There are those who say if you want to know the secret to making a great bagel, you have to learn at the foot of a master — one of the three or four remaining old-timers who practice their dark arts deep in the recesses of Montreal and Brooklyn. Others cite that old urban legend about New York City tap water, without which Bay Area bagel-makers might as well be attempting alchemy.
But according to Dan Graf, there's nothing magical about the process — just hard work and good old-fashioned science. The 27-year-old self-taught baker's new one-man operation, Baron Baking, is the latest bagel purveyor to make waves in the East Bay: Graf is now the sole bagel supplier for Saul's Restaurant and Delicatessen, Chop Bar, and Stag's Lunchette.
Graf, a New Jersey native, says his mission started a few years ago when he was working at Saul's. He and a few other employees who were East Coast transplants would bemoan the state of the Bay Area bagel scene.
"Noah's was pretty much the only game in town," he recalled.
Peter Levitt, the restaurant's chef and co-owner, used to say that one of them ought to do a "stage" (a brief unpaid apprenticeship) at a New York bagel place. But Graf didn't think such a pilgrimage was necessary. He found all the basic information he needed online — the rest was months of experimentation.
Graf explained that he was inspired by Modernist Cuisine, the mammoth six-volume cookbook that rocked the culinary world when it came out last spring. What inspired him wasn't so much the techniques of molecular gastronomy, which the book is famous for documenting, but the scientific approach to cooking that it advocates.
"You make a list of the characteristics you want, and then you go about figuring out how to make those characteristics a reality," he explained.
For Graf, who studied civil engineering and genetics in college, that scientific approach to problem-solving really resonated with him. He knew what kind of bagel he wanted to make, and it wasn't strictly a "traditional" New York bagel — for that, Graf says that Schmendricks, the San Francisco pop-up, is as close as you can get in the Bay Area.
Graf explained that he started out just baking to his own palate, and what he wanted was a bagel that was crunchier and richer than a typical East Coast bagel. After about a year's worth of experimentation, and about thirty or forty different variations on his recipe, he finally came up with a product he was happy with.
Without giving away too many of his secrets, Graf tells me he figured out a few techniques that were key: The first is a very long "double-stage" fermentation process: fermentation that's followed by a retardation stage (a second, slower rise that's done in the refrigerator), during which the dough develops its rich flavor.
The other distinctive technique that Graf uses is the addition of lye to the poaching water in which he boils the bagels. Graf explains that even a very small amount of lye — at a safe concentration, of course — dramatically increases the pH level of the water, resulting in a crispier, browner crust.
Recently, I had a chance to try a couple of the Baron Baking bagels, and they were excellent: deeply flavorful, with a shiny, well-blistered crust. More than with any other bagel I've had recently, I noticed that the crust had a nice snap to it — that the "skin" had a distinctly separate texture from the dense, chewy interior bread.
The other great thing about the bagels is that, as far as artisanal bread products go, these are a relative bargain: Saul's, for example, sells them for $1.25 each.
'Latin Freestyle' Cooking at Pop-Up
Empanada enthusiasts and arepa aficionados, take note: Bueno Eats, the latest dinner series to debut at the Gourmet Ghetto's pop-up-friendly Guerilla Cafe (1620 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) launched this past Friday. Showcasing the self-styled "Latin Freestyle" cooking of chef Maria Esquivel, the pop-up will serve dinner from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. every Friday through the end of July.
A relative newcomer to the local culinary scene, Esquivel has been cooking professionally for three years, and she has a day job as a cook at Old Oakland's Caffe 817. But she's long dreamed of opening her own place: a cute cafe with good coffee and excellent small bites. Her hope is that the Bueno Eats pop-ups will be a step in that direction.
Esquivel says her biggest culinary influences are from having grown up in a big Mexican family, but she also cites eight months she spent last year working in different kitchens in New York, where she was inspired by the diverse Latin-American food scene.
Her cooking philosophy — what she calls "Latin Freestyle" — consists of putting contemporary twists on familiar Latin-American dishes, often combining different culinary traditions. For instance, Esquivel's version of Colombian-style empanadas is spicier and more intensely flavored than the traditional version — a nod to Mexican flavors, she explained.
Other dishes at the Bueno Eats pop-up include crispy yucca arepas, duck confit tacos, a deconstructed chicken tamale, and dulce de leche cake.