There are moments in history that are so monumental that they cause the world to freeze on its axis, demanding the attention of all humankind and forever changing who we are.
July 16, 1969: Man walks on the moon, birthing conspiracy theorists who insist that man has definitely not walked on the moon. November 2, 2016: The Chicago Cubs win the World Series, alerting us all to the fact that the end is nigh. March 25, 2019: The internet is introduced to the "St. Louis Bagel," and within minutes the population of Twitter begins to violently collapse in on itself like a dying star.
This Midwestern atrocity defies—and defiles—everything we thought we knew about bagels. Its perpetrators dare to spit in the face of tradition by completely ignoring the horizontal plane through which every sane human has ever cut a bagel, and instead choosing to slice it vertically. And, as if that weren’t sacrilegious enough, they continue to slice it vertically six, seven, maybe even eight times!
My DNA, crafted by four generations of impressively surly native New Yorkers, should have caused me to revolt in nanoseconds—truly, I’ve never once witnessed an argument about bagels and thought, "Know what? I should stay out of this." But I did not revolt!
Instead, the voice inside my head immediately said, "They increased the surface area! That’s a pretty great idea!" Then, once I had processed my reaction, I closed my laptop, turned to my cat Rocky Sprinkles, and spent the next hour in deep discussion about whether or not the voice in my head had gone completely mad. Surely I could not be serious! If bagels could be sliced vertically, what was next? Handheld salads? Pizza in a cup? Hot dogs served between two slices of bread as if they were sandwiches?
Rocky Sprinkles thought this could be a watershed moment of personal growth: I’d stopped projecting my horizontal expectations on bagels, which had never asked to be the center of such scandal. Much like Alexander Fleming accidentally discovering penicillin, the fine citizens of St. Louis had inadvertently ushered in a new age of bagels by supposing that anything that technically qualifies as bread can be run through a commercial bread slicer.
But, while bread and bagels may share a remarkably similar ingredient list, a bagel is not merely a ring of bread. Before they’re slid into the oven, bagels are quickly boiled in water that’s been spiked with sugar—in a perfect world, this is always barley malt syrup—which causes their floury pellicles to partially gelatinize. When baked, the now-"set" exterior becomes a firm, flavorful crust that contains the interior like a pair of Spanx, limiting its rise and resulting in the tight, chewy crumb that makes bagels incomparable to any other carb.
Vertical cutting does not result in "sliced bread"; it gives us ultra-supple disks of bouncy bread, outlined with a ribbon of malty crust. This accident is not an abomination—it’s a brand-new playing field for a brand-freaking-new game.
Who are we to deny the bagel’s desire to express itself in multitudes? What right do we have to limit what can be done to its dense, springy crumb or its fiercely chewy exterior? Maybe the bagels you bought last-minute at an unfamiliar shop are flavorless, and require whatever help they can get to become edible. Perhaps they have a texture resembling that of a mildewed dish sponge, and an extra intervention is needed to make them the best bagels they can possibly be.
In fact, the bagel doesn't need an excuse to choose a different identity. Maybe it simply wants to explore alternative dimensions in bagel-dom, opening itself up to new frontiers in toastiness.
And so I thanked my cat, drove to the market, filled my basket with middling bagels and a glut of other ingredients, retreated to my kitchen to explore the darkness that exists in between sliced bagels and really-sliced bagels, and prayed that I would come out alive. Was it even possible for my imagination to break free from the tyranny of horizontal slicing? How far into the Great Bagel Beyond could I go?
Experiment One: Sandwiching
Despite their obvious uniqueness in the bread world, we continue to try to force bagels to act just like their soft, pliable cousins when we use them for sandwiches.
Occasionally, it’s successful: Add tender lox and a creamy schmear, and you’ve got technical nirvana. But attempt the same procedure with a generous pile of ham and cheese, and the bagel’s full coat of crust resists any attempt to cleanly bite through it. It ejects its filling like toothpaste from a tube. And yet we persist, because sometimes the flavor a bagel brings to a sandwich is worth risking a lapful of ham.
St. Louis–ing a bagel creates an ideal platform for tea and finger sandwiches, which are superior to regular sandwiches, since teeny-tiny versions of foods will always taste better (see also: Kenji's Triangular-Cut Theorem). Traditional, delicate fillings, like watercress and butter, or cucumber and cream cheese, are certainly delicious, but not in the least bit satiating. Sliced bagel rounds provide more heft than floppy, thin-cut Pullman-style breads, eliminating the need to prepare several hundred sandwiches for your next garden party or croquet tournament.
This also makes them an excellent base for smørrebrød, the small, open-faced sandwiches that regularly feature toppings like smoked salmon, pickled herring, egg salad...all the Scandinavian equivalents of what you’ll find in the best bagel stores. The bagels have been trying to talk to us this entire time, but we've all been too arrogant to listen.
Experiment Two: Hasselbacking
Once I realized that vertically held knives could go all the way through bagels, I began to wonder if they could possibly go only most of the way through. Bagels are round, and potatoes are round, so why not Hasselback those puppies?
I made seven even cuts through a single bagel, stopping a half inch before the bottom, then brushed the cut surfaces with garlic butter. After 10 minutes in a 450°F (230°C) oven, they were beautifully golden, fanning open slightly to reveal an interior with crispy, well-toasted edges.
But this is nothing more than garlic bread, and I knew I could most definitely push myself further into the bagel-verse.
Using a bench scraper, I carefully pried open each garlicky incision, wedged in a quarter-inch slice of fresh mozzarella, and slid the Hasselbagels back into the oven for five minutes.
Once they had emerged and cooled for a few minutes (some of the longest minutes of my life, let me tell you), they were far, far more than Cheesy Bread. The bagel’s porous structure had greedily absorbed the excess milk from the mozzarella, which had bubbled up over the crust, oozing over the deeply toasted exterior to create the sort of textural contrast dreams are made of.
Experiment Three: Croque Monsieur–ing
Now that we had smørrebagels and Hasselbagels, the obvious next step was to smash them together as if they were in the CERN particle accelerator, because that’s what a respectable scientist would do, and I think we’re all in agreement that what I’m doing is some Nobel-type genius.
I selected the humble croque monsieur to begin my experiments. Turning a dense bagel into a good croque is nearly impossible using a more traditional sandwich method. What it needed was the help of a custard, much as in a Monte Cristo, to soften it to tender ham-and-cheese levels.
The increased interior surface area of a St. Louis bagel would mean maximum absorption of custard. Plus, it creates so many new places for the sandwich's requisite cheese sauce to cling to. The basic procedure:
- Preheat the oven and a cast iron skillet to 450°F (230°C). High heat = crispy bits.
- Hasselback two bagels, and soak them for a minute in a basic custard (one egg to one cup milk), jazzed up with Dijon mustard, nutmeg, salt, and pepper.
- Wrap slices of Swiss cheese with deli ham, and wedge the cheese-and-ham layers inside the bagel slits.
- Throw a pat of butter in the cast iron skillet; place the bagels in, bottom side down; and bake for 10 minutes.
- Whip up a basic Mornay sauce with more Swiss cheese.
- Pour Mornay all over those bagels, and broil them until they're practically black, because burnt cheese is the best cheese.
The results were spectacular. During the first bake, the bagel's exterior became so crisp that it didn’t turn to mush from the one-two of custard and cheese sauce—one of my complaints about most croques monsieurs. The interior’s structural fortitude allowed it to suck up the custard without turning into a mushy mess. The design of the croquebagel also exposed more of the ham to direct heat, creating more of the crispy edges that I love in a griddled sandwich.
I’ve since replicated this method using different combinations of fillings, both savory (this is the tuna melt you’ve been waiting your whole life for) and sweet (bacon, Brie, and cherry jam in a vanilla custard will make pedestrian French toast look like a hot, steaming pile of garbage).
Experiment Four: Pocket Cheesecake
After I had opened my mind—and my heart—to different dimensionalities in bagel-slicing, I asked myself: What if I disassembled a bagel only to reassemble it again?
It would most certainly cease to be a bagel as I knew it, but what new sort of creature would it become? And, as I was now disrupting the entire identity of bagels, what else could I do to make the people of the internet really, really angry? This was the question that led to the aha moment I was looking for.
I should—nay, must—put the bagel in an Instant Pot. For science.
Egg proteins would make the ideal adhesive with which to reconstruct the St. Louis–ed bagel, but I was not interested in an avante-garde breakfast sandwich, nor did I want a simple replication of my custard experiment. To go forward, I decided, I must look backwards: The cream cheese schmear, when whipped with eggs, would become cheesecake.
I chose to go sweet by adding powdered sugar and vanilla, because leaning toward a savory cheesecake would have just been too damn much for my warped brain to process. You must always take baby steps, even when climbing to greatness.
I poured a cup of water into the bottom of my Instant Pot, then sliced the bagel into eight St. Louis pieces and dredged each in a thick egg-and-cream-cheese batter till well coated. I carefully reassembled the pieces in a foil pouch, gently scrunching the foil up a bit around the bagel to make sure it didn’t flop apart.
After setting the reassembled bagel above the water in a steamer insert, I ran the pressure-cooker function for five minutes on high pressure. I let the steam naturally release for another five minutes before releasing the pressure valve, then whisked my bagel (?) into the fridge for 30 minutes to allow it to cool and set.
Was it incredible? The jury's out on that. I'm just proud I went there. I don't always do things because I should; I do them because I can. And you can, too—starting with the St. Louis bagel.