“It’s the Water” and Other Bagel Fictions

bagelbasketOver the past year, while I was doing personal appearances to promote my IACP award winning book, Inside the Jewish Bakery – a great read, by the way, and worth every penny – I learned that I could count on being asked two questions: “What ever happened to corn bread, aka corn rye?” and “Is it true that New York bagels are better because of the water?”

Of corn rye, more in a future post, perhaps (my list of to-do topics is growing larger). As for the water, the first time I answered it, I did so with a vehemence that surprised even me, and I can be a pretty vehement guy. But here it is, vehemence and all.

Let’s talk about water. Admittedly, there are wide swings in the taste and quality of municipal water supplies. New York City, for example, where I grew up, has water that’s sweet and drinkable right from the tap, with no off-tastes or chlorine.  Nor does it scale the teakettle. Madison, Wisconsin, on the other hand, where I spent many years earning a PhD and avoiding an involuntary trip to Vietnam, had (and presumably still has), hard-as-nails water that tasted of limestone and sulfur, and which instantly coated the bottom of every pot I owned with a hard white crust. Southern California, where I live now, is somewhere in the middle: the water isn’t nearly as sweet as New York water,  and the scale it deposits is negligible compared to what I contended with in the Upper Midwest.

DSC02562That being said – and all else equal – water, as a primary ingredient in bagels, is going to contribute to a bagel’s taste, while the mineral content may also affect the baking characteristics of the dough. On the other hand, the question then becomes, “If all else isn’t equal, what else can contribute to the wretched quality of those Wonder Bread doughnuts that continue to besmirch the bagel’s name?”

In a word (actually three) lots of things. So let’s start by deconstructing the New York water bagel. At its core, the traditional bagel recipe consists of five ingredients: high-gluten flour (100%), water (50%), salt (2%), malt (2%) and yeast (0.5% for fresh, half that for dry).  Mix it up, let the dough sit for 20-30 minutes, shape the bagels and then chill them for at least 12 hours. When you’re ready to bake, boil them in water, plus a tablespoon or so of malt, right out of the fridge, and bake them at 460°F (238°C) for about 15 minutes, flipping them after 3 minutes if you’re into that sort of thing.

Those are the basics and those were the bagels I and others of a certain vintage grew up with and remember so fondly.

DSC02563The compromises started when Daniel Thompson began marketing his father, Meyer’s, bagel-forming machine (first customer: Murray Lender), which, like the steam drill and John Henry, put the hand-rollers of New York’s Local 338 out of business. But to make the machine work properly, the water had to be increased from around 50% to more like 65%, so that the dense crumb became softer and more bread-like. Then, of course, the softer, stickier dough began to gum things up, so the steam drill guys added oil, which softened the crumb even further. So now, what once was a bagel now was becoming more like circular white bread. But the machines made mass production not only possible, but financially desirable. Enter the corporations.

BagelBoilAt that point, of course, the finance guys took over. Chilling takes time and costs money, in the form of energy and cooling equipment. Why not just add dough conditioners to speed gluten formation and some sugar (another crumb-softener) to give the yeast an added kick? And what about boiling, which gelatinizes the bagel’s surface starch and forms that shiny skin? Well, let’s bake them in steam-injected ovens, said the bean-counters. That way, we can save even more on the labor and equipment needed to dump the bagels into giant vats of malt-water, scoop them out, and rearrange them on boards or pans or whatever. Flipping? Nah, those schmucks out there won’t know the difference, but our shareholders will love us for cutting costs (at the price of quality, but when did that ever matter?) and giving profits a nice bump.

Which brings me back to the idea of “all else equal,” because in the bagel world, all else is not equal.  Dunkin’ Donuts, the world’s largest bagel manufacturer, Einstein Bros./Noah’s, Bruegger, and all those Korean-owned mom-and-pop bagelries have gone over to the dark side, substituting size for quality and factory flavors like strawberry, cinnamon, blueberry and jalapeño for time, labor, and the natural action of enzymes on complex carbs.

BagelBoards1When I make bagels, I do it the same way the Local 338 guys did, hand-rolling, chilling, boiling and flipping on burlap-covered cedar boards. Even with that so-so Southern California water, I’ll put my bagels up against anyone’s, anywhere in the world. And I guarantee you, I’ll prevail 99.999% of the time – that 0.001% being when I go up against a properly made bagel using New York water.

So does the water make a difference? Of course — if you’re eating one of those 0.001% New York bagels and one of mine. But most of the time, it’s just an excuse for incompetence.


Bakebook Chronicles III (2/13/2011)

It’s been a good while since I last chronicled our adventures and misadventures in the world of publishing, and a lot has happened in the interim.

IJBcoverMany of you know that our publisher wasn’t entirely happy with our original title — The New York Bakers Jewish Bakery Book — and so after putting out several suggestions for informal feedback, we finally settled on Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking. Looking back at it, Norm and I both agree (as does the publisher) that this title is much more indicative of the contents of the book and leaves a lot more room for Norm’s stories and reminiscences of how it was back in the day.

It’s also amazing how content inflation works: originally, our contract called for a 70,000 word book, which translates into about 250 pages. In September, when the manuscript was due, it came to about 90,000 words, but the publisher didn’t make an issue of it. With additions — more Norm stories and a whole section on Passover baking — and revisions, we suddenly found that we had 100,000 words — about 350 pages — and the publisher freaked.

Someone once asked Ernest Hemingway to name toe most important quality of great writing, and he answered, “a willingness to murder your children.” And so I murdered about 28,000 of my kids and got the book down to around 72,500 words — which probably isn’t a bad thing, since the discipline of self-editing made me think about what was really essential — the must-includes versus the nice to includes. So basically, most of the background info in ingredients, techniques and equipment went bye-bye, along with redundant recipes and those that people can find elsewhere.

I expect that a lot of the cut material will end up on the NYB website at some point. Norm suggested that we try to sell it as Volume 2 — The Lost Chapters. We’ll see ….

Also, it looks at this point like the pub date will be more like July than the March-April timeframe Camino Books was thinking about before … understandable, given the complexities of editing, design, marketing, etc etc.

And speaking of marketing, one of the things we’re also learning is that being an author is different from being a writer. Writers write and get paid for it; authors become public personas and have to go out and do signings, shows, media, etc etc. More than that, if you’re an unknown at a small publishing house, you have to pay for it yourself. Fortunately, we found this terrific publicist who not only has done a bunch of cookbook work, but whose father owned a Jewish bakery in West LA in the 50s and 60s. So not only did we get a great professional; we also got a member of the family, so to speak … and we even got a great photo of her dad rolling bagels that’s gonna appear in the book.

So okay, that’s where we stand coming into Valentine’s Day weekend. Stay tuned!

Bakebook Chronicles II and Some Recent Baking (1/7/2011)

thought you might be interested in what i’ve been up to lately, so here are some recent pics.

The book is moving along.  The editing is done and I’m going over the corrected manuscript and getting some more photos together.  Our publisher has a designer working on the internal design, and I gather that the finished book is going to run somewhere around 320-360 pages.  We’re moving toward the prepublication home stretch and I can’t believe it’s actually happening.

Besides all that, some of you have probably noticed that we did a radical redesign of the nybakers.com website.  After over two years in business, we decided it was time for a more polished look … the idea being that we’re pretty sure we’ll be in business for a while.  thanks to everyone for your support and encouragement.

A great story:

We had to re-shoot a bunch of the photos, including the rainbow slices and French cookies, and Norm was having some health issues (all resolved now), so it was up to me to do the baking. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find glace cherries, needed for the French cookies, in quantities less than 30#, so I went to a local bakery and asked if I could buy some. The woman at the counter went in the back and came back out, telling me there was no problem with that. The baker himself followed, with 1/2 a pound of the cherries and told me “no charge.”

I thanked him, introduced myself and told him what I was doing and we talked shop for a bit, then his wife came out. “Ooooh, rainbow slices, I love them. He made me a tray for my birthday!” Jerry, the baker, smiled. “A lot of work,” he said. So cherries in hand, I went home and baked.

After the cookies were finished and photographed, I took a plate over to the bakery and got huge smiles and thank you’s from both Jerry and his wife — talk about positive reinforcement: I floated on air for days!




Bakebook Chronicles I (9/23/2010)

Baker Ben suggested that since the testing is over and we had such a great group come together, that I continue to blog about the actual process we’ll be going through to actually get the book into print.  I think it’s a great idea, so, with thanks to Ben, here goes:

July and August were simply insane.  I was putting out a couple of dozen recipes each month, keeping track of all the testing and feedback and trying to get all of the other stuff written.  It was madness, to the point where everything else on my to-do lists (several) simply had to be pushed aside so that I could get the manuscript done by the 9/1 deadline.

Norm and I were on the phone at least weekly — usually more often than that — going over recipes, fine points and all of the background stuff that needed to be included in the book we wanted to write.  If I tell you all that I got very little sleep over the last couple of weeks, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration.

Those last 2-3 weeks are a blur now, writing, researching, fine-tuning, making sure all of the measurements and conversions were right, all of the steps and procedures consistent and all of the narrative smooth and where it was supposed to be.

9/1 came around and I had about 99% done … everything except for the Acknowledgements, Picture Credits (since we hadn’t yet made final picture choices), and a couple of last-minute recipe tweaks.  Nonetheless, I assembled what we had — about 280 pages, including somewhere around 130 recipes — and emailed it off to our publisher and our agent.

So of course the publisher said, “Well, no rush.  Just put everything together, print it all out, burn the files into a CD and send it off to me when you can.”  When I met with him back East the beginning of July, he didn’t seem like he was terribly concerned about deadlines, but I like to honor my commitments.

So Norm and I went back at it, doing illustrations of the challah braiding, strudel dough stretching, and a couple of other recipes, including the rye flour honey cake (lekach) and revised plum cake (flomenkuchen). I figured I’d take a couple of weeks to make sure we got it all in shape. So naturally, less than a week later, I get an email from Edward (the publisher) asking, “When will we get the package?” Shift into high gear, put the final touches on it.

At that point, my laptop died.  I mean really died: motherboard, display, keypad, who knows what else?  Of course, I’d been backing up to spare hard drives, pen drives and whatever, so I had three or four backups and didn’t lose a thing.  Switched to an old Dell that we had lying around … slow as honey on a cold day … got the manuscript all put together and start printing …. now at 260 pages, after some cuts and consolidations.

Print, print, print.  At page 243, my printer dies <sigh>, so I load the finished file into a pen drive, take it downstairs and finish on my wife’s printer.  That’s Monday morning a week ago (9/12).  Then I discover that the old Dell’s CD drive can only read; it doesn’t burn.  Back downstairs to burn the CD on Syl’s puter.  Pack it all up into a FedEx box and drive it down to the local Kinko’s/FedEx office.

A week earlier, I had asked our agent, Stephany, about typical production schedules and she said, “Be patient.  It usually takes a publisher 9-12 months to get a book into print.” Nine months to a year … feels like an eternity.

At that point, I had such mixed feelings … so much intense work, suddenly ground to a halt, all this energy with no place to go and exhaustion suddenly setting in.  For two days, I could barely think.  But at the same time, I felt the same way I did when I took my kids to their first day of kindergarten:  proud, full of anticipation, a little bit afraid that they wouldn’t do well and also sad that in an instant I was no longer as needed as I’d been the day before.  Norm and I spent a lot of time on the phone, talking about the closure of that part of the process, which he said was less real for him, since he wasn’t involved in any of the writing.

It was strange, the sense of loss finishing the book created — first the dissolution of our tester group, which had brought together well over 100 people and created a very intimate bond of shared experience, and then the departure of my youngest child (the book).

I waited until today (9/23) to phone Edward to find out how things were going with the book and whether he could give me more information on the production schedule, other next steps and how much more work would be needed.  Instead I got Brad, the head editor, a very kindly man who clearly loves books.  “It looks very good,” he said.  “We just need to get it to copy editing and then we’ll have a better idea of what else needs to be done, but I don’t think it will be very much.”

Then I asked the question I really wanted answered:  “Any idea of the publication date?”

“We want to get it out before summer … probably in the March-April timeframe.  We want this book to look terrific, so we’re choosing our designer carefully.”

March-April! Six or seven months!  Wow!  …. Other things to think about now … promotion and finishing up all the remaining tweaks and revisions (there are still a few), getting all of the photo permissions in place …

We’ve entered a new level of reality.