You may not have noticed, perhaps because you were taking a month off gluten, but there’s a revolution going on in the bagel world. Quietly and — true to form of our friends from the north — in the friendliest possible way, the Montreal-style bagel has begun to take over.
In the Bay Area, Oakland’s Beauty’s bagels and San Francisco’s Wise Sons are Montreal-style. Even NYC has succumbed to the northern invasion with Black Seed Bagels, the city’s hottest ticket, especially after its baker was named a James Beard Award finalist last year. The once all-powerful New York bagel, what for many differentiated “bagel” from “roll,” has slowly lost its preeminence.
But not for Emily Winston, who has been on a quest to recreate the perfect New York-style bagel. In the location on College Avenue in Berkeley where Noah Alper opened the very first Noah’s Bagels, she is setting out to do just that. Winston is the founder of Boichik Bagels, and her first brick-and-mortar shop is days away from opening. Her perfect bagel came from the H&H Bagels on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“Growing up in New Jersey, I ate a lot of bagels,” Winston said, “but my holy grail was H&H. It was considered one of the crown jewels of New York.”
When H&H closed in 2012 due to rising real estate prices (and an indictment for tax fraud), she decided to re-create the bagel from memory.
“I’m just kind of creating this pastiche of being 12 and this nostalgia for my childhood when I would go to H&H with my father,” Winston said. “It was always a really special occasion.”
“Growing up in New Jersey, I ate a lot of bagels, but my holy grail was H&H. It was considered one of the crown jewels of New York.” — Emily Winston, founder of Boichik Bagels
But memory is a delicate thing. How do you recreate something that’s gone? Something that has so much more wrapped up in it than the actual flavor of the dough?
You Google it, obviously.
“I just started Googling bagel recipes and started playing around with them more as a hobby,” Winston said.
Winston began experimenting in 2012 out of her home kitchen in Alameda, storing ingredients in an unused living room closet, her Kitchenaid straining under the loads of dense bagel dough. She gave the resulting bagels to neighbors and friends, and after five long years of experimentation, she finally had something that reminded her of those special meals with her dad.
At first, Winston didn’t plan to start a business, but, in 2017, she started considering what it would take to go pro. She took a class at the Food Craft Institute (FCI) in Oakland to learn the ins and outs of running a proper food business. FCI thought she had something special and invited her to showcase her wares at the Eat Real Festival, an annual event in Jack London Square that draws crowds of 100,000 hungry locals. The press caught wind, and she was off!
“People were just going nuts over them,” she said. After a food writer called them “the best bagels in the East Bay,” she was overwhelmed by the interest. As Winston didn’t have a shop, she sold her bagels from her house, but she knew she needed a space. As she puts it, “Making a hundred at a time is not doing that many people very much of a service.”
Still, when talking about the process of opening a bakery, she said, “There’s this whole heap of ‘what am I doing?’”
Winston doesn’t come from the food world. She isn’t a chef. She’s never worked in a restaurant. She never “staged” for a famous baker in some windswept French mountain town. She claims she isn’t even a very good home cook, though after tasting her bagels, this is hard to believe.
“My background is in mechanical engineering,” Winston said. “My instinct is to have everything figured out before I press the start button, so this is way out of my comfort zone.” Her new shop will be the first commercial kitchen she has ever cooked in, which takes a lot of guts. Despite this, she is dedicated to the idea of creating something that people love.
So for the non-bagel geeks out there, what makes a real New York bagel? And how is it different than a Montreal-style bagel? Both are boiled, Montreal-style with honey, NY-style without (although sometimes lye is added for a crunchier crust). NY-style is left to rest overnight, Montreal-style is baked right away. NY-style uses a gas oven, Montreal-style uses wood fire. NY-style is chubbier, Montreal-style is flatter. NY-style has a small hole, Montreal-style has a big one.
For Winston, the real difference is in the crust. A wine lover, she coined her own tasting terms; the most important is what she calls “the lick.” The perfect lick should have “some sweetness and almost bit of a zing to it. It sets the stage for the rest of the experience.” Commercial bagels have no lick, Montreal-style don’t have quite the right kind of lick. Beyond that, she looks for just the right chew and a slightly malty flavor. But like anything, the devil is in the details: a pinch more salt, a touch less flour, a slightly longer boil or bake.
“They’re all pretty small percentages, so it’s really just twiddling with them until you get the perfect balance.”
Once you’ve got the balance right, the steps for creating the perfect NYC bagel are deceptively simple:
- Make the dough: barley malt flour, water, salt, yeast, sugar, malt syrup. Then shape it into bagels and set on proofing boards to rest overnight in the fridge.
- Boil in water (some people use lye or malt syrup; Winston finds that straight water does the trick.)
- Place the boiled bagels on “bagel boards” (essentially pieces of wood covered in burlap), seed, then place in the oven.
- Bake for 15 minutes or so and remove.
Sounds easy enough, but the real challenge is balancing the skill of baking with the myriad memories people have of eating.
Memories of what a bagel should taste like often say more about the person than the bagel. Our feelings about what’s “authentic” aren’t just about flavors, but about experiences we cherish, the people we connect with those memories and times in our life that have passed. It’s the memories we hold dear, maybe even more than the actual taste or texture.
Your perfect bagel might be from a favorite school trip, or that little place down the alley you found walking the streets of a new city with your best friend. The real question is, how do your memories compare with Winston’s? You’ll need to visit Boichik to find out.
Boichik Bagels will Nov. 29. Until then, get a preview at Oliveto, 5655 College Ave. (at Shafter Avenue), Oakland, which will be selling Boichik Bagels made with Community Grains flour this Sunday, from 9 a.m. to noon.