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Cook the Book: Bagels, Schmears, and a Nice Piece of Fish

Cook the Book: Bagels, Schmears, and a Nice Piece of Fish
Written by Hannah Lee Leidy | Images reprinted with permission from Bagels, Schmears, and a Nice Piece of Fish by Cathy Barrow, © 2022. Published by Chronicle Books. Photographs © Linda Xiao.

Few baking projects scare me. Bagels, for a long time, were one of them. Even though a chewy, everything-seasoned bagel is my favorite breakfast, the process as I knew it seemed labor intensive and gave too much room for error. Even for a self-proclaimed baker like myself.

My resolve changed when Cathy Barrow’s book Bagels, Schmears, and a Nice Piece of Fish: A Whole Brunch of Recipes to Make at Home came across my radar. The winning name alone sold it (it’s the holy trinity of breakfast foods). However, Barrow’s experience with bagels hit home: Growing up in Ohio (the state where I fell in love with bagels during my college years!), she relied on her grandmother to connect her to the East Coast treats. Throughout the year, her grandmother would fly from Boston to Toledo, bearing a hatbox brimming with bagels. 

The novelty fascinated young Barrow, and as an adult she experienced her own love affair with New York bagels. But troubles arose when she attempted to make them in her home near Washington DC. Her endeavors following the very path I feared: “[…] recipe after recipe, they were doughy, they lacked the proper structure, and the flavor was dull. They were just rolls with holes.” 

This changed when she discovered, not New York water, as many would argue, but high-gluten flour, which led to recipe testing and tweaking until she got “a bagel with the chew, the density, the tang, the consistency, and the yield that I wanted.” If Cathy could find her way, maybe I could, too. 

It comforted me that Barrow’s book breaks down each technique into an idiot-proof process. The book even provides step-by-step pictures for each phase between making the dough, shaping the bagels, boiling, seasoning, and baking them. She outlines a timeline of when to start your dough depending on when you want to eat (8 pm at night for tomorrow morning’s breakfast). Barrow gets that mornings aren’t breezy for everyone, and she’s all about making each step manageable: she even leaves time between waking up and boiling the water “to make coffee and let the dogs out” (I don’t have dogs—I watered the plants).

Brunching Alongside Cathy Barrow

A variety of New York Bagels on a counter

The New York Bagel

I decided my foray into bagel making should start with a classic. After all, you learn how to play Beethoven before blues—baking should be no different. I’m a baker who loves riffing on ingredients, but I resisted when it came to the flour in this recipe. High-gluten flour is Barrow’s secret to a good bagel, and without it, you’re just making holey bread rolls. I ordered it on Amazon for this very purpose, and it was worth every bit of the 17 dollars I spent.

For me, only proper bagels are worth eating, and, let me say, these guys slapped. I covered them in sesame seeds and za’atar, poppy seeds, All-Dressed Spice, and (as a nod to Barrow’s mom) sea salt. Even the New Yorkers at the office raved about them. 

Assortment of Montreal bagels on a pan with schmear

The Montreal Bagel

I never had a montreal bagel before this book and wondered why someone would opt for it over the classic, bulbous style. Barrow’s book lets readers in on a secret: There’s no way around the long, overnight rise (usually eleven hours) bagels require…unless you’re making a montreal bagel. 

These are like the unsung brunch hero for those of us who don’t plan more than two hours ahead. They differ dramatically in flavor and texture. Boiling them in honey water gives them a noticeably sweeter flavor, which pairs well with a generous coating of sesame seeds. Traditionally, these bagels bake in a wood-fired oven, which my apartment lacks. Instead, I preheated the oven to a ripping-hot 500 degrees thirty minutes prior to baking, then I lowered the heat to 400. 

Get the recipe

Schmear in bowl with knife

Schmear Master Recipe

A proper schmear, Barrow taught me, is an upgraded, more luxurious version of the store-bought cream cheese I customarily slather on a bagel. This recipe blends cream cheese with sour cream for a silky, spreadable consistency, and the touch of fresh lemon juice adds lift to the fatty topping. In the time it took to bake the bagels, I was able to run to the corner store to get the ingredients. Even though I only waited 5 minutes for the bagels to cool, it was enough time to whip up the schmear. 

Get the recipe

Recipes reprinted with permission from Bagels, Schmears, and a Nice Piece of Fish by Cathy Barrow, © 2022. Published by Chronicle Books. Photographs © Linda Xiao.

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