Skilled Home Baker Teaches Bagel Appreciation 101

Monday, March 9, 2015

When we moved to Rockridge from the suburbs of Detroit almost four years ago, we realized we had landed in a walkable food heaven.

But one notable exception flew in our faces every Sunday morning - bagels, though available, weren't what we were used to. They weren't rolled by hand, boiled with honey, baked on the spot, and of moderate size.

As a child growing up in Detroit, I remember accompanying my dad to the Detroit Bagel Factory every Sunday morning, where the tantalizing smells of baking bagels wafted over us as we waited our turn in the long, snake-like line.

Detroit Bagel moved to the suburbs, as did my husband and I. And our Sunday bagel runs and the smells and the lines remained constant as we raised our family and as empty-nesters.

So when Beauty's Bagels opened on Telegraph and 38th in the fall of 2012, producing crusty, right-sized bagels from a wood-fired oven within walking distance of our house, our move to Rockridge seemed complete.

Still, we were intrigued when we learned about, then attended Laurie Lieber's "Bake Your Own (Amazing) Bagels" class, right here in Rockridge.

Lieber has an engaging manner, a way with words and a mission - although very part-time - to teach people how to make their own authentic bagels. Her real job, since retiring from public health advocacy, is teaching Pilates in her backyard studio.

"I've been a life-long baker," she told my husband and me as we awaited Flora Feldman, from Crocker Highlands, and Susan Paul, who lives near Lake Merritt. They had also signed up for the class, maybe smaller than usual since it was Super Bowl Sunday.

Lieber, who grew up in Danville, remembers her grandmother visiting from Pittsburgh each winter. "My grandmother was quite a baker. She'd stay six weeks and bake the whole time." Plus, "I defended myself from four brothers by baking," she said.

Her specialty became artisanal breads. "I'd always have a loaf just out in the kitchen." Many of the recipes came from the "Breads from the La Brea Bakery" cookbook by Nancy Silverton. "Then I got turned on to her recipe for bagels."
Once Lieber had adapted it successfully, she had no thought of selling them - or even giving a class. But a couple of years ago, she invited the hospitality committee she heads at Temple Sinai to her house. "I thought we should have some fun. We work hard, we should celebrate. We should make bagels together."

They enjoyed it so much that someone suggested she give regular classes. And, "I found out that I really liked to teach. I realized I wanted to have everyone be able to make bagels themselves."
Lieber is talented enough, in my mind, to be on one of the cooking networks. Here's a taste of her easy, gracious schtick as she sought to pass her skills on to us:

"One of the main reasons these taste so good is because the process is slow. They (bagels) happen over a three-day period.
"I don't describe my bagels as sourdough [although she creates them from a sourdough starter] because people expect them to taste like San Francisco sourdough.
"I always have access to extra starter. You have lifelong access to starter because you took this class.
"I'll get up in the morning and while I'm having my breakfast, I'll make a batch of bagels.
"I tend to approach baking like a chemist because I am a control freak.
"These are my bagels and once you take them home, you can make them yours.
"Bagels are like preschoolers; they need to rest.
"Wash your hands [as we were about to knead the dough]. We're about to get up close and personal.
"You should knead until you no longer have any frustrations.
"There's something about a hand-shaped bagel.
"Not all of my students graduate. It's a labor intensive thing."
"For many people my class is really a bagel appreciation class," Lieber said. "A lot won't make their own." And, in fact, Feldman told us: "I've been here before. I'm remedial." And Paul said: "I'm here for the experience."

We, too, have yet to use the starter and recipe Lieber sent home with us. But we headed home in time for Super Bowl half-time armed with a few bagels we helped make in class as well as four raw circles of dough that we had learned how to roll and hand-shape (around our actual hands).

We ate the fresh bagels immediately. And, the next day, my husband boiled the others in honey water, as Lieber had taught us, then topped them before baking with her favorite combo of poppy seed, fennel, sesame seed and kosher salt. A decided yum on both accounts.

Lieber, who has anthropology and public health degrees from Cal Berkeley, and her husband, Phillip Rubin, met on the first floor of the building where both worked in downtown Oakland. They have lived in Rockridge almost 30 years. Rubin walks to his office on College Avenue, from which he sells computer software to law firms. "He's a peddler; I'm a meddler," Lieber said with a smile. They have two adult children, Sarah and Jacob, both of whom live in Oakland.

Sylvie Mwila Jonath, who lives in Rockridge, signed up for the class after receiving Lieber's announcement on her neighborhood listserv. The two didn't know one another. "It was wonderful," Jonath told me. "You could see she's got the passion for it and was very thorough."

No, Jonath hasn't yet made bagels at home, but plans to take the workshop again "for the fun of it. I'm originally from the Congo. I could probably introduce bagels there."

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