INTERVIEW

Bagels, lox and schmear: Cathy Barrow reveals how to make a whole brunch of deli classics at home

You can enjoy the perfect bagel without catching the next flight to New York City

By Pearse Anderson

Published March 9, 2022 6:30AM (EST)

Bagel with lox and cream cheese (Getty Images/Tetra Images)
Bagel with lox and cream cheese (Getty Images/Tetra Images)

If inflation is stopping you from ordering that bacon, egg and cheese from your corner deli or coffee cart, you can always save money and transform your kitchen into a delicatessen this year (plus, the dough kneading can be quite a workout). In "Bagels, Schmears, and a Nice Piece of Fish," out March 15, cookbook author and baker Cathy Barrow shares the ins and outs of perfecting any deli brunch at home. 

Don't worry, there's plenty that's more kashrut than a B.E.C.

RELATED: How master pie maker Cathy Barrow cracked the secret of a perfectly flaky crust

As the title suggests, there are bagels to knead and proof (Montreal, pumpernickel, gluten free, to name a few); cream cheese to make from scratch or whip with add-ins (cherry cheesecake schmear, anyone?); and, of course, pickles, kippers, carrot salads, capers and more to build out a substantial platter. Barrow even menu-plans bagel platters for shiva, Yom Kippur and a two-person brunch — events which maybe too many of us have attended during the pandemic.

When I made her Montreal bagels, I was astounded by the craggy, sesame- and nigella-covered exterior compared to the pillowy interior — just like my New York bagels of yore! My deli half-quart of homemade vegetable schmear glowed like stained glass in the morning sun studded with purple onion, green parsley, red pepper, orange carrot, a great sharpness from whipped-in sour cream and lemon juice — yeah, I'll be making this one again. Even after recipe testing hundreds of bagels for this book, Barrow and her husband aren't sick of them.

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Salon Food recently spoke to Barrow about how to avoid making a "roll with a hole," the myth of the New York City bagel's secret ingredient and the black-market-like trade she took to acquire early pandemic flour

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You write that it took you a year to get the perfect bagel after tons of testing. What was that ultimate bake like? What qualities are you looking for in a "perfect bagel?"

Initially, I was looking for that crackly exterior and the soft, chewy interior with a sweet but not overwhelmingly sweet flavor. I got the flavor early, but the texture was elusive until I started playing with high-gluten flour. Then negotiation was even more complex because most bagel recipes I'd tried would give me eight, nine, 12 bagels. But I'm only baking for two people — and that's a lot of bagels to proof, taking up a lot of room in your refrigerator. I remember a bagel from my childhood that was palm-sized — a great size, not too big that you need to split it with your partner. So, it was texture, flavor, yield and size. I'm really pleased with what I finally ended up: baking six bagels feels ideal.

In those early months of testing, do you remember the day you baked that perfect bagel?

The first months were really muddy. I got this book deal on March 13, 2020 — two days before we shut down. My first concern was, "Where am I going to get the flour and yeast?" Luckily, I found a local baker who was willing to sell me a 50-pound bag. It was like a drug deal. We met off the side of the road masked up. I gave her cash and carried the bag out of her trunk. It was so much flour — I had to store it in a giant plastic bin for dog food. But, after that, I was making bagels twice a day and probably the recipe coalesced in May of 2020.

This book was developed for brunches, but the pandemic made meeting in groups impossible, then risky and scary. What recommendations do you have for bakers who prepare a brunch only to have it canceled at the last minute? Essentially, what lasts the longest, freezes well or can be reused, such as your recommendation for bagel chips made from stale bagels?

Bagels freeze beautifully, and they reconstitute pretty remarkably. I had a great conversation early on with Bex Hellbender, a North Carolina baker who told me that you should never cut your bagels before they go in the freezer because they'll dry out. You can freeze whole bagels and then place them straight from the freezer into a preheated 350°F oven or toaster oven for exactly 10 minutes. It's as though you just pulled them from the bagel oven. Lox freezes; salad and schmears mostly don't, but they last a week — and you can always go the way of Chicago in the '70s and develop a "Lox Box." That's a package for a family of four that contains bagels, schmear, lox, tomato and cucumber that you deliver to others. Chicago temples were famous for using them for fundraisers.

Getting back to high-gluten flour, I know that specialty ingredient could intimidate some bakers. How do you buy or make it?

For a couple of dollars, you can get a bag of Bob's Red Mill Vital Wheat Gluten Flour and add two teaspoons to a cup (120 grams) of flour — and you've just made high-gluten flour. I can understand why everybody finds it annoying that we cookbook authors say, "You must use this, you must do that." But, in the case of bagels, you really need a high-protein flour. You can either buy it, like I do from King Arthur, or make it yourself.

Despite the many, many myths, you write that it's not New York City water that makes a difference for their bagels — it's the high-gluten flour. Chemically speaking, can you explain what difference the flour makes?

Protein levels in flour help build strength — and that strength is what gives you the shiny, hard exterior crust. When you use all-purpose or cake flour that is low in protein, you get a tender crumb — think of a yellow birthday cake. When you add more protein, like bread flour, you get something like a sourdough loaf. When you get to the top of the heap, there's the high-gluten flour, 14.2% protein. Other high-gluten flour bakes include pretzels or pizza crust. Think about the difference between pizza and focaccia, with the crunchy, chewy crust rip compared to the tender, light bread.

Speaking of New York City bagels, you also cover Montreal bagels — but you don't mention other regional bagel types. Were there other types of bagels that you discovered in your research?

When I was on Martha Stewart Radio in 2014, I heard that Martha went to a bagel place in Detroit and said they were the best bagels in America. I went, tried one, and it was damn good. But the thing is, it was good because it tasted like a New York bagel. It wasn't good because there was anything different about it. They were just doing it right. My brother had bagels in Memphis and said they were "rolls with a hole." Soft, pale golden, like Wonderbread inside. Maybe you could say that that's a regional distinction, but I don't think it's one that we should be chasing. 

I wonder how Montreal bagels got away with their style, how they proved they should be celebrated.

Montreal bagels are really good, but they're still a bagel! You know, crispy on the outside, still sweet, still chewy. It's not a roll. Of course, you have Tejal Rao writing that the best bagels are on the West Coast, interviewing Boichik and a couple of LA places. It's starting to be a serious competition between the East and the West Coast, and I think we'll have to see how that all rolls out. The use of sourdough is more common on the West Coast. Seattle's Rubinstein bagels are sourdough, I think, and those starters get you a different bagel. 

Like with your past books with crusts and fillings, there are so many combinations you can make here, from schmear to filling to yeast type. Was there a really surprising combo you recommend people try no matter how it sounds?

I'm not doing Cynthia Nixon's cinnamon raisin bagel with lox. That's not happening. It's just not for me, but I can say that there's a sandwich in the back. The Thanksgiving sandwich is a cinnamon raisin bagel with turkey, cranberry sauce and all the good things on it. That was inspired by a Dorie Greenspan strata that uses cinnamon raisin bread and all the things from Thanksgiving. 

The graphic design of the book is so striking. How did you replicate the deli fonts, posters and aesthetics? How did that feel as a bagel lover?

The designer of the book is Lizzie Vaughan, and she has a great eye for detail. It started, really, with those double pages that open the chapters that look like blackboards with white letters. That made everybody's brains start to liven up, and our prop stylist, Maeve Sheridan, arrived at the photoshoot with all the right backgrounds — the speckled formica and subway tile. But when that robin's egg blue came in for the cover, it drove the whole thing.

"Bagels, Schmears, and a Nice Piece of Fish" by Cathy Barrow hits book stores on March 15. 

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Pearse Anderson

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Bagels Brunch Cathy Barrow Food Interview Lox Schmear