Here's a peek at my new bagels for JoySeed gourmet breakfasts in Beijing... and very soon, Shanghai. I got together with the master bakers at our parent company, M Cake -- legit guys who've trained in France (and French-style baking) -- and I've finally been able to re-live my New Jersey childhood scoffing my daily dough.
I remember the bagels I had growing up. They moved through phases of my life, like different boyfriends past and present. Going through elementary school in Princeton, mom would sometimes pick us up after school and take us to Einstein Bagels right in the middle of Nassau Street, a gleaming sunshine yellow shop that smelled of warmth and toastiness; I'd try a different bagel every time and Adrienne would ask for double cream cheese (because she was a skinny little one, and so was allowed).
Somehow in middle school I switched loyalties to Abel Bagel; then in high school at Lawrenceville, we were spoiled each morning with fresh-from-the-oven Maidenhead bagels from across the street. I remember in the winter, it was the only thing that could pull me out of bed: the promise of a toasted "everything" bagel with a deep schmear of vegetable cream cheese. I could follow its scent leading me puffy-eyed and blind towards the dining hall; I'd cut through the frosty January air like a shark towards its next meal. Then crunch, crunch.
I tried some bagels in Beijing in Shanghai to cure my homesickness but wasn't satisfied. Common symptoms presented by bagels here included: dryness, toughness of the skin, overly tight pores, loss of elasticity and depression -- some bagels had already just given up.
I wasn't in a position to find a remedy -- I was busy making breakfast set menus for JoySeed and besides, although I have had a brief stint of bread-training at the Peninsula Hotel Hong Kong, I am by all means an inexperienced baker. And the process of boiling-then-baking just make bagels seem like such needy patients.
Long story short, I rallied for bagels on the menu and finally prevailed. We even got our master bakers at the parent company, M Cake, to produce our own! I've tweaked it to suit the local palette by making the skin less hard than the bagels I had growing up. The dough inside maintains a very moist consistency and a bit of that bagel chew, but is also lighter and fluffier with a uniform crumb. Best of all, I've mandated that all of our bagels contain whole wheat -- because, what's the point of all-white-flour anymore? Get some grit in there.
We spent 5 full days in Shanghai shooting our beautiful bagels. I kept the sandwich fillings classic and simple. My favorite one is probably the "Avocado on Toast" one, inspired by the Aussie/London café staple these days of rustic grilled toast with a copious mountain of diced avocado tossed in olive oil, sea salt and topped with chili flakes and a poached egg -- particularly the one at Electric Diner in Notting Hill.
Some of my colleagues are still worried that the locals in China will find them strange, or pointless, but the truth is there just haven't been good bagels around yet. Besides, NOrtherners love bread. The fluffy mantou (馒头) morning bread is a case in point...
Factors I never gave a second thought to in the U.S. now jump out at me when colleagues ask me: "what about those bagels that get crispy goosebumps after toasting: essential or optional?"; "packaging: plastic or paper?"; "size: huge or medium?"; "to slice in half or not to slice in half?"; "but shoudn't this be softer??"
This week we're testing them out and sending 100 sandwiches a day to the M Cake company office in Shanghai as a trial run. It's hard trying to cater to all tastes and habits, but I'm sticking with sticking to my guns; 'cause if you don't love yourself, who will? -- that kinda thing.
By the hand of 4 days of photography my back ached and bagels danced in my mind's eye. But it was all worth it to embark on the road to becoming crowned Bagel Queen of Beijing. When I walked into my high school friend Camden's new café in Shanghai after a 7-hour shoot day, I knew destiny was calling: the remains of a seaside-themed private dinner left a flotsam of inner tubes that I immediately identified as bagel-like objects. I became a bagel. I Am the Bagel.