The re-opening of Smorgasburg has brought a dizzying array of new vendors selling food products you didn't know you wanted: Teriyaki balls! Chicken burgers! Bite-size cheesecakes! Amid them all, it's great to discover a vendor offering something that we really need: great bagels made by a top-flight baker.
Growing up in Central Pennsylvania, Melissa Weller didn't see a bagel until she was a teenager, and that was a Lender's from the freezer case. In college, she was introduced to blueberry bagels. (The experience still makes her shudder.) Then she became a baker, moved to New York, discovered real bagels, and took over the bread ovens at Per Se. She baked bagels for staff meals, and they became so popular that the chef began making matzo ball soup and egg salad to fill out the New York Jewish deli experience. From there, she went to Roberta's to build its (bagel-less) bread program. She left Roberta's earlier this year to found East River Bread, starting with just one product.
"I wanted to do something that I love, that's fun, and a little different."
Melissa's bagels are different from the rest of the New York bagel pack in a couple of crucial ways. Unlike most city bagels, hers are relatively small, usually weighing in at three or four ounces. Most bagels are made with simple yeast starters; Melissa uses a sourdough starter that adds a touch of sour flavor and gives the finished product some extra chew. Finally, she wasn't content with the traditional ways of flavoring a bagel, but we'll get to that in a bit.
The plain ($2) East River bagel is an orangeish torus with a chewy crust dotted with occasional blisters (like a classic sourdough). Inside, the crumb has more structure and a lot more flavor than the average fluffy New York bagel. To fill it, Melissa also makes salted butter and an excellent cultured cream cheese ($6 for 4 oz. jar) made from whole milk, cream, buttermilk, sea salt, and rennet. Slice one of these bagels, smear it with cream cheese, add good smoked salmon, and you've made the New York classic, only better.
Of Melissa's flavored bagels, only the sesame is relatively straightforward—a plain covered with sesame seeds. She wasn't happy with the dried onion and garlic flakes that most bakers use, so she began chopping and cooking her own onions. She puts the onions not on the outside of her onion bagels but inside, giving them a mild, slightly sweet onion flavor. Her everything bagel is coated with everything but the onion: sesame, caraway, poppy, and fennel seeds and salt. It's equally good with jam as a savory filling. Finally, she's probably the only city baker to add rye flour to a pumpernickel everything bagel, which gives it a slightly softer texture than her other bagels.
Melissa now bakes at Hot Bread Kitchen's East Harlem incubator. However, she's looking for Brooklyn oven space and plans to add to her line-up regular loaves, starting with a rye. I hope she opens a retail bakery, because I can't wait to get her bagels fresh from the oven.