This blog will be short, simple and tasty. Yes, food is not the be-all-and-end-all in the scheme of world peace, but a great melt-in-your-mouth cheese bagel can do wonders for your mood and others’ outlook as well.
And this week we’re sharing what may be at least in St. Louis the most iconic bagel-related treat, comparable to the also locally concocted toasted ravioli, and St. Louis’ contribution to best food inventions, along with New York’s black and white cookies and Chicago’s deep-dish pizza.
We were told the cheese bagel was the exclusive domain of a certain St. Louis country club chef with a floppy white hat. We thought he would never reveal the recipe, which was served at casual brunches and quite fancy dinners and even glamorous weddings and anniversary fetes.
But add in a little boldness from one intrepid reporter and lo and behold Margaret “pried” the recipe from him. It didn’t take much effort. On a recent visit, she simply asked and was delighted when he verbally relayed the recipe. (An aside: there's now a gluten-free option.) Margaret took it all in mentally and couldn’t wait to get home to write it down and soon try it out.
The ingredient list is quite simple and consists of just three basics: fresh bagels, good unsalted butter and freshly-grated parmesan cheese—not the stuff in the green can. The results come together almost without effort to produce these golden colored, richly flavored slivers of Nirvana. Full confession: they can be quite addictive. Like potato chips or peanuts, you can never eat just one. The toughest part may be slicing them ever so thinly without slicing off your finger or hand with a very sharp knife.
How long have these cheese bagels been a part of our food history? For decades at least. Barbara first tasted them during her first visit to St. Louis as a child and then decades later when she moved there. Margaret had her first taste when, as a teenager, she went to said country club as a guest of her best childhood friend’s family. We loved that a basket of them was always served before each meal with the warm bagels snuggled in a white napkin to absorb the drippings--butter and cheese that always seemed to ooze. Passed around a table with diners usually taking at least two if not three, they were almost worth the price of admission to the club to munch them on a regular basis. Usually another basket was delivered before the end of the meal with the only remains the grease stains. To leave any uneaten was almost tantamount to a crime.
Now, as guests of members we must wait to be invited and hope that the bagels will still be front and center at the beginning of a meal, not upstaged by tony warm French croissants or the best soft or hard handcrafted rolls.
Margaret’s most recent invitation to the club for a birthday party inspired her boldness in seeking the recipe. She was determined since she didn’t know when she would next return. As they were passed around, she rhapsodized gleefully to her fellow diners about them as they arrived, and she admits it was obscene how many she masticated.
And this got her thinking: why deprive herself—and Barbara—of this indulgence when not there. She also knew Barbara had made a list of her friends who are members whom she planned to beg for an invite before a next visit. Decent cooks, we decided it couldn’t be that difficult to make them ourselves; we had tried far harder replications—croissants served at such NYC bakeries as Brooklyn-based Bien Cuit, béarnaise sauce like that served in the finest French restaurants and homemade chocolate chip cookies that eclipse any made by Tate’s or those from Winslow’s Home, a St. Louis eatery, which received national acclaim in a food and wine magazine. So, Margaret took charge, played around with the ingredient amounts and sharpened her knives. She produced, she says quite immodestly, a doppelganger.
Instead of cutting the bagels quite thin, Margaret walked to her local delicatessen and asked the proprietor to slice one on his meat slicer. If you don’t have the luxury of living in proximity to a deli, she advises using a very sharp knife. (You can use any kind of bagel from whole grain, rye and oatmeal to sesame, poppy seed, onion or everything.) We are purists and felt plain would work best. Margaret’s first effort hit the mark perfectly. Encore!
Here’s the rest of the drill:
Set oven to 350 degrees
Slice a plain bagel paper thin so you get about five slices for each bagel
Grate a wedge of fresh parmesan cheese
Melt 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter
How to make them:
Put sliced bagels on a cookie sheet (crust side up if there is crust)
Brush melted butter on one side
Toast it in a preheated oven for 10 minutes
Take it out, flip on the other side, brush melted butter on that side, and toast for another 8-10 minutes. Check periodically to make sure they don’t over cook.
Take it out and generously pile on the grated parmesan
Toast until the cheese is bubbling--for another 3 minutes. Be vigilant. Watch each bagel slice to make sure they don’t burn. If you like a little brown crust, turn on the broiler for less than 30 seconds
Imbibe while they’re hot.
Of course, you can change it up. If you want to get creative, add garlic, a different kind of cheese, prosciutto and on and on. We opt for the original recipe. And if you serve them to guests, who undoubtedly will “ooh” and “ahh,” and maybe even comment that they taste just like those cheese bagels made at a certain country club-- just smile and don’t tell them how easy it was to do.