Bagels, lox and schmear: Cathy Barrow reveals how to whip up a whole brunch of charcuterie classics at home

If inflation keeps you from ordering bacon, eggs, and cheese from your corner deli or coffee cart, you can still save some cash and turn your kitchen into a deli this year (plus kneading dough can be a real workout). In “Bagels, Schmears and a good piece of fishout March 15, cookbook author and baker Cathy Barrow shares the ins and outs of making any deli brunch at home perfect.

Don’t worry, there’s a lot more kashrut than a BEC

RELATED: How Master Pastry Chef Cathy Barrow unlocked the secret to a perfectly flaky crust

As the title suggests, there are knead and rise bagels (Montreal, pumpernickel, gluten-free, to name a few); cream cheese to make from scratch or whip with add-ins (cherry cheesecake schmear, anyone?); and, of course, pickles, kippers, carrot salad, capers and more to make up a substantial platter. Barrow even offers platters of bagels on the menu for shiva, Yom Kippur and brunch for two – events perhaps too many of us have attended during the pandemic.

When I made his Montreal bagels, I was amazed by the steep exterior, covered in sesame and nigella compared to the chewy interior – just like my New York bagels of old! My half liter of homemade vegetable schmear shone like stained glass in the morning sun sprinkled with purple onion, green parsley, red bell pepper, orange carrot, a great sharpness of whipped sour cream and lemon juice – yeah , I will be doing this one again. Even after testing hundreds of bagels for this book, Barrow and her husband aren’t sick of it.


Salon Food recently spoke to Barrow about how to avoid making a “roll with a hole,” the New York bagel secret ingredient myth, and the black market-like trade she took to acquire the early pandemic flour.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You write that it took you a year to get the perfect bagel after tons of testing. What did this ultimate baking look like? What qualities do you look for in a “perfect bagel?”

I was originally looking for that crunchy exterior and the soft chewy interior with a sweet but not overly sweet flavor. I got the flavor early, but the texture was elusive until I started playing around with high gluten flour. Then the negotiation got even more complex because most bagel recipes I had tried gave me eight, nine, 12 bagels. But I only cook for two people — and that’s a lot of bagels to prove, taking up a lot of room in your fridge. I remember a bagel from my childhood that was the size of a palm – a big size, not too big that you had to share it with your partner. So it was texture, flavor, yield and size. I’m really happy with what I finally got: baking six bagels is ideal.

During those first few months of testing, do you remember the day you baked that perfect bagel?

The first few months were really muddy. I got this book deal on March 13, 2020 – two days before closing. My first concern was, “Where will I find the flour and yeast?” Luckily I found a local baker who was willing to sell me a 50lb bag. It was like drug dealing. We met masked at the side of the road. I gave him some money and took the bag out of his trunk. It was so much flour – I had to store it in a giant plastic tub for dog food. But, after that, I was making bagels twice a day and probably the recipe merged in May 2020.

This book was developed for brunches, but the pandemic has made group gathering impossible, so risky and scary. What recommendations do you have for bakers doing brunch only to have it canceled at the last minute? Essentially, what lasts the longest, freezes well, or can be reused, like your recommendation for bagel chips made from stale bagels?

The bagels freeze beautifully, and they reconstitute quite remarkably. At first, I had a great conversation with Bex Hellbender, a baker from North Carolina, who told me that you should never cut your bagels before they go to the freezer because they dry out. You can freeze whole bagels and then place them straight from the freezer into a preheated 350°F oven or toaster oven for exactly 10 minutes. It’s like you just took them out of the bagel oven. Lox freezes; salad and schmears usually don’t, but they last a week – and you can always go the way of Chicago in the 70s and develop a “Lox Box”. It’s a package for a family of four that contains bagels, schmear, lox, tomato, and cucumber that you deliver to others. Chicago temples were famous for using them for fundraisers.

Getting back to high gluten flour, I know this specialty ingredient might intimidate some bakers. How to buy it or make it?

For a few dollars, you can get a bag of Bob’s Red Mill Vital Wheat Gluten Flour and add two teaspoons to a cup (120 grams) of flour – and you’ve just made high-gluten flour. I can understand why everyone finds it annoying when we cookbook authors say, “You have to use this, you have to do that. But, in the case of bagels, you really need high-protein flour. You can either buy it, like I do with King Arthur, or make it yourself.

Despite the many myths, you write that it’s not New York water that makes the difference for their bagels – it is high gluten flour. Chemically speaking, can you explain the difference flour makes?

The protein levels in the flour help build strength – and that strength is what gives you the shiny, tough outer crust. When you use all-purpose or low-protein cake flour, you get a tender crumb – think yellow birthday cake. When you add more protein, like bread flour, you get something like sourdough bread. When you get to the top of the heap is the high gluten, 14.2% protein flour. Other pastries made with high gluten flour include pretzels or pizza crust. Think of the difference between pizza and focaccia, with the tear in the crispy, chewy crust versus the soft, light bread.

Speaking of New York bagels, you also cover Montreal bagels — but you don’t mention other types of regional bagels. Are there any other types of bagels that you have discovered in your research?

When I was on Martha Stewart Radio in 2014, I heard Martha went to a bagel shop in Detroit and said they were the best bagels in America. I went there, tried one, and it was damn good. But the thing is, it was good because it tasted like a New York bagel. It wasn’t good because there was something different about it. They just did it well. My brother had bagels in Memphis and said they were “buns with a hole in them”. Soft, pale golden, like Wonderbread inside. Maybe you could say it’s a regional distinction, but I don’t think that’s the one we should be looking for.

I wonder how Montreal bagels got away with their style, how they proved they were to be celebrated.

Montreal bagels are really good, but it’s still a bagel! You know, crispy on the outside, always sweet, always chewy. It’s not a scroll. Of course, Tejal Rao writes that the best bagels are on the west coast, interviewing Boichik and some LA locations. It’s starting to be a serious competition between the East Coast and the West Coast, and I think we’ll have to see how it all plays out. The use of sourdough is more common on the West Coast. Seattle’s Rubinstein bagels are sourdough I think, and these entrees give you a different bagel.

As with your old books with crusts and fillings, there are so many combinations you can do here, from schmear to filling to type of yeast. Is there a really surprising combo that you recommend people try, no matter how it sounds?

I do not do Cynthia Nixon’s Cinnamon Raisin Bagel. It doesn’t happen. It’s just not for me, but I can tell there’s a sandwich in the back. The Thanksgiving Sandwich is a cinnamon-raisin bagel with turkey, cranberry sauce, and all the goodness in it. who was inspired by a Layers of Dorie Greenspan which uses cinnamon raisin bread and all things Thanksgiving.

The graphic design of the book is so striking. How did you replicate the fonts, posters, and deli aesthetics? What did that do to you as a bagel lover?

The designer of the book is Lizzie Vaughan, and she has an eye for detail. It started, really, with these double pages that open the chapters that look like blackboards with white letters. It got everyone’s brains spinning, and our props stylist, Maeve Sheridan, arrived at the photo shoot with all the right backgrounds – speckled formica and subway tiles. But when that robin’s egg blue came in for the cover, it turned everything upside down.

Bagels, Schmears and a good piece of fish” by Cathy Barrow will hit bookstores on March 15.

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