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Water Cooler: The history and basics of bagel and lox sandwiches

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 13, 2021

Boiling bagels, shown October 2019 in the Sweetbox Delivery kitchen in Spokane, is a traditional step in their preparation.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Boiling bagels, shown October 2019 in the Sweetbox Delivery kitchen in Spokane, is a traditional step in their preparation. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The bagel and lox is a staple of American Jewish cuisine, and, although it has New York roots, it is now popular across the nation.

The signature ingredient is lox, which is derived from the Yiddish word for salmon. When you buy salmon lox at a store or deli, it almost always refers to thin fillets of brined salmon.

Bagels are obviously the other most important ingredient and they have a long history with a lot of cultural significance to Polish Jews. In the 16th and 17th centuries, bagels became a staple of Polish cuisine and developed popularity among other Slavic cultures. Bagel is spelled “bajgiel” in Polish, and the name is derived from the Yiddish word “beygal” or “beygl,” which is thought to have come from the Middle High German “böugel.”

Author Maria Balinska in her book, “The Bagel: the Surprising History of a Modest Bread,” has several theories about the origin of bagels. Balinska’s theory as to why bagels are boiled is because until the 13th century, Polish Jews weren’t often legally allowed to bake bread because of the Christian connection of bread with the sacrament of communion. The theory goes that once Jews were allowed to bake, they were required to boil the dough under suspicion from Christians that their baked goods would be poisoned. Boiling then became an integral step to the process of creating bagels.

These doughy, ring-shaped breads made their way to America from the immigration of Polish Jews. The popular belief is lox and bagel sandwiches were the kosher answer to the popularity of the eggs benedict, which exploded in the 1930s. Salmon was substituted for ham, bagels for English muffins, and cream cheese for hollandaise sauce, creating an iconic American meal in its own right.

A quality bagel is key and luckily, they are simple to make at home.

Use a packet or 1 tablespoon of active yeast, mix with a teaspoon of sugar in warm water and let sit until bubbly. In the meantime, combine 8 cups of bread flour, 1 tablespoon of salt and 2 to 3 tablespoons of sweetener. Malt syrup will create the most traditional flavor, but you can use maple syrup or honey as well. Add about 4 cups of water to achieve around 50% hydration. The dough is very dense so it is better if you have a mixer to mix the dough for about 20 minutes. Once mixed or kneaded, let the dough rest for about 15 minutes. Use a knife or bench scraper to cut pieces off the dough to form the bagels.

You can roll the dough into a snakelike form, then wrap around your hand to create a circle, or you can roll the dough into balls, poking a hole in them and gently stretching in a circular motion. Set the formed bagels on a parchment lined sheet, sprinkled with cornmeal. Proof on the counter for a few hours or overnight in the refrigerator. Leave them uncovered for a crust, or cover for a softer finish.

When ready to bake, bring a pot of water with 1 tablespoon of baking soda to a boil. Use a skimmer or slotted utensil to gently set the bagels in the boiling water. Let boil for 30 to 60 seconds on each side. Bake at 500 degrees Fahrenheit until brown and crispy, about 5 to 10 minutes on each side. Flipping is optional.

You can also make homemade lox and whipped cream cheese, but these are easy to find at the store as well.

The classic toppings include thinly sliced tomato and red onion, and capers. You can also add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

Rachel Baker can be reached at rachelb@spokesman.com

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