Bagel Making and the Gentile

imageElizabeth calls them “sadiversaries”- memorials to grief, forced remembrances of sad days. I avoid these whenever possible, running in zig-zag patterns and keeping my head low, but sometimes, they catch me anyway. I got caught when the kids suggested that we get together for dinner on January 31st. They wanted to cheer me up on the second anniversary of Jon’s death. This being the case, I thought it would be a good idea to fix my mind on a better memory, and establish a happier tradition. A recollection soon presented itself: Liz and Livi baking in my Mississippi kitchen, filling the air with the smell of rising bagel dough, and the sound of their soprano laughter. The memory of pony-tailed girls with sticky hands inspired me. I knew what I’d do- I’d bake bagels for the kids to take away with them after dinner. But I couldn’t find my bread cookbook- the one written by a Jewish couple. “Oh well,” I thought, “Mr. M., the Food Network guy looks like he’s spent plenty of time pounding dough. His recipe is probably just as good”. And so, I embarked on a baking jamboree that lasted all day.

First off, the recipe called for a Yukon Gold potato, an ingredient my tried and true recipe definitely did not include. Add thirty minutes to boil the potato, five to mash it up, and ten to pick out all the skins. Oops.

Next, make the dough. Here I felt competent. I’d come a long way since the days of compact, hard as a rock, all grain brick loaf. When Elizabeth was still at home, we spent hours kneading dough for rolls and loaves, and we’d gotten pretty good at it. Recollections of beautifully risen oat bread, fragrant and cooling on the counter, rose to give me confidence. I mixed the dough, added in the mashed potato, and began to knead. Push away, fold over, turn. Push away, fold over, turn. The dough ball looked just right- shiny and elastic- and I put it in a warm place to rise.

It rose beautifully, as I knew it would. I could hardly wait to punch it down and form the bagel rounds. Only- the dough was a little moister than I remembered. Well- maybe it was the potato’s fault. I began to form the bagel balls, placing them on the parchment lined jelly roll pans. 30 more minutes to rest and rise.

The mounds turned into bigger mounds. In fact, they were all smushed up against one another- not evenly spaced as Mr. M’s were. And they looked funny. Why weren’t mine smooth? At this point, I should have saved myself trouble, thrown the evidence away, and headed for Kroger’s bakery, but I am persevering. I’m told it’s a desirable trait.

Step the next said to “Form the bagels”. Simple instructions. Eloquent. Pregnant with promise. The only problem was that the dough balls were in love with the parchment paper. They clung to that paper like candle wax on a carpet. Each time I tried to remove one to put a hole in the center, I deflated and deformed it. A depressing little platoon of misshapen bagels sat waiting to be boiled.

Boiling them only made the situation worse. Rough, gooey, lop-sided bagels went into the water, and pale, rubbery, lop-sided bagels came out. Maybe baking them would help. 10 minutes, Mr. M said, in a 450 F oven, then an egg wash, and back in for 15 minutes. 25 minutes later, I examined the final product. There they sat, wrinkled, holey, hockey pucks. Clearly, they were not destined for breakfast gift bags.

The kids and grandkids arrived, shedding coats and boots, and unbundling babies. I was too busy sending dogs downstairs and welcoming the masses to notice what Eagan was doing. This grandson of my heart, who looks like my son, who looks like me, has also inherited our love of food, as well as the agility to procure it, kitchen counters being no obstacle to this three year old athlete. So I wasn’t surprised when I heard the word “Cookie” amid the hubbub. I turned around, and there he stood, a miniature Colossus, with an ugly bagel in each hand.

Grinning widely, he repeated the word, “Cookie”.

“Go ahead, Baby,” I said, “eat that cookie”.

And he did. Not only that, but he began giving them out. Pretty soon, all the grandsons were enthusiastically gnawing on that tough, yeasty bread, as if it had come from an ethnic bakery. Frankly, I was astounded – and also relieved that I didn’t have to look at my little food failures any more. Astonishment gave way to merriment, and all the adults began to laugh…and laugh….and laugh.

I’m afraid that my reputation for good baking is now slightly tarnished, and the word “bagel” will be an eternal joke, but, in the end, because of my culinary incompetence, a happy memory was born.

“A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones”. Proverbs 17:22

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