Growing up, my family took regular road trips to Montreal to visit grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. My dad's first stop as we pulled into the city was always a bakery. He'd pick up a few dozen hot-out-of-the-oven Montreal-style bagels and some karnatzel. We'd bite into our sesame or poppy seed rings without ever thinking about schmearing them with anything. They were fresh and sweet, chewy and crispy. It took years for me to realize not everyone knew what Montreal bagels were. Most people were only familiar with the New York version—or worse, the doughy gut bombs sold at the grocery store.
Since moving to Colorado, I've often craved Montreal’s sweeter, smaller versions. I've finally found a reasonable facsimile with Fatima Hirji's Small Batch Bagels, which launched in Boulder last October. Hirji has no baking background; she is actually an architect. It was while studying at Concordia University that the Vancouver native stumbled upon one of Montreal's yummiest exports. "I had never tasted anything like that," she says.
After tiring of lugging dozens of bagels back from her trips, Hirji decided to try her hand at making them herself. She apprenticed at Udi's Louisville bakery for a few months to learn the basics of bread making. Then she dissected the bagel like a scientist, experimenting with different combinations of the basic ingredients—flour, sugar, malt, eggs, oil, yeast, and water—for a year until she landed on a version comparable to the Montreal icon.
Hirji's rings stay true to the tradition with hand-rolled dough (which contains no salt) that is boiled in honey water. True Montreal bagels are backed in a wood-fired oven; Hirji is currently making hers in flame-fired gas oven. In Montreal, you typically only have the option of sesame or poppy seed (and sometimes plain). Hirji offers those flavors but has added additional choices to appease the American palate, including a rosemary-sea salt, though the salt sits on top of the dough rather than being rolled into it.
Fresh Montreal bagels are equally good plain, topped with cream cheese, or used as a blank canvas (they're small enough to load up with eggs or cheese without becoming too filling). Give them a try and let us know what you think.
Buy them: Hirji sells her bagels at a pop-up inside the Cherry Creek Whole Foods on Friday and Saturday mornings, as well as online. They're also featured in the pastry basket during Root Down's brunch. (Chef Daniel Asher grew up, in part, in Montreal.) Look for a new bagel and lox dish to hit the restaurant's brunch menu soon. In addition, Hirji hopes to open a retail shop in 2014—I can hardly wait.
More bagel news: A couple weeks ago we reported that Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen will open in Five Points. More bagels (these are decidedly New York-style) to go around.
—Image courtesy of Small Batch Bagels
Follow associate editor Daliah Singer on Twitter at @daliahsinger.