What It Took to Get a Bagel in 1980s Moscow

February  3, 2016

If you are moving to Moscow, especially in the waning years of the U.S.S.R., mid-December is probably not the best time to do so.

But I had no choice in the matter, since the person whom I was to replace was due to give birth any day, and someone decided that the office should not be vacant, regardless of the impending holidays.

Thus I arrived during the shortest days of the year to an extremely snowy and bleak landscape, and an empty office with no work to do. To occupy myself, I decided I’d attend whatever social events were being organized by the resident expat population, if only to give me something to do.

At one of these, I met a number of folks, mostly Americans, who took me under their wing to help me acclimate myself to my new surroundings. Unlike me, none of them spoke a word of Russian and, also unlike me, they enjoyed expatriate packages that allowed them to afford to buy whatever they wanted at the shops catering to the small colony of foreign businesspeople and large diplomatic community living in Moscow.

Photo by James Glucksman

But while these "dollar shops" (officially called beriozka, they took only hard currency—dollars, Deutschmarks, sterling, etc.—and were open exclusively to foreigners) sold all manner of exotic foods, mostly imported from Finland, one thing was markedly absent from the Soviet food landscape: bagels.

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And it seemed that it these were what my new friends missed the most.

Many of them were from New York City like me, and the preponderance were Jewish, too. Bagels were a part of our morning routines back home, and while most people will happily eat foreign foods at lunch or dinner, many want something a bit closer to home first thing in the morning.

Before moving to the U.S.S.R., it had never occurred to me to bake my own bagels—there was never any need. But if life in the Soviet Union would teach me anything, it was how to become self-reliant and learn to make just about everything on my own.

I had been an avid cook back home, known among my classmates in graduate school for bringing treats to the library to share during the weeks leading up to final exams. I had begun cooking in college, where my skills proved to be a great way to make friends. Moreover, I considered myself a connoisseur of the bagel genre: A bagel (always from a specialist bakery) and cream cheese was my lunch every school day through fifth grade.

So I decided I would try my hand at baking my own in my new Muscovite surroundings. In the late 1980s, there was no internet, and I hadn’t brought any cookbooks with me for what was meant to be a three-month stint in the Soviet capital. I was not without resources, however, including a bunch of Russian friends who were deft hands at baking and eager to help out their new American friend.

Before too long, I had found some basic recipes that seemed to have promise—some from Americans in Moscow with cookbooks, others from Russians who had baking experience and who were interested in exploring this American treat with me.

I had nothing much better to do to occupy my time than to test recipes, so I decided to devote some time to this task. Of course, buying ingredients in Soviet shops would have been a challenge, since yeast and flour were both defitsitny—items that were always in short supply and that could only be bought in small quantities, if at all, and then often only after queuing in the cold for long periods.

But I had an option beyond the Soviet shops, namely the free markets (accessible to anyone, but much more expensive than the state stores), where hard-to-find items like meat and fresh vegetables were for sale, albeit at “market” prices.

Luckily for me, these ingredients were not all that expensive, even at the free market, where I became a frequent visitor, picking up bags of flour and cakes of yeast, along with delicious Russian honey (why Russian honey is not better known outside the borders of the country is a mystery to me). Without any mechanical equipment, I kneaded all of these batches by hand, and since bagel dough is legendarily firm, I was giving myself quite a workout.

But none of my bagel-making forays yielded what I considered to be a satisfactory result. Nevertheless, my new friends were pleased with what I came up with, even if I was sure that I could do better.

After the initial three-month stint ended, I was told that I’d be staying on in Moscow, which meant I’d have to ship in some spring-weight clothing. But along with my clothing order from L.L. Bean and Lands’ End, I also placed an order for a KitchenAid mixer from some mail order shop to facilitate more bagel-baking experiments.

At the same time, my parents gave me a reprint of a 1940s-era book on Jewish cookery that contained a recipe for bagels, along with recipes for just about every other item of Jewish cuisine you could think of. Most of the recipes in that book are pretty reliable, but the bagel recipe left a lot to be desired, primarily because it sacrificed authenticity in favor of ingredients that were readily available in a post-war American kitchen.

Photo by Eric Moran

For years after leaving Moscow, I continued to tweak the recipe, especially after I moved to China, where bagels were even more exotic than they were in Russia. With the accessibility of the internet (albeit sporadically, and with certain limitations on what sites were available) came more and more bagel recipes. Whenever a new one appeared on my screen I would judge whether it was promising based on its list of ingredients and directions. No malt syrup? No boiling step? Butter added to the dough? Not worth the effort or the expense!

Eventually I came across a recipe from Bruce Ezzell on Michael Ruhlman’s blog that looked like it had the right stuff. The ingredients were similar to those in the recipes I had tried before, as were the instructions, but this one had the novel addition of a sponge at the beginning of the process. I knew this would give the bagels the slightly sour flavor that had been missing in my efforts thus far—perhaps the trick that I was missing.

Photo by Eric Moran

My first batch was very promising, but wasn’t quite what I was looking for. After countless iterations of this recipe, along with hours of poring over resources in books and online, I finally hit on what was missing: an element of sweetness in the boiling water! By using Bruce’s dough and adding a bit of honey to the water bath along with an egg wash prior to applying my toppings, I finally had it. Eureka!

I have baked this recipe with my tweaks dozens if not hundreds of times since, and it never disappoints. Paired with some cream cheese, a few slices of my home-smoked salmon, and red onions from the garden, it transports me immediately back to my hometown of New York, regardless of the fact that home for me is now on the South Island of New Zealand, another veritable bagel desert.

What hometown or childhood food would you miss the most during a stint abroad? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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1 Comment

Cristina S. February 3, 2016
A wonderful read, thank you. I just returned from New Zealand, where I spent the holidays/a honeymoon. I fell in love. I'm definitely bookmarking this recipe for a rainy day.