MANNA FROM HEAVEN
THINKING BREAD on WORLD BREAD DAY
Manna poured down from the heavens and our fate was sealed. We became a bread-loving people. Rye, plain, marbled or studded with aromatic cumin seeds, piled high with salami or pastrami or corned beef. Challah sweet and elegant, lovingly braided once a week to celebrate the Sabbath or sweetened with honey and almonds and formed into round loaves to be eaten at the New Year. Tall, airy Kugelhof or warm, flat mufleta depending on where we come from, and of course pita stuffed with hummus and falafel balls.
Bread is an important staple on Jewish tables and has sacred meaning twined into most festivals and celebrations. As Claudia Roden writes in her marvelous The Book of Jewish Food, “(Different types of bread are) surrounded by folklore and tradition and loaded with symbolism.” The lovely Challah symbolizes love, the braids like intertwined arms. Shaped into circles, the New Year Challah represents a sweet, round year, beginning to end and back to the beginning again (“no beginning and no end”). And, of course, the much-maligned matzoh, the flat, crispy, flavorless unleavened bread eaten during the 8 days of Passover. Non-Jews everywhere recoil in horror at the thought of it, bland and dry, and JP, for one, cannot fathom my love for the stuff, symbolism and holiday aside. He shakes his head in dismay as I slather it with peanut butter and jelly or hummus and relish every mouthful.
And then there is the bagel, the homely bagel. More culinary folklore than religious symbolism, the popularity of the bagel has spread like wildfire around the world. From a Jewish street hawker then Jewish deli specialty to being associated with New York City, to being found in bakeries across the United States and in many European cities as well as being baked in home kitchens around the world, this wonderful, chewy bread, the backdrop to so many foods, the base for so many flavors, is now truly universal. I remember when JP started working in England and excitedly announced (for my pleasure alone) that there was a bagel stand in the London train station and he could bring me fresh bagels weekly. Sweet man!
Bagels, again according to Claudia Roden, are of German Jewish origin and “because of their shape – with no beginning and no end – symbolize the eternal cycle of life. In the old days, they were supposed to be a protection against demons and evil spirits, warding off the evil eye and bringing good luck.” That adds to the pleasure, the comfort of eating one. A bagel a day may not keep the doctor away but it may keep Mr. Devil away, which is even better!
Bagels were a thing of my youth, weekend treats spread with cream cheese and layers of salty, fishy, fabulous Nova lox, a thing of beauty. Or toasted the next day, peanut butter melting on the warm bread. Visits to Grandma’s or Aunt Millie’s when we waited impatiently for the Sunday morning spread: real fresh-from-the-baker’s-oven-warm New York bagels, scallion-studded cream cheese and a plate loaded down with not only silky lox, but delicate, meltingly smooth sable and those golden smoked whitefish. Endless Bar and Bat Mitzvah luncheons and every day-after-wedding brunch would invariably find us lined up at the bagel table, choosing our flavor and hemming and hawing over the toppings, either whitefish or tuna salad spreads, chopped liver or that good old standby smoked salmon. Packages kept in the freezer at home to be pulled apart and popped into the toaster oven. Oh, not as good as bakery fresh, but oh so comforting. As I got older and started working in New York, I’d pick up a fresh cinnamon raisin bagel on my way from the subway to the gallery and bring it to work, toasting it in the back room and eating it with a cup of coffee those days when my bosses were out of town, my guilty pleasure. Visits to my brother Michael in Brooklyn always meant a trip to the neighborhood bagel shop for a bagful, sesame and poppy seed, studded with blueberries or “old faithful”, my favorite, cinnamon raisin.
France may be bread heaven, but for a bagel-loving girl it is sheer torment. I can find heavenly chopped liver, just like my dad’s, or the best cheesecake on the Rue des Rosiers. Gorgeous Challah can be found almost as easily as brioche and matzoh is now stocked in our supermarché. But Bagels? I have heard that since I’ve left Paris a couple of ingenious fellow bagel lovers have set up shop, but the closest I get in Nantes to a bagel is a bag of frozen ones at Picard, and not the best I’ve ever tasted. And when they have them in stock. So I have learned to make my own.
Every month I participate in Bread Baking Day (also known as BBD), a monthly bread baking event created by Zorra of Kochtopf. Thanks to Zorra, I have found my “bread legs”, have overcome my fear of yeast and lack of bread-baking self-confidence. Now I can march resolutely into the kitchen, tie the apron around my waist and jump into the process without trembling. Flour flying in puffs around me, dog happily lapping up the overflow from the parquet, yeast bubbling and frothing, I am in bread-baking heaven. And today, October 16th, she is hosting the 4th edition of World Bread Day, the day that everyone across the globe is invited to bake, buy or just eat bread and talk about it. This could be your day to taste a new bread – go on, dare! – or try your hand at bread baking, with or without yeast, savory or sweet. Find your passion and let’s do bread!!!
I have made my second batch of homemade bagels for World Bread Day: wonderfully fragrant and sweet Cinnamon-Cranberry Bagels. I followed the same recipe from Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice as on my maiden bagel voyage and though they may not be pretty on the outside, these bagels were perfect! Chewy and tender, slightly sweet bread matched with the tang of dried cranberries.
CINNAMON – DRIED CRANBERRY BAGELS
Click here for the recipe and step-by-step photo instructions. For either Cinnamon – Dried Cranberry or Cinnamon – Raisin Bagels (or really any dried fruit) just make these adjustments:
Increase the active dry yeast in the final dough to 1 teaspoon.
Add 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon + 5 tablespoons granulated sugar to the final dough.
Rinse 2 cups of loosely packed raisins with warm water to rinse off the surface sugar, acid and natural wild yeast. Add the raisins during the final 2 minutes of mixing. ** I divided my dough in half and kneaded in 1 cup rinsed (and patted dry) raisins to one half of the dough and 1 cup rinsed and dried dried cranberries to the other half. Next time I will use only 2 cups dried cranberries as I preferred the stronger, tangier flavor.