’s grocery and Mink’s grocery; Calistro and Halperin’s delicatessen, one among many Jewish-Italian alliances; and the competing meat markets run, respectively, by Simon Director, Isaac Friedman and Joseph Nudelman. Mrs. Neushin, smoldering cigarette a fixture between her lips, made pickles in her basement; Louis Albert was the soda pop king.
Harry Mosler was a tiny man which might explain his big personality. In the photograph of him I have tacked up at work, he wore a plain, white t-shirt and a once-white apron. Below his bald dome, there was a smudge of a mustache, half-moon ears and bags under his eyes so prominent they announced, “I am a sleep-deprived bread baker.” Two stories about Harry Mosler begin to illustrate the man. One is that he never had change for a dollar–you could only get an extra bagel. At the same time, if you were a child, there was always a free bagel for you. The other story, bittersweet and true, is that as he aged, his grandson Darrell–who had worked for Mosler and even attended a fancy baking school in Chicago–begged him for his recipe to assure at least another generation of great bagels. Mr. Mosler refused. He told Darrell what his weary face expressed, “The work is too hard. Do something else.”
By the 1960’s, the Portland Development Commission’s urban renewal efforts were in full swing. They gave our town a shiny new freeway, I-405, that bounded the central city south and west. But what was the price? Much of Old South Portland was obliterated and its insular Jewish community dispersed. I do not remember the time well–my age was still in the single digits–but I do not think anyone really gave much of a damn about the cultural displacement. Political correctness had not yet emerged as a moral imperative and neighborhood activism was in its infancy. There was another nasty war going on, the civil rights movement was dawning and the only food revolution in America at the time involved untoward innovations such as TV dinners, Tang and Space Food Sticks. Besides, the prosperous local Jewish community was already assimilating at a rapid pace and heading to the suburbs with everyone else.
The original Mosler’s Bakery on Southwest First near Caruthers was overrun in the late 1950’s. The second location, at Southwest Fourth and College, lasted only a few years more. Mr. Mosler’s last days as a professional baker were spent–emblematically–in suburban Hillsdale. Harry Mosler died in 1969 right around the High Holidays. He took his bagel recipe to the grave. No one should have to work so hard.
Since Mosler died, what have passed for bagels in Portland are almost uniformly flavorless, oversized, bread rings. Circular Wonder Bread. Several manufacturers appear to have latched on to the theory that if the quantity is greater, no one will notice that the quality is lacking. The dominant alternate theory–I call it the “abomination postulate” (which, I might add, would be a great name for a John Grisham novel)–is that if you add enough weird ingredients to a characterless dough, you can distract the populace and sell fancy new kinds of so-called bagels. Thus dawned the scourge of blueberry, cinnamon-raisin, pizza and other horrifying rounds. Mosler turned in his grave.
I am not here solely to recount local history nor even to vilify that most unsavory subspecies of bagel producer, Noahbakus crapalotamus. My central task is to pass along a little magic; perhaps not Mosler’s recipe, but some secrets to making a great bagel nonetheless. Yes, you can make a wonderful bagel. Mosler was right; it is hard. But it’s not that hard. Come a little closer and let me tell you what to do:
- 1. Start with high gluten flour. You can get five-pound bags of it right at the Portland Farmers Market. The brand is Shepard’s Grain and it is from some friendly farmers who grow the wheat right nearby in eastern Washington. If you can find some King Arthur flour around town, they offer a high gluten product too. And if all else fails, find some Bob’s Red Mill “Vital Wheat Gluten” and spike your Gold Medal all-purpose stuff with it. A half ounce to every five ounces of flour will do nicely.
- 2. Ferment some of that flour. In other words, make a sourdough starter. Starter (or poolish or culture) recipes abound in baking texts. Better yet, mooch a cup of starter from someone who has kept one for a few years. It need not have come over on the Mayflower. The only requirement is that it should be healthy and vigorous and hungry for some of your new flour and an equal amount of water. Fermentation means flavor. In your bagel recipe, for every 2½ ounces of flour, you want to use about one ounce of starter. (And for every ounce of starter, subtract a half-ounce of flour and a half-ounce of water from the quantities shown in the recipe you use.)
- 3. Have barley malt syrup at the ready. There is no substitute for the flavor this thick and sticky sweetener brings to your bagel dough. Use to taste, but a little goes a long way. You will also need to use some in your boiling water. But that is jumping ahead. If someone tells you that powdered barley malt can be used instead of syrup, thank them enthusiastically for the advice and ignore it.
- 4. Use plenty of water in your dough. In baker’s percentage terms (where the weight of each ingredient is expressed as a percentage of the total weight of the flour in your recipe), a 60% dough (6 ounces of water for every 10 ounces of flour) is fine. I know a lot of recipes mandate a “stiff” dough which usually weighs out to about 50% hydration. Do not fall for it. High gluten flour absorbs water like crazy. At 50%, rolling out the dough, if you can do it at all, is like trying to re-shape rubber bands. Give yourself a break. It won’t make any difference in end. I promise.
- 5. After you have made the dough, do not let it rise, not even for a minute. You are going for dense, and rising works against density. Fresh from the mixer, cut and weigh out pieces of dough; 3½ ounces are best, up to four ounces tops. After you have weighed out all the dough, roll out each piece into a rope long enough to circle around the back of your hand with the two ends overlapping by about an inch-and-a-half in the middle of your palm. To form the bagel shape, you must firmly roll the overlapping ends back and forth under your palm on your work surface. This isn’t that hard, especially with practice, and some baking books actually have pictures of the process (Pssst. . .page 140, Maggie Glezer’s, A Blessing of Bread). If you don’t do such a great job, no sweat; the next step will help bail you out.
- 6. All your nice (and not so nice) dough rings should be placed on baking sheets well-dusted with semolina. Cover each batch with a towel that won’t shed, and then refrigerate 12 to 24 hours. During that time, your pre-bagels will puff out a bit and minor blemishes will disappear. The longer the rest, the better. You could even go 48 hours if you get busy. This stage (called “retarding”) is critical. It does two main things. First, the long cold rest allows for leisurely fermentation. This means–I’ll say it again–flavor. Second, the ‘fridge time allows for a thick skin to form on the surface of the bagel. This will assure a crunchy exterior on the finished product.
- 7. After the big chill, you must boil your bagels in a large stock pot of barley malt syrup-infused water. If you skip this step, you will end up with something, but it won’t be bagels. And Mosler’s ghost might come down to smite you, with ample justification. Most commercial bakers skip this step, among others, which is why their bagels lack texture and they must regularly pray for forgiveness. Don’t you skip the boil. Along with retarding, a quick boil (no more than 10 seconds per side is necessary or desirable) ensures a crispy crust.
After a quick, high heat bake (425NF for about 15 minutes), you are done. Your bagels will be great–deep golden outside, with a dense and chewy interior. Relatives, friends and neighbors will kiss up to you and tell you to open a bakery. At least that is what has happened with me. Just ask my dad:
OJP: Have I told you that when I was kid . . .
OJP: Just kidding, Mike. Mosler would be proud of you. Your mother and I are, too. You should open a bakery.
Me: Thanks, dad. Maybe I will.