Laurel Kratochvila is the owner of Fine Bagels since 2013. It is a bagel bakery in a bookstore in the Friedrichshain neighborhood of Berlin. The bagels are an homage to the old Yiddish bakeries of New York and the coffee is strictly Melbourne.
An American living in Germany, Kratochvila traveled for a few years after graduating with a degree in physics. She accidentally fell into a job at a bookstore and started baking bagels for its cafe because good bagels in Berlin were few and far between.
What makes a bagel a bagel and not a roll?
A bagel is a totally different beast. Not only does it have the chewy skin you can only get from boiling, it’s got a hole in the middle. Rolls are too practical to have holes. Bagels keep you on your toes.
Can you give us a brief history of bagels?
I’m paraphrasing, probably badly, from the ultimate treatise on bagels, The Bagel by Maria Balinska, but here goes: Bagels might have started anywhere, but definitely the modern origins are in Jewish Poland, where you’ll still find twisted bagel-like rolls with holes, but these were very different from what we know now as bagels.
With the waves of Jewish immigration to the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries, Yiddish bakeries sprung up, particularly on the East Coast and New York City. Bagels took hold there in basement-level bakery hell holes, or so I hear, and over the course of the 20th century transitioned from being a purely ethnic food to a real American food.
This was helped by the mass production and distribution of frozen bagels by Lenders, and by the time we got to the ‘90s, there were bagels everywhere. These bagels were a far departure from their dense and chewy Ellis-Island-admitted ancestors and had turned into, as the master baker Mike from Rosenfeld’s (best bagels in Boston) says, “Big sweet hamburger buns.”
I think Mike has a point. Currently, however, there is a big resurgence of small bagel bakeries making a positive regression to the quality and style of yore.
What made you decide to start making bagels?
I decided to start making bagels after I’d been living in Europe for long enough that I’d forgotten the taste of a good bagel. It was a treat to cheer up my best friend. I’ve always baked so I just played around with some recipes, adjusted for the German bread flour, and 24 hours later couldn’t believe my luck. They were delicious.
After we’d had our way with the hot bagels, I put the remainder on sale in the bookstore and they sold. I made them again, they sold. And so on. It occurred to me to start doing this as a regular gig.
What is your emotional attachment to bagels?
Emotional attachment? I mean, I’m certainly an emotional eater. But I’d say my attachment to bagels is sentimental. I’m always up for some heavy nostalgia, and a good bagel and cream cheese makes me think of going to my Nana’s house before school.
She had me trained to make an instant coffee with sweet ‘n’ low for both her and my grandfather and meanwhile, she’d be preparing him a whole bagel and toffutti (lactose intolerance couldn’t stop a good bagel and schmear, even in 1990) and a half a bagel for herself and the other half a bagel for me.
This continued until I convinced her to get me those Eggo waffles I’d seen on television that my mom wouldn’t let me have. But the point is that specific foods bring you back to a certain place and time, right? And this becomes all the more important when you live across an ocean from wherever it is that you grew up.
What makes a great bagel?
You can make a great bagel whether you hand-kneed or machine mix, but you need to have a nice hot oven. Ingredients you have to keep on hand: flour, yeast, salt, barley malt, water.
I’d say the most important part of a good bagel is:
Definitely the crust. Or skin? Is it a skin or a crust on a bagel? Either way, it shouldn’t be too tough but it shouldn’t be too soft. Hard to put into words something so visceral.
If I want to be a bagel connoisseur, what should my standards be?
See, I’d actually say only eat good bagels. Bagels baked on-site from wherever you’re going to buy them. If you can eat a fresh bagel, that’s obviously the best. No toasting necessary, melty cream cheese. Wonderful. But my own habit, even with my own bakery, is to bring a bag home and keep ‘em in the freezer until I’m ready to eat them. Defrost for a half hour and throw them in an oven until soft. Never eat a bagel that came from a package or a supermarket.
What do you say to people who are skipping bagels because they are afraid of carbohydrates?
I’d say that you’re missing out and life is but so long. And I don’t mean to take it lightly, food issues are a real struggle. Still, I think there are much worse offenders like processed packaged food.
If I want to try to make bagels at home, what advice do you have for me?
I’d say that the most important thing you need is the right ingredients, particularly a good strong bread flour.
What kind of emotional atmosphere do you create at Fine Bagels in Berlin?
I think we try to create a welcoming atmosphere, both for locals and visitors alike. Somewhere that you can feel like a regular and have a little check-in while you wait for your coffee. Unintentionally, I think we’ve also created a really cute-sy atmosphere for serial Tinder daters.
What are your favorite bagel shops around the world?
I’ve really just got one. I’m utterly and completely devoted to Rosenfeld’s in Newton Center, Massachusetts. Forever and always.
What is it that keeps you motivated and excited to do this work?
Baking is a job that satisfies my creativity in a way I didn’t think I’d ever really feel from a job. At the same time, managing the business satisfies my intellect and need to be challenged. And it’s really fun.
What books would you recommend for men and women who want more resources on making bagels?
The best book I can recommend is Inside the Jewish Bakery by Stanley Ginsberg and Norman Berg. Their recipes are all thorough, accurate, and really work. On top of that, they offer concise but well-researched histories and stories about all the breads and sweets in the book, including bagels.
For anyone interested in knowing specifically about the history of bagels, the Maria Balinska book The Bagel is the best resource.