Our house is fragrant with poppy seeds, sesame and dehydrated onion right now, and I am trying desperately to contain myself. The source of this loveliness is three firmly folded paper bags containing, as far as I’m concerned, the equivalent of food gold.
A few months ago, we met our newest best friends, Becca and Rick, who happen to be two of the best cooks I’ve ever met. A few weeks into our friendship, Rick presented us with a warm bag of bagels that he’d made himself.
He couldn’t have known it at the time, but this, to me, was one of the best gifts I’ve received. Winnipeg may not be on the bagel map like New York and Montreal, but with its healthy Jewish community, few locals are unfamiliar with these roll-with-a-hole wonders. My dad would pick up a bag at Gunn’s Bakery after making his weekly trip to Tenderloin Meats. I’d pounce on them when he got home. Crispy but still chewy when toasted, then smeared with a thick sheet of cold cream cheese, there were few things I loved more.
But I quickly learned not every bagel is made equal.
When we started going to Montreal more often, I discovered St. Viateur and Fairmount Bagels, tiny shops with hot, yawning stone ovens that turn out hundreds of them each day. These golden bagels are thin-ringed, aggressively coated with seeds and are perfect, absolutely perfect with lox and a layer of Liberté cream cheese.
Admittedly, these were better than the ones I’d grown up with. Somehow, they were chewy yet not too bready, with a deep, nutty flavor.
Not so with any bagel I’ve found anywhere near Somerset, however. Never mind the ones at Kroger — why bother? — the ones at places like Panera and Einstein Brothers are, in my view, overly inflated, tasteless, heartless.
But to try to make them myself? Yikes, out of my league. Any recipe I’ve ever looked up came with four, if not five, pages of instruction. I love bagels, sure, but not so much I’m willing to spend an entire weekend baking only to have my attempt fail. I feel the same way about croissants and puffed pastry. Plus, there is something to be said for food so special it must be left to the experts to prepare.
So, every Christmas, we relied on ordering from Zabar’s Deli in New York City. We’d been there once years before and I never forgot it. It was a hectic place with an atmosphere only the best delis have: a warm, packed room, customers lined up with numbers, stern men behind the counter whose respect you can only earn with time and loyalty.
We stocked up on olives, bagels, cheeses, wine and lox hand-cut so thin you could see through it. Then we went to Central Park for a picnic. It was shortly after I’d moved to Kentucky and for a few scary minutes, I thought the then-boyfriend was going to propose and I would choke on my knish. Of course that didn’t happen until years later, but, anyway, I never forgot that picnic.
So after my family started coming here for Christmas, I decided we needed to have a bit of Central Park in Kentucky. I hopped online and re-familiarized myself with the magic that is Zabar’s. Its lox, chive cream cheese and bagels made us happy for several years.
Until I tasted Rick’s bagels, which are the best I’ve ever had. Back in November, I asked him if, for a trade of a pound of lox and a tub of cream cheese, he’d be willing to make my family two dozen.
So he did. And here they are. Unfortunately, I’m writing this on the 21st and my family doesn’t arrive for two more days. So maybe I just need to have a little, tiny, baby bite. Merry Christmas to me.