The bagel—like pizza, egg creams, and the dirty water hot dog—is an iconic New York City food. But the breadstuff has seen better days; look around at the bagel shops of NYC and you will mostly find gargantuan balls of doughy fluff—undignified monstrosities that feel like a far cry from the glory days of H&H.
Melissa Weller, who started East River Bread earlier this year, has set out to rectify this sad state of affairs. Weller started bagel-making while at Per Se, then moved to Roberta’s in Bushwick, where she cooked them in the pizzeria’s wood-fired oven. The bread savant has temporarily moved her baking operation to Harlem’s Hot Bread Kitchen, and she has plans to open her own shop in the city. For now, you can find Weller’s extraordinary bagels on weekends at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn.
Weller’s product is game-changing: tender but chewy, with a rich golden crust and a complex flavor like that of any great bread. We recently spoke to her about NYC bagel history, what makes her bagels so perplexingly good, and if she’s ever thought of making pizza bagels:
As you started getting into bagels, did you look into bagel history, and how they got to New York in the first place?
Jewish immigrants, primarily from Poland, brought their bagels and their bialys with them to the Lower East Side. For a long time, they were baking in horrendous conditions in cellars underneath tenements and other buildings. They formed strong unions and they were able to improve their work conditions, so much so that they were being paid a pretty high salary as bakers.
What made bagels back then so good?
Because the bakers had that strong union, and because all the bagels were being hand-rolled, I can only imagine that the quality of the bagel was great. The industry changed with the advent of the machine, and many shops started using machines to make their bagels.
I think there’s this idea of “super size me.” All of a sudden, bagels are huge.
Do you feel that the New York City bagels sold today leave something to be desired?
There’s a lot of room in the city to elevate the quality and status of the bagel, since it’s so iconic to New York. The goal for bagel shops right now is to get as many bagels out as quickly and as cheaply as they can. New Yorkers don’t want to spend a lot of money for a bagel, nor are they used to it.
So, for today’s New York City bagel maker to get the bagels out quickly, I think that they probably add some kind of conditioner to their dough to puff it up faster. I think that there’s also this idea of “super size me.” All of a sudden, the bagels are huge. In the ‘70s, they were three ounces; lately, they’re six ounces, or eight ounces, and that approaches half a pound. That’s just sort of gross.
How would you describe the bagels you’re selling at Smorgasburg?
I’d call them traditional New York bagels, like those that you would find maybe 40 years ago. They’re definitely not puffy, white blobs of dough. They have a crust, and they have a defined hole, and they’re chewy and they’re flavorful.
Besides hand rolling, how are you doing things differently?
Whenever you shorten the fermentation time of a bread, you take away some of the flavor. Modern-day bagel shops shorten the process to get the product out quicker. One of the things that I like to do is retard the bagels overnight in the walk-in refrigerator before they are boiled and baked the next day. [Retarding is a process in which a baker uses refrigeration to slow down yeast activity.] Just in doing that, you add a lot more flavor to the dough.
For your variation on the onion bagel, I hear you put onions in the dough instead of on top. What’s the thinking behind that?
I made bagels a lot as the staff meal at Per Se, and we had an event come up where we needed to make an onion bagel. My boss at the time was Jonathan Benno, and I was bringing him these bagel samples, and we were having a hard time getting them right. When we put the onion on the outside, it just wanted to fall off, and it also wanted to burn. So we were like, “What if we put the onion in the bagel dough instead of on the outside?” I think it’s really unique because it retains all of the onion flavor, but it doesn’t burn and it doesn’t fall off. You’ve got all of the good onion in the dough. I think it’s awesome. It’s probably my favorite bagel.
How are you making your pumpernickel-everything variety?
For the pumpernickel, I’m using 50 percent rye flour and 50 percent wheat flour, and I add toasted, ground caraway seeds and unsweetened cocoa for coloring. I’d be surprised to learn if any of the other pumpernickel bagels in the city actually contain rye flour. Then I’m baking them with an everything topping. I really like those. [Melissa had just returned from teaching bagel and bread-making classes in Sweden when we spoke to her, where she scored a bag of Scandinavian malted-barley flour to use in her next batch of pumpernickle dough.]
Have you ever thought about making pizza bagels?
I’m really interested in tweaking out traditional flavors. So I’d be interested. I haven’t done any sweet bagels yet, either. I might consider doing a cinnamon raisin bagel at some point, but right now I think I’m probably going to stick with the classics and just try to make those better. I’ll probably start working on some sandwich fillings, inspired by my trip to Scandinavia. For the time being, I’m doing a cured salmon with red onion and capers.