Bagels transport me back to New York from my kitchen on the Antrim coast

The hole may look like a void, but it’s filled up with home, family and New Yorkness

Rosie Schaap  in her kitchen in Glenarm, Co Antrim, with freshly baked bagels. Photograph: Paul Faith

Rosie Schaap in her kitchen in Glenarm, Co Antrim, with freshly baked bagels. Photograph: Paul Faith

 

In summer 1991, I was having too much fun in Dublin to feel homesick for New York. I was 20, thrilled to be somewhere new, somewhere else, for three months.

But there was one day, only the one. The weather had taken an extravagantly grim turn, and a great weepy wave of longing and loneliness engulfed me. Suddenly there were home things I missed very much.

My mother. Jazz. And bagels.

This was long before I could press a button and play any Louis Armstrong song I wanted to hear. Before I could see the faces of faraway loved ones pop up on a screen, in real time. Before a steady supply of quality bagels had landed beside the Liffey.

I set out in search of what I needed. The jazz was easy enough to get: I bought two cassettes – one Armstrong, one Sarah Vaughan. The bagel was harder.

The place where I found one after hours of plodding around in the rain exists in my memory only as a nameless side-street cafe-slash-newsagent. There, in a case full of buns and loaves, the lone bagel looked illusory, not quite real. I paid for it and carried it protectively back to the house where I was staying like a precious, doughy jewel.

I sliced and toasted and buttered it while Satch played Muskrat Ramble, and devoured it in a few big greedy bites while Sassy sang I’ve Got the World on a String.

It wasn’t a good bagel. But the music was great, exuberantly great, and I felt better.

Later that night I phoned my mother and told her I missed her. It was unlike me to say so. I told her about the weather, the loneliness and the jazz, too.

And the bagel. “It was a bad bagel,” I said. “But it did the trick.”

“Eh.” She was unimpressed by my disappointment. Most New York bagels are bad now, too, she said, but in language that is probably not printable here.

It was true: the bagels of my childhood were smaller, chewier and more flavourful than the bloated, bready specimens that had by then largely replaced them.

What it meant

My mother knew, before I did, that I missed what the bagel meant as much as I missed the bagel itself. That the distinguishing hole at its centre may have looked like a void, an emptiness, but was filled up with home and family and some elemental aspect of myself; that it was replete with New Yorkness.

Flash forward three decades. I’ve lived in Glenarm, on the Antrim coast, since 2019. The village shop sometimes stocks bagels. They come in a plastic bag and I’ve bought them more than once. But like that long-ago Dublin bagel, they satisfy my craving only in a cursory way.

To get what I really want, I realised, I’d have to make bagels myself.

To do such a thing would have seemed absurd to me only a few years ago. Who makes their own bagels? All that mixing and proofing and shaping and baking! And boiling – an essential step in real-deal bagel-making – which always seemed a bridge too far for this home baker.

Rosie Schaap’s freshly baked bagels. Photograph: Paul Faith
Rosie Schaap’s freshly baked bagels. Photograph: Paul Faith

But when I saw a photo of home-made sourdough bagels a friend had shared on Instagram, I reconsidered. They looked legit. Better than that: they looked persuasively professional and deliciously homely at once. My friend sent me the recipe she used; it’s by Emilie Raffa, and it’s a keeper.

The sourdough part of Raffa’s recipe isn’t traditional. But, yes, I am one of those people who hopped on the sourdough train during the first Covid lockdown (don’t knock it: until I adopted a dog this August, my sourdough starter, which I named Margaret and care for lovingly, was the closest thing I had to a pet for more than a year).

And time? If the pandemic had given me anything, it was time enough to make bagels.

Boil them

One Saturday night a month or so, I made the dough and left it to come alive while I slept. I woke up early on Sunday morning and finished the job. The boiling is my favourite part of the process: it’s immensely satisfying to watch the bagels rise to the top of their bubbling, honeyed bath before I smoosh their convex crowns into a mix of poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and sea salt and bake them. These are bagels my mother would have loved: dense, chewy, subtly savoury. Closer to the bagels of her youth, and mine.

I’m seldom homesick here, either.

And these bagels aren’t New York bagels, either. They’re Glenarm bagels, made by my own hands, always enough to share with friends and neighbours. They’re a link to my family, my heritage, that part of myself that’s easier to describe with food than in words. And they still mean home – even if home, now, is here.

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