The Perfect Bagel


    Food blogger Robert Libkind describes the aspects of his perfect bagel, and where you can find a close approximation in Philly for your break-fast. 

    My quest for the perfect bagel is never-ending, but it takes on added importance when planning for my break-the-fast at the end of Yom Kippur.

    I've tried more than a few Philadelphia bagels and some evidence aspects of my ideal:

    Lipkin's Bakery on Castor Avenue is not too big, not too small. It's the Goldilocks of bagel sizes.

    South Street Philly Bagels on Third Street has the required chewiness, as does Six Points Bakery on Montgomery Avenue in Bala Cynwyd.

    Spread Bagelry near Rittenhouse puts a nice char on its Montreal-style product with its wood-fired oven.

    Unfortunately, all have to compete with childhood memories, an impossible task.

    No bagel will ever replace those that required a 20-minute drive on Saturday nights to Watson Bagels in Newark, N.J., one of the few bagel bakeries between Philadelphia and Brooklyn. They were so fresh out of the oven that we had to let them cool — just a little — before biting into them on the ride home. That bagel (still produced today by the same family at Sonny's Bagels in nearby South Orange) glistened and shined, gave the mandible muscles a workout, and while definitively showing its touch of malt, would enhance, not fight, the cream cheese.

    There were also only two choices: plain or salt. Not even poppy or onion. Certainly not cinnamon raisin or blueberry, both of which are abominations cast upon the land, as are asiago, sun-dried tomato, and French toast.

    Here's what my perfect bagel looks like:

    Shape — As a mathematical expert in the sub-field of topol0gy would explain, the bagel is a torus. But so is a donut. Since my ideal bagel will be handmade, it will be imperfectly shaped, with inconsistent thickness and dimensions that may be more oval than circular. Who cares, so long as it's a good conveyor of cream cheese?

    Size — Bigger is not better. A bagel these days can weigh in at as much as 5 ounces. That's the equivalent of six slices of bread. Even Lipkin's 3-1/2 ounce bagel is like eating four slices. A bagel that's too big destroys the golden ratio between chewy interior and shiny thin-shell crust.

    Crust — A bagel should have a shiny exterior shell that offers a slight brittleless when your incisors breach the crust. This is not unlike the thin coating of liquid chocolate your favorite soft ice cream or custard stand applies to your cone, which your cold treat turns into a delicate, edible shell.

    Sugar in one form or another is required for the oven to do its magic to the crust. The best bagel gets its sugar fix in two ways: Diastatic malt powder incorporated into the dough promotes conversion of starch to sugar, and boiling the bagel before baking in water enriched by malt powder or syrup encourages crust development. Some bakers will use honey, especially in Montreal. The Canadian-style bagel's honey helps create a nice char on the exterior when fired in a wood-burning oven, but doesn't provide an appealing sheen or crackle, and I find the overall level of sweetness distracting. One budding baker in town (Philly Style Bagels, strictly a pop-up operation for the moment) uses beer to provide the sugar.

    Interior — Bagels are bread with substance, a mensch among breads. Finding the proper amounts of yeast and rise time and using the right flour (gluten is your friend) is where the baker's artistry shows. Jaw muscles must be exercised in eating a bagel. A bagel without chew is just a roll with a hole.

    Adornments and Flavorings — Poppy and sesame seeds are acceptable additions to the canon. But not too much. Over-seeding interferes with appreciation of the shiny crust I adore. Although I understand the allure of onions, they belong in a bialy with the poppy seeds. If I want onions, I'll add a fresh slice to go along with the lox.

    To Toast or Not To Toast — Here I will grant your personal preference if the bagel is not fresh. Indeed, toasting can help make a pedestrian bagel palatable. But if the bagel is freshly made and without serious flaw, toasting is not only unnecessary, it is an affont to the bagel baker.

    Freezing — Since my eyes frequently are larger than my consumptive ability, some bagels inevitably go into the freezer. Although hardly a substitute for a fresh-from-the-oven bagel, taking a good bagel and freezing is much preferred to relying on the Wawa. I reheat mine in the toaster oven direct from the freezer for 8-10 minutes at 350 degrees. George Greenstein, author of the now classic Secrets of a Jewish Baker disagrees — he says to defrost them slowly. Either way, since you probably won't want to make a trip to the bagel bakery immediately after sundown on Yom Kippur day, frozen is the way to go.

    I'm looking forward to trying the forthcoming additions to the Philly bagel scene: Knead, a chef-driven bagelry at 725 Walnut St. from former Matyson veterans Cheri and Adam Willner, and Chestnut Street Bagels, an offshoot of South Street Philly Bagels, at 1705 of its eponymous thoroghfare. But the former won't fire up its oven until mid-October, the latter until late November. After they open, I'll be sure to let you know how close they come to meeting my ideal.

    So, unable to make a trip back up to North Jersey before Yom Kippur to pick up my childhood bagel of choice, I've stocked my freezer with Philly Style Bagels, that pop-up bakery in temporary residence at a Fishtown pizzeria. The bagels aren't perfect, but the size is almost right, the salt topping sparingly applied, and the crunch of the crust hard to resist, even if it comes from a little extra heat in the oven rather than a good boil in malt syrup.