The quest for the perfect bagel

Four varieties of homemade bagels are offered at Common Roots Cafe: plain, poppyseed, sesame seed, and onion.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

Attorney Deborah Orenstein is just one of the many Twin Cities residents who takes her bagels seriously. When she left New York to head to the Midwest, she brought along a suitcase filled entirely with bagels. She knows a good bagel when she sees one.

"They taste really flavorful on their own, even without doing anything to them, even without putting something on them; it's like the difference between a bread from an artisan bakery and Wonderbread," Orenstein says.

Debbie Orenstein is a bagel-lover. She's had a hard time finding locally made New York-style bagels.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

Orenstein and her family have lived in Minnesota for 17 years now, trying one bagel chain shop after another, but nothing met her standards.

"Well, they have 'asiago feta linguine bagels'... I mean, I just think a bagel should be either plain, sesame, or poppy seed," says Orenstein. "Cinnamon raisin is pushing it, cinnamon sugar is just a sacrilege. It's not a candy, not a cake, not a muffin -- it's a bagel."

Danny Schwartzman, owner of Common Roots Cafe, saw the lack of bagel options in the area and decided to open a place that made bagels by hand on-site. He knew when he opened his shop that the bagels would get people in the door.

"I've had a number of people come in and ask me if it's a Montreal bagel or a New York bagel or a particular kind of bagel," he says.

Danny Schwartzman runs Common Roots Cafe. He hopes his restaurant is a neighborhood meeting place for different groups.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

Schwartzman is a community activist and was interested in community space. He wanted to open a cafe that could be a meeting place for people to learn and organize around different issues.

One of these issues is locally grown food, which the cafe prominently features in their menu. In addition to bagels, it has a variety of salads and soups.

"All kinds of people come into this space and we don't try and scream, 'buy local' at them," Schwartzman says. "We really want it to be a relaxed place. You can come in and get a bagel and not get a whole lot of message behind it."

Still, Schwartzman is happy when people ask him the story behind the purple potatoes he's serving or the wild rice or beets.

Baker Tanya Peterson kneads the bagel dough. She uses a "window pane" test to determine when the dough is ready.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

"For me, it's about thinking about where things are coming from and supporting people who are doing good things, for the environment, for the food supply, and for healthy local options," Schwartzman says.

The bagels at Common Roots Cafe are made with local ingredients -- organic flour from a mill in western Minnesota, organic malt powder from Wisconsin, and local honey. Cafe staff use Organic Valley cream cheese that they whip on site.

Schwartzman says many customers are surprised by the size of the bagels. They're smaller than most area bagels. He says though, Common Roots Cafe's bagels are dense and they are actually the same weight as the chain store bagels.

The bakery sits just behind the front counter. Bagel-making is a complicated process. In addition to getting the dough right, each bagel has to be boiled and then it has to be baked. Baker Tanya Peterson slices off chunks of dough and weighs them on a scale.

Uncooked bagels sit on a sheet. They will be topped with onion, poppyseed or sesame seeds.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

"This dough is very lean, there's no fat, hardly any sugar. It's also one of the driest doughs, one of the firmest doughs -- that's the reason that once I shape it ... it holds up in the poacher once we put it into that hot water," says Peterson. "Any other dough would just fall right apart."

The bagels are tough stuff, which is probably good since bagel critics themselves are so tough these days.

What does bagel maven Deborah Orenstein think of the bagels at Common Roots Cafe? She offered to take a taste test.

Common Roots
Common Roots Cafe is located at 26th and Lyndale in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

"Right now we have a plain bagel and an onion bagel," she says, eyeing them carefully.

"Just looking at them, they look a little odd. They're like the thin crust version of a bagel."

Cautiously she takes a bite, then pauses before delivering her verdict.

"Very chewy," she says.

"It doesn't taste bad, though I'd be curious to see... It tastes good, but it doesn't taste like a New York bagel, tastes almost like a bialy," says Orenstein.

Tanya Peterson pours a combination of flour, salt, yeast, and malt into the mixer.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

Orenstein applauds the cafe for trying. After 17 years, she's come to terms with not being able to start her day with the bagel of her New York childhood.

"You know you have different flavors associated with your life and bagels are part of the New York part," she says.

For Deborah Orenstein and many other local bagel-lovers, the quest for an "authentic" bagel continues.

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