Looking for authentic, crusty bagels? You gotta go to Bubbie’s Bagels in Traverse City.
When it comes to bagels, Sam Brickman doesn’t mess around. He’s got the recipe down to a science to achieve the bread’s signature texture—crisp on the outside and oh-so-soft on the inside.
It takes five days to make a batch. It’s a precise process of proofing times, hydration percentages and temperatures. On Day 1, Sam makes a pre-ferment (equal parts water and flour) and adds sourdough starter. The mixture gets nice and bubbly and starts to rise. Then it goes into the cooler overnight and hangs out there on Day 2. On Day 3, it goes into the mixer with all the other ingredients and becomes dough. It’s shaped and put back into the cooler where it stays on Day 4. Finally, on Day 5, the bagels (up to 1,200 a day) are boiled in a large kettle and then baked (and quickly devoured).
“Being Jewish, bagels are a part of my heritage,” Sam says. “I grew up in Detroit where there’s a big Jewish community and a ton of really good bagel shops. Every Sunday we would have bagels.”
Though Sam had eaten a lot of bagels, he didn’t actually bake a bagel until 2019. After a lot of trials (he keeps a bagel journal) and a summer slinging his boiled beauties at the Sara Hardy Farmers Market (and selling out every week), he opened Bubbie’s Bagels (1215 E. Front St., Traverse City) in February 2020.
While Sam is strict about bagel baking, he lets loose on cream cheese. His background as a chef at Fustini’s in Traverse City and sous chef at Gold Cash Gold Detroit shows in seasonal shmears such as pumpkin and gingersnap or the year-round favorite, jalapeño—which has pickled, roasted and fresh, raw peppers. The menu also features a rotating lineup of pastries—challah, rugelach, chocolate babka—a nod to his childhood and baking with his bubbie (Yiddish for grandmother).
“Whenever she was scooping flour or sugar, she would always level off the measuring cup with a knife,” Sam says. “If she was measuring flour, she would always sift it first. I could go on and on. All these things were Bubbie’s rules, and those were the things you had to do when you were baking with her.”
What makes a bagel “real”?
I think the biggest thing that separates a true bagel from a commercial bagel is the boiling process. Bagels, after they’re made and formed and proofed, go into a big kettle full of water and we put a little bit of barley malt in there, which is like a sweetener. They boil for about two minutes before we take them out and put them in the oven. What that does is it sets the crust because that hot water surrounds the bagel. Once it goes into the oven, the crust forms a lot quicker than it would on other bread.
A lot of commercial places like Big Apple or Einstein are putting their bagels into steam ovens to try and replicate that boiling process. They bake it in an environment that has a lot of moisture. You get a little bit of that same feeling on the crust, but it doesn’t compare to a boiled bagel.
Why barley malt?
Barley malt is an old-school thing. I believe during World War II sugar rationing, that barley malt was an alternative that people could get and afford, although it’s much more expensive than sugar today. It’s definitely got an interesting flavor profile—kind of more like brown sugar. It’s got a little bit more depth and character to it. I don’t know of a lot of other places, especially in this area, that are using anything like that. I’m sure all the bakeries in New York who are making bagels by hand are using it as well. It’s kind of a unique ingredient.
It’s a bitterly cold February morning; you need a bagel sandwich for sustenance—what are you putting on it?
The Nosh sandwich—bacon, egg and cheese. Man, it’s a big sandwich. We’ve got Louie’s bacon in there, which is nice thick-cut bacon. Two slices of Tillamook cheddar, which is, again, really thick sliced that we melt on the bagel. We make the egg kind of like a folded omelet, so it’s a scrambled egg we put in the pan and then fold it four times to get all these layers in it. It creates a big fat egg cake. Then on the bagel, we put a really light smear of scallion cream cheese just to get a little onion in there and a little extra meltiness.
And if you’re simply eating a bagel and cream cheese, no add-ons, what’s your go-to?
My lunch basically every day when I get home from the shop is a salt stick with scallion cream cheese.
Find more Northern Michigan local food stories in the February 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s magazine below; or subscribe and get Traverse delivered to your door each month.