The Hole Story About Austin Bagels

Bagels are such a unique, distinctive class of bread that they deserve their own category. Visually, texturally, and fundamentally, they barely even resemble other yeasted staples. Every element is critical to the overall experience, from the glossy, chewy crust to the dense crumb inside. Few have successfully mastered the art of bagelry, and not just for lack of the alkaline water found in New York City.

Where can you get the best bagels?

Aside from making your own from scratch, access to quality options remains limited, especially outside of major cities. Sad to say, nothing found in the bread aisle of your local grocery store will ever measure up. Fortunately, it’s not a dying art- Quite the contrary. Out of nostalgia, cravings, and blind ambition, more and more young bakers across the country are throwing down the dough to make genuine bagels, and not some glorified ring-shaped dinner rolls.

NYC has the street cred, but not the monopoly on raw talent. Austin lays claim to five independent, local bagel makers. Plenty of restaurants and cafes are doing great things with sandwiched and schmeared creations, but I wanted to go straight to the source for this gustatory investigation. I’m talking about hunting down the very best bagel in town.

How can you judge the best bagel?

While every cafe worth their coffee beans offers a basic bagel, I went straight to the source, examining only those who bake their own bagels. For the sake of consistency, I compared only everything bagels, being the most popular variety across the board, without any toppings. Prices ranged from $1 – 4.50 apiece, making the very best of the batch an affordable luxury. Each is filling enough to make a solid breakfast, even without adornment, so I’d call that a bargain for a full meal. Here’s where your dollars are best spent.

Who bakes the best bagels from scratch in Austin?

  • Rosen’s Bagels is a relative newcomer to the world of commercial baking, beginning life a mere five years ago, but has quickly taken hold as the front runner in local cafes and grocery stores. If it wasn’t enough to get a dozen delivered straight to your door, they now have two shiny new brick-and-mortar locations that are perpetually buzzing with hungry carbivores. Founder Tom Rosen has a simple formula for success, and is simply doing it right. The dough goes through a 48 hour fermenting and rising process to develop complex flavors, enhanced by the traditional addition of subtly sweet malt powder. Best of all, the everything bagels are double-seeded, tossed in the signature seasoning mixture on both sides to ensure no bald spots. Top and bottom halves are full coated for a serious flavor punch.

  • Rockstar Bagels has been rising to the occasion since 2009 with their malt-boiled bagels that positively shine in the early morning light. They’re the first local bagel to grace my table since they’re available at Wheatsville a la carte for mere pocket change. These plump rings sport an elegantly lacquered finish with a topping that tends to skew heavier on sesame seeds, enhancing the nutty, toasted flavor. Maybe that’s why I find them more compelling once split and toasted than simply warmed. Bulk bin grocery store bagels have questionable quality, even if they’re locally made, so always go to their walk-up window for the best, freshest batches.

  • Wholy Bagel stands apart from the pack by proudly touting their New Jersey-style bagel, boasting a notably fluffier crumb with a cracklingly crisp exterior. The combination of textures is unique, coming together as an a fully satisfying experience in a slightly unconventional format. Don’t forget that everything is bigger in Texas; when you order a dozen, it’s not a Baker’s Dozen but a Wholy Texas Dozen; 14 bagels for the price of 12.

  • Nervous Charlie’s can certainly be anxiety-provoking if you’re not prepared to wait on line. Perpetually swamped with hungry carbivores, it’s nigh impossible to beat the crowds. Most people are drawn to the loaded bagel sandwiches for a hearty breakfast, brunch, or lunch, but the ungarnished bread base itself is quite a prize. Plump, thick, and dense, each substantial ring demonstrates mastery of the dough.

  • Casper Fermentables adds more nuance to the local bagel conversation with their sourdough Montreal-style offerings. A passion for probiotics defines their offerings that run the gamut from kombucha to kimchi. Once a humble farmers market stand, Casper is the latest homegrown success to set up a permanent outpost in the Sunset Valley neighborhood. Now you can enjoy an expanded menu of ready to eat sandwiches and pastries, but the bagels remain the top seller. Even my New York-born father was impressed by the golden brown and mildly tangy, thoroughly chewy rings.

Honorable Mentions

Anyone baking their own bagels deserves props for doing it the right way, rather than the easy way. Not all of them rank at the top of my list, but they’re still far and away better than anything else you’d find on store shelves.

  • Big City Bagels and Subs tends to fly below the radar, putting more emphasis on the sandwiches than the bread, but the main issue is just getting there in time. Bagels are liable to sell out early, the shop sometimes closes early, and I can never seem to hit the road early enough.
  • Swedish Hill offers deluxe (albeit not vegan) fixings for dine-in guests, but the solo bagels are fairly forgettable. Not enough toppings to be considered everything; more like a few things. It doesn’t feel worth the price of entry to me.

New York may have perfected the art of the bagel, but it no longer has the monopoly. There are plenty of great bagels down south in the Greater Austin Area and beyond.

Raising a Stink

Durian, the so-called “king of fruits,” is quite possibly the single most polarizing food known to man. The aroma is so distinctive that you’d identify it in a second, even on your first encounter. I’ll never forget my first time in Hawaii when I spotted one of those prickly, thorn-covered shells. Sussing out the smallest one in the pile, I bagged my prize and escorted it back to my room. Surely, the rumors were overblown; this didn’t seem too bad! There was a light funk but nothing unmanageable. I stashed it in the mini fridge and went about my day.

Later that evening, something was amiss. Had an animal gotten in and died in the walls? Had someone forgotten to take out the trash, full of dirty diapers, for a week? To my horror, as I approached my door, the smell got stronger, and stronger…

Yes, it was the durian.

What does durian taste like?

Some people love that ripe pungency but to me, it’s an obstacle to get through. My best explanation is to compare it to a mixture of rotting onions, moldy cheese, sweaty gym socks, and a porta potty at the end of a music festival. Pungent and assertive, it’s the reason why durian is banned from many public spaces in Southeast Asia.

The flavor of durian is considerably more mild, with subtly sweet notes that add a final note of confusion on the back end. Some call the texture custard-y because it’s creamy and rich, but the high fat content would put the average pudding to shame. The unctuousness makes it impossible for me to eat more than a few bites straight.

How can you cook with durian?

Durian will never be my favorite food. However, once I stopped trying to eat it like a dessert or a sweet snack as it is typically recommended, I started I see the appeal. Leveraging the allium flavor to lend greater depth to recipes where raw onion would be far too harsh, my first big breakthrough happened when I blended it into a bright, punchy pesto sauce.

Pureed to a silky smooth consistency, this also helps alleviate any textural challenges. Durian pesto pasta might sound a bit crazy, and maybe it is, but it’s also delicious.

My greatest success came in the form of crispy durian rangoons. Chopped enoki mushrooms lend the filling a chewy seafood-like texture to take the place of crab meat, while durian brings in that creamy, gooey decadence typically conveyed by cream cheese. This killer app could help ease durian-haters back into the fold. No one can resist a deep-fried wonton, especially with a beer or two.

Fresh durian is not cheap, and a little bit goes a long way, so I’d suggest blending the whole thing and freezing it in ice cube trays for future use. That way you can pop out a cube or two whenever you’d like, which will prevent spoilage and cut down on that oppressive aroma. It only gets more intense as the fruit sits out at room temperature. Consider yourself warned!

Try incorporating durian puree into a wide variety of dishes, such as:

Don’t be afraid to play around with it! Love it or hate it, you’ll never forget your first durian.

Continue reading “Raising a Stink”

Koftaesque

Some would describe kofta as the naturally vegetarian equivalent to meatballs, but that’s like calling a croissant a dinner roll. While there may be some common thread between the two, such a statement really misses the mark. Some kofta are actual meatballs, made of beef or lamb, appearing in the Middle East and Southeast Asia in myriad dishes. When we’re talking about malai kofta, however, these balls are more closely related to a fried potato dumpling, if you needed to make comparisons.

Though firmly categorized as restaurant food or a dish for special occasions, there’s no reason why you can’t take matters into your own hands. In fact, it’s necessary given that the name itself, malai, implies vast amounts of heavy cream, creating the rich curried sauce it’s best known for. Let’s not forget that it takes more than just pure potatoes to make a compelling kofta; namely, paneer adds subtly salty, cheesy taste, along with an extra dose of dairy.

As a fledgling food lover and young vegan, such delicacies tortured me to no end. Proudly offered as the height of meatless Indian cuisine, I could only wonder what I was missing while digging into my trustworthy order of masoor dal. The fact that it was just out of reach, vegetarian but not vegan, only added to the allure.

Making vegan malai kofta is a snap!

  • A simple swap would be to replace the heavy cream with coconut milk in most conventional recipes. Personally, I prefer to make cashew cream, blending in some of the aromatics to create a consistent, natural harmony throughout the sauce.
  • Tofu, the ultimate chameleon of the plant-based pantry, provides a seamless substitute for paneer while enhancing the nutritional profile overall. Down with cholesterol and up with protein!
  • Ghee, AKA clarified butter, is often a signifier of wealth and luxury, but coconut oil provides all the same decadence. In truth, you could use any neutral oil such as avocado oil, rice bran oil, or grapeseed oil, and no one would be the wiser.

As with all of Indian cuisine, there’s plenty of room for interpretation with malai kofta.

Best known for having a luscious, silky sauce infused with subtly sweet spices and a savory tomato base, this version is considered Punjabi, drawing influence from neighboring Pakistan in true melting pot fashion. Glowing orange from the mixture of cream and tomatoes simmered together over low and slow heat, this is the malai kofta most people would expect to see.

Lesser known is the Mughlai version, comparatively colorless with a mild and subtly, naturally sweet white gravy. Raw cashews are a considerable component in the original version, making the transition over to a fully vegan cream sauce an easy task. Brilliantly seasoned without being overtly spicy, it’s a delicate balance of flavors that could genuinely pair well with anything. This is where the Sugimoto shiitake powder really shines, tempered along with the other spices to bloom with a depth of umami flavor.

Palak kofta, an unofficial variant, is a painless solution for eating your daily recommended allowance of greens. Spinach is the headliner, but the flavor comes from equally verdant fresh cilantro and mint. I like to simmer this one lightly to retain the bright green color, rather than turning up the heat to a full boil, quickly transforming the dish into a rather swampy concoction.

If malai kofta are dumplings, personally, I expect a filling

Granted, it’s less common and certainly not mandatory for a properly seasoned kofta, crispy on the outside and buttery on the inside, like a luscious bite of fried mashed potatoes, but I love the idea of adding a tiny little hidden morsel in the middle. Finely chopped donko shiitake caps and stems lend an impossibly meaty bite, while a scant measure of raisins contribute a sweetness so faint, so delicate, that you’d never pinpoint the source if no one told you. Yes, you can omit the raisins, and the filling entirely if must, but try it as written at least once. You might be pleasantly surprised if you’re open to the experience.

Restaurant-style malai kofta is an absurdly decadent entree, reserved only for special occasions. On the other hand, this homemade vegan version, enhanced with Sugimoto shiitake, makes any day seem like a special occasion.

Continue reading “Koftaesque”

Compound Interest

You can’t live in Austin without developing a taste for queso. I do believe that at a certain point in your residency, if you don’t profess your undying love for the gooey cheese dip, the authorities will come and escort you out. Queso is a Tex-Mex staple that’s as abundant as the bats under Congress Bridge. It’s the glue holding together every menu, sometimes literally, as a stand-alone appetizer, side dish, and topping. Given the opportunity, I have no doubt that it would be blended into frosty margaritas, too.

All you need is liquid cheese with a bit of spice to have a passable queso dip. When you’re ready to take it to the next level, consider stepping up your game with Queso Compuesto.

Compuesto translates as “compound,” which means “made up or consisting of two or more existing parts or elements.” As such, queso is still the main attraction, but now you have a dollop of guacamole, pico de gallo, and sour cream in the same dish. Go all the way and hide a layer of cooked taco meat at the bottom, and you can basically call that a balanced meal.

How do you serve Queso Compuesto?

  • Queso is always a stellar party starter, served as an appetizer with thick, crunchy tortilla chips.
    • Pro tip: Warm the chips first to make them seem freshly fried and extra crispy. Just spread them out on a sheet pan and bake at 350 degrees for 5 – 6 minutes, until warm to the touch. Transfer the chips to a bowl so no one burns themselves on the hot pan.
  • Ladle or spread queso over tacos, inside burritos before wrapping, or use as instant quesadilla filling.

What are some tasty variations on Queso Compuesto?

  • Mix and match your favorite components to make this queso your own. Don’t like sour cream but love extra avocado on everything? Double up the guac and ditch the crema.
  • When you’re in a rush, there’s no shame in taking shortcuts. Use prepared guacamole, pico de gallo, and sour cream. Heck, you can even use ready-made vegan queso, if you just want to use this idea as a template to color by numbers.
  • Instead of meatless taco-seasoned grounds, stick with more whole foods like black beans or refried pinto beans for protein.
  • Switch out the pico de gallo for any other salsa, hot or mild, red or green, smooth or chunky.

What can you do with leftover Queso Compuesto?

This is definitely a party-sized serving, so if you want to have a fiesta for one or two, don’t worry about the extra going to waste. It’s an incredibly versatile addition to…

  • Pasta bakes
  • Pizza
  • Chili
  • Baked potatoes

Alternately, you could always divide the components into single servings. This is a great approach for portion control, planned leftovers, and simply preventing anyone from hogging the dish!

Some people still refer to this as “Bob Armstrong Dip,” attributing the creation to the former Texas land commissioner who allegedly asked for something different, off the menu, at Matt’s El Rancho in Austin, Texas. I think you can confidently name this one after yourself for improving upon the concept by making it far healthier, vegan, gluten-free, and even more flavorful.

Continue reading “Compound Interest”