Food for Thought: Consider The Bagel



How do you think about food? Perhaps I should ask, do you ponder or consider your food? It is important to ponder at great depth the wonderful gift of food. My favorite food is the New York Bagel. I get mine at Block’s Bagels in Columbus Ohio and it is my customary breakfast (bagel toasted with cream cheese) and a food I could eat any time. What makes this bagel my perennial favorite and preferred food?

Unlike the grocery store’s so-called bagels or the bagels found at other bakeries, this perfect bagel starts with yeast and flour like any other bread product, but it is created not made. Expert hands form the dough into springy cylinders then curve the cylinder into a circle and secure the ends. The bagel is a bread which meets itself at its ends, so in a philosophical sense it has no beginning and no end; there is only the center, which, in a bagel, is empty. Enough of philosophy. . . After creation, the bagels rise. The bagel is left in a warm environment to rise to the perfect height and size and then, at that precise moment, the bagel and its brothers are pushed into a large vat of boiling water. This gives the bagel its hard outer shell and its soft, chewy inside. In this way the bagel is much like life: we are created, life’s pressures and heat give us a hard outer shell, able to withstand anything, but if we are cared for by our Creator we remain soft on the inside. But back to the bagel.

After boiling for a couple of minutes, the bagel is removed from the water and baked until perfect with an outer layer that is springy when fresh from the oven, but then hardens to give you the taste sensation of a crunch leading to chewy. When you cut this bagel open you will see a perfect mixture of holes and gluten. The bagel itself is not perfectly uniform—no! Save that kind of uniform “perfection” for the tasteless, textureless, mass produced, unboiled bagels.

I once tried making the New York bagel and neither my husband nor I have ever forgotten the experience. My first problem (replicating perfection is always a problem) was that they filled the kitchen. Do you know how much room it takes to make one recipe of bagels and let them rise on baking trays in the kitchen? I didn’t, but I soon found out. I didn’t have sufficient trays; I had to borrow some and there were trays on every flat surface: on the sink basins, the stove burners, the microwave, the refrigerator, and on every inch of counter space. I watched and waited but they didn’t rise much, so I decided to move to the next step: boiling.

I did not then, nor do I now, own a large vat and even if I had one, I had no way to heat it. So I filled a 3 quart spaghetti pan with water, brought it to a boil on the stove, and put in the bagels 3 or 4 at a time. Meanwhile, the bagels still in waiting, were forced to sit too long and were drying—drying out, desiccating, parching. I hoped the water bath would rehydrate them as well as raise them, but while they came out of it moist, they retained the same shape and form, albeit a little puffier.

After the water bath they needed to go in the oven, and I encountered another obstacle. I had used all my baking trays to hold the rising bagels. So I pulled out dinner plates on which to rest the boiled bagels while their brothers were boiling or in waiting. With nowhere to put the plates I held them in my hand and squeezed them between resting trays. When I finally had a tray free, I moved the bagels from the plates to the tray and into the oven. They hadn’t risen sufficiently in the water bath; I hoped they would rise in the oven. When I checked on the first batch they were still the same size. I was tempted to chuck the rest of the bagels in the trash but I am not a quitter. So I continued the assembly process: boil, set on a plate, boil, set on a plate, and when the baking sheet was finally empty, move the bagels from the plates to the baking sheet and into the oven to bake.

The end result was not pretty. Small hard baked bagels eventually filled the kitchen. They had a good scent so I tried a few but they tasted like they looked: tiny, hard, and inedible. I did what any self-respecting baker would do and into the freezer they went. They languished there until many years later we moved out of that house and the distressed freezer-odored bags of tiny bagels finally convinced me to discard them.

I learned a lesson that bagel-baking day: Some things in life are better left to experts. Today, I purchase my bagels (pumpernickel for me, blueberry or chocolate chip for my husband) by the dozens at Block’s, each one wonderful in itself, and if I arrive at the store at the right time I can see them taken from the water bath and put into the ovens, plump and perfect.

Next time you see or eat something you really love, consider it in depth. How has it affected you? What have you learned? When I toast my bagel (which takes it beyond perfection) the crunch increases and a delicate brown blush covers the cut side. If I hadn’t learned about the bagel I would not have taken such pleasure in its beauty and texture. So, with every favorite food, indeed everything, thank God for his provision—after all you did nothing to deserve this—and hold an attitude of gratitude for every moment of pleasure he has provided.

Now just a note: Even perfect bagels if kept too long at room temperature can spoil. Mold grows easily on flour and moisture. You really need to freeze them to keep the fresh. However, if I keep them too long without freezing them, I have learned that mold will not hurt you. I cut off the green mold and wipe off the white mold. But if you find any mold distasteful, here’s how to resurrect moldy bagels: wash them. Because they have a hard outer skin, you can rinse them in water and wash off the mold. Then put them in the oven on normal heat and watch them. The purpose is to dry them thoroughly, not bake them, so when they are one shade darker, remove them and let them cool completely. Then, place them in freezer bags and put them in the freezer which I should have done in the first place.

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