Blessed Bread with Chewy Soul

2011.Oct.29 Saturday · 2 comments

in Food & Recipes, Life, Popular Posts

The title is from Wally Glickman’s Ode to a Bagel, do check it out.

Bagel tasting

Expat culture is not homogenous, it is made up of people from a large number of countries and cultures. Each expat comes with not only their personal quirks, baggage, hopes and expectations, but often their cultural ones. While those of us from the States (which even further has numerous divisions based on what part we’re from) may wrinkle our noses or shrug our shoulders when those from the British isles carry on about the lack of crumpets, marmite, golden syrup and HP sauce, they’re as likely to do the same when we go on about bagels, peanut butter, maple syrup and deli mustard (note the symmetry between the lists…). In fact, the first of those, the bagel, is probably the thing that pops to mind the quickest when someone asks what I miss about New York (that, or really good sushi, but that’s not culturally specific, everyone from outside of Argentine dreams of a truly decent sushi spot here that’s affordable).

Over the last couple of years, home delivery bagel services started to spring up – not like mushrooms after a rainstorm, but more just little blips on the bagel-dar horizon. First, I think, there was Bagelazo, and it flourished for a bit, but seems to have gone away – its facebook page inactive other than a few laments from past customers hoping for a response from the owners, its webpage filled with popup ads trying to sell the site. Then there was Tribeca Bagels, who I never heard much about, other than their existence, and it turns out they’re currently “not in production” though hoping to reopen in a new facility according to director of sales Alan Rittor. Most recently the big blip on the screen has been been Quiero Bagels, run by Diego Macadar, a telecommunications company manager whose goal is to be the biggest and best supplier of bagels in Latin America, according to his mission and vision statements. He contacted me a week ago and asked if he could bring by some samples for review. Who am I to say no to free bagels?

But it got me thinking – why not do a bagel roundup of sorts – which led me to finding out about the other two mentioned above. I knew that Frank Almeida at expat cookie fave Sugar and Spice had just started producing bagels on a limited basis – I’d tried a couple pre-production and given him my thoughts about them – and asked him if he wanted to contribute to a taste-off. He did, and also wanted to attend. And, a bit of online sleuthing uncovered Bagels y Ciabattas, where owner Bernardo Fleschler was quick to offer up a selection for the tasting, and sit down for a half hour interview about how he, an economist by trade, got into the business (fascinating story that involved several sabbaticals traveling in Europe and the States, where he spent his leisure time talking his way into the kitchens of one after another bakery to learn how to make the best local breads in each place, his passion).

Upfront I should note that I didn’t specify to any of them what they should submit in terms of samples. Quiero Bagels and Bagels y Ciabattas both offer delivery service, the former delivers them frozen, convenient if you want to order a quantity and keep them to pull out one or two at a time, the latter delivers fresh on day of baking, but Bernardo asserted that freezing them was perfectly acceptable and many of his clients do. For the moment, having just started production, Sugar and Spice’s are only available at their store. A big thank you to my co-tasters who helped me pick apart these rings of baked goodness – Frank, Allan and Vicky got to represent opinions from Chicago, New York, and a mixed British/Montreal viewpoint. As to the tasting, I laid the bagels out on a board, slightly randomized, so I was the only one who knew from whence each came, other than likely that Frank, of course, at least knew which were his.

Bagel tasting

We looked at shape, color, glossiness, toppings. We poked them and tore them apart to get a feel for exterior and interior texture. We smelled them. We tasted and chewed them. We made a mess.

Looking back at the first picture, the top row were the plain bagels. Starting on the left, the Quiero Bagels (Q) sample – the surface had a slightly strange, pebbly look to it and it almost looked like a whole wheat bagel. Turning it over it had a very smooth, very flattened, mottled underside, our best guess was that the bagels are baked on parchment paper and were likely put down on the paper while still damp from their boiling. Tearing into them, the crust crackles and has the texture almost of a baguette rather than a bagel, it was also a little dry, bordering on overcooked. We found the flavor pretty muted, like a plain white bread, but it also had an interesting and elusive scent to it that we couldn’t quite place, almost perfumed. The second bagel is from Bagels y Ciabattas (ByC) and we thought it had the most classic “New York look” to it. On the other hand, the crust turned out to be quite thin and not very chewy, likely that it was only boiled very quickly and didn’t develop a thicker, chewier crust. It was the most “bread-like” of the three. The Sugar and Spice (S&S) was noticeably smaller than the others, almost “too small” to be satisfying – Vicky asserted she’d need two of them to make a decent breakfast (I should note that Quiero Bagels makes three different sizes, these are the largest, advertised as 150gm on their site, though they weighed in between 120-130gm/each, perhaps that’s a pre-baking weight). They were nicely browned, definitely had the most classic chewy crust and a well developed aroma and taste of malt, a classic hallmark of a good New York bagel, though we found the inside to be the lightest of the three, with a lot of bread-like air pockets. Winner of the plain bagel category – Sugar & Spice.

The second row, sesame. I’ll make it easier, most of the comments were the same. The order here was S&S, Q, ByC from left to right. Here, the maltiness of the S&S bagel was borderline a detriment, as it overwhelmed the sesame flavor. The most pronounced sesame flavor, with noticeably high quality and quantity to the sesame seeds, was the Q bagel in the center. The near lack of sesame seeds on the ByC flavor was a shame, they weren’t in the bag, so either they put very few on, or they all fell off before being packaged. Winner, Quiero Bagels.

The third row ended up mixed as we only had two poppyseed to compare – ByC on the far left, Q on the far right. Here, the poppyseed flavor came through the most on the ByC bagel, and although it is missing the real chewy crust, we all felt that lightly toasted to give it a nice crunch it was on the money. The Q bagel was noticeably undercooked and despite the abundance of poppyseeds, strangely didn’t have much poppyseed flavor. Winner, Bagels y Ciabattas.

S&S also submitted a cinnamon raisin bagel, left-center on the last row, that was spot-on delicious. ByC gave us an “integral” – a whole wheat bagel topped with rolled oats, that we found a bit too dry and health-food-y, as well as a beautifully baked and flavored onion bagel – had ByC’s other bagels had the same texture as the onion one, it might have won in the other categories. ByC also slipped in a couple of their ciabattas which were dead on perfect – so far above the usual ciabatta here as to make the others a joke.

Pricing: ByC’s bagels are 4 pesos each. Q’s bagels, for the larger size, just slightly over that at 50 pesos/dozen. S&S’s run 5 pesos each, and Q’s smaller bagels in a comparable size run 75 pesos for 2 dozen, or just over 3 pesos each.

Last thoughts: As a guess, ByC and Q both use 0000 flour for their bagels, a lighter, more bleached, lower gluten flour usually used for cakes and pastries, but popular here for breads as well, while S&S uses denser, darker, bread flour. Q’s bagels were the most inconsistent, ranging from undercooked to overcooked, though it should be clear that this is putting everything side-by-side, otherwise we might not have noticed, we’re not talking burnt and raw. ByC’s were the most classic looking, but the least classic tasting – while not the usual local “bread roll with a hole poked through the middle” that we all complain about, they were still the most “plain bread” style of the three, the exterior being too thin of a “chewy soul”. SyS bagels suffered from the reverse, being the least classic looking, though more classic tasting, particularly with the hit of malt that wasn’t apparent in the others’ samples, though, as noted, it was too much for the seeded bagel.

So, was there an overall winner? No, i don’t think so. Each had merits and faults. And as a last point I should say that all three are leaps and bounds better than the usual bagel found here in BA and I wouldn’t be unhappy to have any of them on my brunch table.

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