Foreign Food and Foreign Kitchens

I’ve been visiting New York since the mid 80s, in the days when you were advised not to wear conspicuous jewellery and to keep your ‘purse’ close to you at all times. There were stories of cab doors being pulled open at stop signs and baubles being ripped off the necks and ears of women. Mayor Rudy Giuliani cleaned up the city in the mid 90s and now it’s a safe, vibrant city, teeming with immigrants from diverse cultures. In a city where the game is hustle, those born here could be considered to be brash and pushy, but it is a city driven by service where twenty percent tips are the norm. Like any European, I sigh at this excess, but it doesn’t stop me at jumping at any chance to visit this shiny Big Apple.

The only real way to lift a corner of any city’s skin is not to stay in a hotel but to rent a neighbourhood apartment and pretend you’re a native. New York, like London, is an expensive place to live. The cheapest apartments are at the top of walk-ups, small residential blocks of four or five storeys that don’t possess a lift. I enjoy eyries, and like the challenge of a daily climb or two.

Our apartment was blessed with a balcony offering a cityscape over Manhattan’s upper east side, but despite a few days of spectacular blue skies, the chill factor of -5C kept us from spending too long admiring the view.

Overheating, however, is a major problem. Many apartment blocks have a centralised heating system and inhabitants have no way to control the heat which is set by the ‘Super’ in the basement.  The only way to survive the ensuing tropical warmth is to have the windows wide open and let the hot air escape. Energy efficient it is not.

Cartoon from the New Yorker

I always associate America with breakfasts, my favourite meal of the day. On my first couple of mornings, I re-acquainted myself with an old fashioned diner, a cream and brown affair with booths and Formica topped tables. The service order is strict. Despite only a handful of tables being taken you must be seated by a greeter, then brought a menu and a coffee by a server. A waiter follows up to take your order. It’s all-you-can drink coffee and it’s good, strong and hot.

A pile of light fluffy French toast is placed in front of me within ten minutes, the strips of bacon are a crispy delight ( and yes, full of nitrites and nitrates), and it comes with sides of butter and maple syrup. This is not a breakfast for the faint hearted but those four flights of stairs now have taken on a whole new purpose.  Accompanied by the New York Times and endless cups of coffee, it’s my idea of breakfast heaven.

At some point, a bill is slapped on the table, for $22. Coming to the end of my fourth mug of coffee, I place a $20bill and a $10 bill on the table. The waiter whisks smoothly past to pick it up. “You want change?’ he asks. The service industry is alive and well in New York.

New York Kitchen

Eventually, I am joined by Man, who had been snowed in on Long Island, and breakfast has to become a more mundane meal before he heads off to work. We were lucky that our apartment allowed for ‘proper’ cooking, with a working hob and oven. This is not necessarily standard in this city– many young professionals don’t cook and survive with a fridge, a hob, and a microwave.

I’ve had a love affair with Whole Food markets for a decade or two. I know they will stock ‘hormone-free’ protein, a wide variety of vegetables and the essential double brown bags-to-go. I’m in luck and find there’s a store on 3rd Avenue and 88th Street, four blocks away. It becomes my mecca, where I stock up on bison steaks, hot Italian sausages, rainbow chard, even wonky caramel coloured parsnips and purple carrots. On one occasion I do try the K-foods market just around the corner, but not only is there only one packet of hormone free chicken legs, the packers are still double bagging in plastic. The environmental argument has not been won in this city.

In London, I make multi grain rolls for breakfast, in New York we ate Whole Food’s bagels, our favourites being pumpernickel or rye. They are chewy on the outside, and soft on the inside, the rye is chocolate brown and bursting with flavour and the pumpernickel ones are studded with caraway seeds.

Whole Foods Bagels

On my return to London, I am determined to have a go and make my own bagels. How difficult can it be? I Google multiple recipes but decide to rely on my own experience in making bread. I also watch several YouTube videos, learning to how to shape and boil – that was the bit I found most scary. In my nervousness, I didn’t write down the instructions carefully enough so this is how I fared.

Plain white bagels – Preparation time – overnight proving needed, plus 2hrs. Enough for six bagels.

1 heaped tsp muscovado sugar
1 tsp active dry yeast
1 tsp sea salt
300mls of hand hot water
450gms strong bread flour
50gms rye flour
1 tbs olive oil


Dissolve the sugar and the yeast, in the hand hot water, leave for 15mins. Meanwhile prepare the dry ingredients. Unless you have more fortitude than I do, I suggest you use a standalone mixer fitted with a dough hook.  In the bowl combine the flour and salt. When the yeast mixture has fermented, pour it into the bowl with the dough hook set on a medium setting. When it is all incorporated and the sides of the bowl are clean, allow the dough to rest for 5 minutes. NB. You have to use your judgement here. Bagel dough should be stiffer than ordinary bread dough so that it can retain its shape. I made mine too stiff so it wasn’t flexible enough and didn’t achieve the smooth result I was looking for.

Resume kneading with the dough hook for 10 minutes. You want to achieve a dough that is smooth and satiny but not sticky.

Remove the dough and lightly brush the bowl with oil. Place the dough back in the bowl and turn it over to see that it’s oiled on all sides. Cover the bowl with a sheet of plastic and then a folded towel.  Leave to prove for approximately one hour. The dough should double in size.

Line a large flat baking tin with greaseproof paper and brush lightly with more oil. Using scales divide the dough into 6 equal pieces. Roll each one into a smooth round ball (It’s worth watching a YouTube video on how to do this). Place each ball onto the prepared baking tin. Brush the rolls lightly with oil and cover with plastic – I use a large plastic bag and let rest for 10 minutes or so. NBYou’re wanting the dough to relax to give you some flexibility to shape.

Take a ball of dough and push your thumb through the center. Using your finger and thumb widen the opening until the hole is about five cms in diameter. Place rings back on the baking tin and brush generously with oil. Cover with plastic again and leave for about 20 minutes.

Bigger Hole Needed

Brush the top of the bagels lightly again with oil, securely cover with plastic wrap, and store in the fridge overnight. This slow prove is essential to develop the flavour.

Remove the bagels 60 to 90 minutes before you plan to bake them.

Prepare the liquid for the bath!

Fill a large pan with enough water to give you at least 20 cms depth. Add and swirl to combine:

2 tbs muscovado sugar
1 tbs baking soda
2 tsps sea salt

Preheat oven to 250C. – make sure you leave enough time for the oven to reach the required temperature.

Bring to a boil the pan of flavoured water. When it reaches boiling point turn the heat down to a steady simmer, not a bubbling boil.

Depending on the size of your pan place 2 or 3 bagels, into the simmering water. I used a slotted fish slice for this. They don’t want to be crowded. Simmer, for about 45 seconds per side. Using the slotted spoon return the ‘bathed’ bagels to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat until all ‘bathed’.

Place the baking tin of bagels into the preheated oven and turn the heat down to 200C. Bake 15-20 minutes until golden brown. NB. I have to confess my oven was too hot, it’s a fan and I will try it at 180C next time.

Overall, I was pleased with my first efforts. I made edible bagels. But they needed to be smoother, so I think the dough needed to be more flexible and therefore I need to add more water.  I counted out the 45 seconds boiling using that old trick of counting in thousands. So I might have got the timing wrong or maybe the water wasn’t simmering enough. The outside ended up looking a little blistered, which of course wouldn’t have shown if I’d added a topping! They came out of the oven crispy on top, but also not ring shaped enough, my hole technique needs to improve. I will report back next time.

Not Bad, but Not Perfect



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