Opinion

Bagels Have a Hole Lot to Learn From English Muffins

The architecture is just plain wrong.

Photo by Marty Umans

In high school I worked at a pizzeria called Capriccio in Croton-on-Hudson, one of those hamlet towns in Westchester, New York. It established my benchmarks for what makes a good slice: thin and airy with a well-cooked crust; sufficiently sauced, but not too thick a layer that the slick of sweet, slightly acidic tomato impedes the cheese from adhering to the dough. It’s a simple set of dictums from a reputable source.

Be it myth or legend, most New Yorkers believe the city’s pizzas and bagels are superior because of the soft water. The majority of that water comes from the New Croton Dam—the thing my hometown is most famous for—which, upon completion in 1906, was the tallest dam in the world, and the third largest hand-hewn structure after the Pyramid of Giza and the Great Wall of China. Holding nearly 20 billion gallons of water amongst 1 million cubic yards of masonry, it’s quite a feat to behold. I grew up sledding the snowy banks by Croton Gorge Park, set downstream from the spillway where the flowing waters burble by.

Photo © Marty Umans

In those days, I’d often come home hungry from an afterschool shift at the pizzeria and attempt to replicate what I’d seen at work. Only, rather than stretching out my own dough from scratch, I’d use something we always had on hand: bagels. But without fail, every time, I’d watch in defeat as the heaping hot mess of sauce and cheese breached the center of my pizza bagel, pooling on the tinfoil beneath and burning.

I now live in Brooklyn, New York, arguably the epicenter of contemporary pizza culture with the impenetrable Lucali mere blocks from my apartment. I make my own dough at home with high hydrations and long fermentations. I even built a wood-fire oven in northern Michigan where I vacation every summer. All year round, I think about what kinds of pies I’ll bake. This past summer was the first in a decade and a half that I didn’t go up north, and for good reason: My son was born.

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“I remember making English muffin pizzas when I was young, actually, but they came from a familiar package. Since I don’t live anywhere near NY state, how about their sourdough muffin recipe? ”
— Alison
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One night, while at home trying to feed my new nuclear family of three in a pinch, I reached for a leftover bagel to make into pizza.

What began as an angsty teenage dogma has carried over into adulthood: Bagels aren’t an ideal medium for pizza. The architecture is just plain wrong: Despite being the requisite crispy and chewy at the same time, that gaping hole in the middle is just waiting to be filled with collapsed sauce and cheese. It’s easy to succumb to the hypnotic Bagel Bites jingle, but even with such an enduring earworm, I mustn't misstep back into my misguided attempts at pizza construction.

When I was younger, the Croton Historical Society sold a T-shirt I always wanted but never owned. It was a deep navy blue cotton tee with a chunky white-line drawing of the Croton Dam, and this marquee: “Croton Is a Dam Town.” Before my son was born, I searched on Etsy to see if I could find a vintage one for him, but the keywords “Croton” and “Dam” instead led me to a baked goods company selling four-packs of griddled breads under the name Dam Good English Muffins. As a blob of molten mozzarella escaped onto the paper towel plate I was eating from, this seemed too synchronous not to explore.

What began as a pet project for Denise and Ross Weale, selling English muffins at the farmers markets in Pleasantville and Peekskill has since turned into a booming business. “My husband loves a double entendre,” says Denise, reinforcing that Dam Good English Muffins dually denotes, “where we live, and what we do for a living.”

The English muffins are sourdough-started, lending a distinguishing tang far tastier than the faintly flavored, under-baked trait of most major brands. Hand-cut into squares, they come in four varieties: original white, whole wheat, vegan multigrain, and cinnamon swirl. I thought, “This must be a sign from the pizza gods to stop using bagels and start relying on a new underlying principle.”

They’re chewy, crispy, and most importantly, structurally sound. Pizza bagels be damned, I will teach my son the prowess of damn good English muffin pizza.

Photo by Michael Harlan Turkell

English Muffin Pizza

Serves 1

  • 1 English muffin, split in half
  • 1/4 cup crushed tomatoes
  • 4 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese
  • Flaky salt, to taste
  • Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste (optional)
  1. Preheat oven to 425°F.
  2. Place the English muffin, cut-side up, on a baking sheet. In the center of each half, put 2 tablespoons of sauce. Don’t spread it out; it will do so as it heats up.
  3. Place 2 ounces of cheese on either half, trying to keep it pseudo-centered; it will melt toward the edges, plus you want the edges of the English muffin to crisp up (as the "pizza" crust).
  4. Place the English muffin pizzas in the oven for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the edges are browned but not burnt, and the cheese is melted. If you want those excellent browned marks on top, pop it under the broiler for 20 to 30 seconds.
  5. Sprinkle salt on top to taste; chile flakes if you’d like. Let cool a little before biting into it—no one likes pizza palate (when your burn the hard roof of your mouth).

Support local businesses! Dam Good English Muffins are damn good.
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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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Host of Season 3 of Food52's Burnt Toast podcast! Photographer, writer, author of "ACID TRIP: Travels in the World of Vinegar"

5 Comments

Anne C. March 15, 2020
I normally shop online and then pickup my order whenever I designate a convenient time. By accident I ordered sesame bagel buns. What a happy accident! They taste like bagels with lots of my favourite seeds but are a rectangular shape, fit the toaster perfectly and are so easy to spread with desired ingredients or use as you have in your recipe in the oven. They are easy to pick up and get a good bite from. Now that’s all I ever order.
 
jpriddy March 15, 2020
A better use of half an English muffin? Well-drained baby shrimp with a bit of pepper, salsa, and mayo, and topped with a thin slice of cheddar, broiled. Toasting the split muffin first is optional.
 
Smaug March 4, 2020
People seem awfully willing to ignore the defining characteristics of a dish in making their own versions. No reason you shouldn't put sauce and cheese on an English muffin, but it's not pizza unless the yeast dough and toppings are cooked together. And it's not an English muffin if it's not cooked (on a griddle) in a ring. Tough luck for people who just want to try making them; a set of four rings will set you back about $5, and the old standby, the tuna can, is no longer viable because there's no longer a seam on the bottom where it can be removed- some imported things, such as water chestnuts, still come in old fashioned cans. Nevertheless, without a ring not only will they not rise as high (I've tested this with freeform vs. ringed muffins, weighing the dough exactly), and the edge won't cook correctly. Freeform muffins have a too thin and too crusty edge, making them difficult to split and prone to toasting unevenly. The notion of cooking a sheet of them and cutting into pieces solves some of that, though the extremely high moisture dough- as much batter as dough- is going to be awfully difficult to do it with, especially on a griddle, and the edge really won't be right. And they're just not the proper shape. The notion of trying to make a pizza on a bagel is weird anyway, but I suppose they're pretty ubiquitous in New York.
 
Alison March 4, 2020
A great idea! I remember making English muffin pizzas when I was young, actually, but they came from a familiar package. Since I don’t live anywhere near NY state, how about their sourdough muffin recipe?
 
So S. March 4, 2020
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