In the popular imagination, a great bagel is defined less by its qualities than by its provenance. It’s a food strongly rooted in a sense of place—even if you’ve never been to New York or Montreal, your idea of a bagel is probably connected to one of those cities. Which makes the idea of a great North Carolina bagel that much more complicated.
At least, that was the case for Joshua Bellamy, co-founder of Benchwarmers Bagels in downtown Raleigh.
“I grew up down here,” he says. “Bagels were always just kind of an exotic thing that I never really connected with. The goal was, can I make a bagel that I connect with on a deep level? And can I make something that the kids who come in here would connect with on a deep level, so they might grow up remembering a place that I’ve missed out on?”
Along with his business partner, Sam Kirkpatrick, he decided to try.
The pair founded Boulted Bread—a bakery focused on high-quality bread and pastries made with fresh, local ingredients—with Fulton Forde in 2014. Benchwarmers, in partnership with Andrew Cash of Jubala Coffee, is their first new venture since. The bagel and coffee shop opened at Transfer Co. Food Hall in February.
To say it’s going well is an understatement. The first few weeks, they sold out of bagels around noon, despite making about a thousand a day. They offer bagel sandwiches (designed by chef John Knox, formerly of Vin Rouge), as well a variety of cream cheeses. The best seller so far is the everything bagel, but Bellamy hopes that will change.
He wants people to try the plain one.
Traditionally, bagels are a chewy, carb-y vehicle for other, more flavorful treats—a slather of cream cheese or a slice of lox, for example. But at Benchwarmers, they’re about the bread.
“There’s this ideal of a bagel in my brain that I probably haven’t ever tasted,” Bellamy says. “It’s a plain bagel, you know, with no seeds on it. No sea salt. But it’s so full of flavor, it stands alone. It doesn’t need those other things.”
To create a bagel like that, Bellamy had to revisit what he thought he knew about bagels—and throw out some things that he knew about bread, too.
“The first several batches I baked were just really bad,” he says. “Because I tried to outsmart it, you know, almost sneak up on it as a bread baker, rather than thinking about what an actual bagel is.” Early recipes featured a high-hydration dough like the dough used at Boulted. (In other words, a dough with a high water-to-flour ratio.) In bread, this creates a crispy crust and a pleasantly holey inside.
But for bagels? “[Bagels] get boiled,” Bellamy says. “That’s a big, violent act I’d forgotten about. I’d put the bagels into the kettle, and they’d just kind of fall apart.”
So he went back to a basic bagel formula of a low-to-medium hydration dough that’s boiled, then baked. Once he mastered that, he was ready to experiment again.
He put back the fresh flour, milled at Boulted Bread, which Bellamy says tastes fattier and creamier than standard flour. He added pre-fermented flour, which gives the yeast inside the bagels longer to develop a rich, bready flavor. For a hint of maltiness, he mixed in malted barley flour from Riverbend Malthouse in Asheville. He mixed in more water. He figured out a long fermentation schedule to tease out even more flavor from the dough.
He also started baking with fire.
“I didn’t actually believe that the wood-fired oven would make as much of a difference as it’s ended up making,” he says. “We’re baking at higher temperatures. Part of the airiness [of the bagels] is the result of that super robust and quick pop right when they hit that heat.”
The result of all this trial and error? A light, airy bagel with the perfect amount of chewiness, enough for you to savor that first bite without having to work equally hard on each successive one. And whether the credit goes to the fresh-milled flour or the long fermentation, it’s one of the most consistently tasty bagels you’ll find anywhere, even up North.
Bellamy isn’t done experimenting. He’s pushed the idea of highlighting the grains in flour further with a grits bagel, a concoction that uses three forms of Tuxpeño corn, which Bellamy describes as fatty and peanut-y in flavor. (“I’m going through a little bit of a midlife crisis of being really into corn right now,” he says, laughing.)
The corn shines through, but subtly. It’s milder than cornbread, with a soft, rounded flavor and only a little bit of corn’s sweetness. It’s coated with finely milled polenta, which adds a pleasingly coarse texture.
For Bellamy, the bagel comes close to being exactly what he set out to make—a bagel he feels connected to.
“I’m as stoked about it as a thing that I get to eat as I am about what it represents about the future of this place,” he says.
Related: See “Five Local Bagels We Love.” Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Except that a bagel is not supposed to be “airy.” The whole point of a bagel is that it’s supposed to be, as Leo Rosten once wrote in his book “The Joys of Yiddish”, “tough as a snow tire.” A true bagel is smallish (about 5″ in diameter), dense and bready, with a very slight crunch in the browned outside. Anything else may be a perfectly good bread, but it’s not a bagel
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