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Barb and the Bagel

When we first moved to the UK a decade ago, I became a self-defense bagel baker. We were living in one tower of some friends’ medieval castle [here], when I was conscripted for life into the Wednesday Morning Village Coffee rota.  Sadly, after my one try at making scones, I was strictly forbidden to attempt them again.

Home Sweet Castle-tower!

So began my coffee morning career of mystifying my village neighbors with weird American foods. First up were the cupcakes (“muffins”, I was informed). Next was the blueberry coffeecake, which nobody touched until I explained that it wasn’t really made out of coffee. Most disconcerting of all was the strange foreign food item which I told them was called… a bagel. Nobody had ever had one before, although a few admitted hearing of them. They gathered around and stared as I suggested they top their bagels with cream cheese.

“She means Philadelphia,” someone explained. “In America they think it’s called cream cheese.”

Undeterred, I unveiled my pièce de résistance. “Lox!”


“Here in England,” one lady finally told me kindly, “…we call that salmon.”

Many looked frankly skeptical as I sliced bagels. “Is it an American donut?”

“They eat fish on their donuts in America?”

“Maybe a little homemade jam would help?”

When we moved to the small Scottish Isle of Arran a few years ago, I continued to make bagels. Still completely self-defense, really, because the bagels sold on the mainland are basically round bread with holes in the middle. A few months ago, I brought my homemades to a local house concert and had so many requests that I agreed to do a little bagel baking class.

Here’s the thing about living on Arran. In the winter, tourists are mostly gone, restaurants and shops are shuttered, and you might think it’s really quiet. But instead, friends and neighbors jump in and turn even the most mundane activity into a social event.

As my friend Heather put it, “A bagel baking class might seem so middle class anywhere else. But on Arran, it’s cool.”

Luckily, Scottish Interfaith Week was coming up, and their theme this year—EAT, FAITH, LOVE—was a perfect fit. SIFW agreed to help sponsor the event, along with our Arran Jewish Cultural Association under auspices of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities.  

I put a short invitation on Arran’s Facebook page, and within the hour, the class was full. So I added a second night and began stockpiling flour. When people arrived on the night, I started with the important info (loo location, and apologies for all the wasps who had decided my house was the perfect spot to come in, fly around drunkenly, and die. Lots.) Then I asked each person to tell me about the best bagel they’d ever had.

We had some bagel virgins, but for the most part my neighbors on this little Island are a cosmopolitan, globe-trotting bunch. “New York, London, Paris, Manchester.” They reported. “Brooklyn, Vancouver, Sydney, Boston.” The list went on. I told them about some of my favorite bagel variations: the iconic deep-fried Fragel in Anne Arbor Michigan, the famous Noah’s bagel-dogs… [Pause here, while Barb moans. Pathetically.]

Our bakers paired up and were soon elbow-deep in flour, yeast, salt, honey, and water. [image credit: (c) Shanny Newal, 2019]

We talked about different methods of kneading, and whether the roll-a-worm-and-pinch-ends or the make-a-ball-and-poke-hole-in-it methods of bagel construction were preferred. [image credit: (c) Nanette Cowieson, 2019]

One particularly subversive baker who shall not be named [you know who you are, Heather…] demanded to know why the shapes had to be round with a hole? Wouldn’t long worms work? How about croissant-shapes? I told her that was just too much wrongness for me to deal, but I could tell the rest of the group thought she was on to something.    [image credit: (c) Nanette Cowieson, 2019]

While our dough was rising, we took a break for some traditional Hanukkah foods—sufganiyot (jelly donuts) and latkes (potato pancakes with applesauce and sour cream). And yes—Hanukkah is all about the oil, so it’s basically an eight-day cardiac event on a plate.

Then it was back to the kitchen for the secret, essential step that separates true bagels from plain bread: the boiling.

Boiled bagels were brushed with egg and honey glaze, which makes excellent glue for the toppings. (We used crispy-fried onions, toasted flaked garlic, black sesame seeds, seasalt, and of course, poppy seeds.)

Last step was baking. WARNING: You have to be strong here because the smell is so good you won’t be able to stand waiting for the bagels to cool off enough to cut, slather with cream cheese, and scarf down.

As part of the interfaith experience, I recalled the time I’d gone to my daughter’s preschool class to tell them about Hanukkah. I told the children the story of the Maccabees’ long fight to reclaim their defiled Temple from Seleucid conquerors, and how their one night’s supply of purified oil miraculously burned for the eight nights it took to resupply. I concluded, “So we light candles and get presents for eight nights to celebrate how important it is to be free.” There was a dead silence. Finally, one little boy raised his hand. “But Mrs. Taub—we’re not free.  We’re four.”

At the time, we were carpooling to preschool with the daughter of the local Baptist minister. The next day, he told me his child had burst into tears after my daughter spent the entire drive home describing her eight nights of presents, and how her family got to gamble with their dreidels for gold-covered chocolate gelt. “Why can’t we be Jewish?” wailed the minister’s daughter. “Thanks a lot,” her father told me.


[image credit: (c) Nanette Cowieson, 2019]

Shanny Newall, joining us from Interfaith Scotland, looks so happy as she shows off her gorgeous bagels. I don’t have a picture of her face the next morning when she realized my dog sneaked into her room and ate four of her masterpieces. The dog, however, looked REALLY happy.

I’m so proud of my Arran neighbors’ bagels and SO grateful they shared these evenings with me.

So—what’s YOUR favorite bagel?

Try Dori Walker’s recipe from her upcoming cookbook, The Plate Is My Canvas: Recipes and Stories from My Family’s Interfaith Kitchen, and the answer might be—YOUR OWN!


Here’s the recipe given to me by my amazing baking genius friend Dori Walker. She’s one of the best cooks I know, and currently working on her cookbook, The Plate Is My Canvas: Recipes and Stories from My Family’s Interfaith Kitchen. With her generous permission, here is her foolproof bagel recipe. We used rapid-rise bread dough yeast, which we added with the flour and salt, and used the hottest water we could get from the tap, with the honey mixed in. Okay, on the second night, the completely amateur and inept instructor, Yours Truly, forgot to tell people to put in the honey. But even that didn’t stop these bagels from being amazing.