Noe Valley Voice May 2003

Are We There Yet? Stalking the Wild Bagel

By Janis Cooke Newman

"Let me introduce you to my friend Lactobacillus sanfranciscans," says Sarah Klein, our instructor. She holds up a Tupperware container filled with something that looks like a cross between oatmeal and wet cement.

"Go ahead, smell it," she says, waving the Tupperware beneath the noses of the parents and kids seated around her.

Lactobacillus sanfranciscans smells like wine and bread, which is not surprising, as it is a fermented yeast-and-bacteria culture found only in San Francisco--the reason San Francisco sourdough tastes sour and isn't a leaden disk the shape of a Frisbee.

"This is what we call a 'starter,'" explains Klein, as she spoons tablespoons of Lactobacillus sanfranciscans into plastic soda cups. "It's a natural leavener."

She passes out cups to each of the eight kids in the room. "Don't forget that this is a living organism," she tells them. "So you have to remember to feed it."

My 8-year-old son looks at the oatmealy stuff in his cup with skepticism.

The families sniffing dough here in Crissy Field Center's meeting room have come to learn how to make bagels, or as Klein calls them, 'water doughnuts.' This class is one of many the center offers on weekends--classes that run the gamut from Ukrainian egg painting to Taiko drumming. According to the center's brochure, the programs are designed to help people "engage with their environment"--although after signing up for this one, I did wonder how anyone was going to find an environmental connection to bagels--a bread product I consider as urban as Woody Allen.

Klein, however, seems to be pulling it off. So far, she's given every child a stalk of wheat to show where flour comes from, and now she's got us thinking about the yeast swimming around in San Francisco's air.

Once we've met Lactobacillus sanfranciscans, it's time to see it in action. We follow Klein into a narrow, industrial-looking kitchen and gather around a long table. Turning over a big plastic bucket, Klein dumps out a bubbling, beige-colored blob the size of a watermelon.

"This is dough made from natural starter and organic whole-wheat flour," she explains. A little boy wearing a T-shirt printed with the logo of the D train to Brooklyn pokes at the blob.

"Natural leavener and organic whole-wheat flour?" whispers my husband, the grandson of a Jewish baker from the Bronx. "Pretty PC stuff for a bagel."

I contemplate all the East Coast bagels I've ever eaten, which were made from white flour and packaged yeast and a healthy dose of New York angst. The kids proceed to turn the big blob of dough into about 80 baseball-sized little blobs. Then, Klein shows the kids how to turn the little blobs into a bagel shape by poking their fingers through the center.

"Bagel is the German word for bracelet," she explains. And within seconds, every kid is wearing a doughy bracelet.

Now it's time to boil the bagels.

"Boiling is what gives bagels their texture," Klein tells us.

A mom who's been to pastry school nods in agreement. "Bagels are supposed to bite back," she declares.

The bagels are boiled for four minutes, and then taken out to cool. Meantime, Klein sets out dishes filled with sesame and poppy seeds. Immediately, eight children who have no intention of eating anything but a plain bagel coat every exposed millimeter of dough with seeds. Several poppyseed bagels are entirely black.

Once the bagels are seeded, they're put on cookie trays and slid into the oven. While our bagels are baking, Klein has the kids mix up a new batch of dough--with their hands. The kids line up, and one by one, stick their arms up to the elbow into a mixture of flour and water and maple syrup.

"Yuck!" says a little girl, dressed entirely in pink. She lifts her dough-covered hands out of the bucket and wipes them on her mother's pants.

When the bagels are cooked, we eat them warm with butter. They're chewy and sweet, and very delicious, though they bear no resemblance to any bagel I've encountered east of the Mississippi.

"What do you think?" I ask my husband.

"There's no schmear," he says. There are little black poppy seeds caught in his teeth.

"About the bagel."

"Not bad," he tells me, "for an environmental bagel."

Starting Your Starter

Mix two parts flour (preferably whole wheat) to one part water (i.e., 1/4 cup flour to 1 tablespoon water), knead for 5 minutes, and then place in a small bowl and leave uncovered in a warm place.

With any luck, you'll be visited by Lactobacillus sanfranciscans, and after two or three days, your starter will have tiny bubbles and a sweet aroma.

Once this happens, feed your starter a mixture of two parts flour to one part water and stir. Wait one hour, cover the starter, and store in the refrigerator to slow its metabolism. Feed it a mixture of flour and water every two weeks.

Refreshing a Starter for Baking

Bring the starter to room temperature. Discard all but a generous tablespoon. Feed this with 1 cup whole-wheat flour and 1/2 cup lukewarm water. Let rest in a warm place for 8 hours.

Feed again by adding 2 cups whole-wheat flour and 1 cup lukewarm water. Let rest in a warm place for an additional 8 hours. The mixture is now ready to be used in recipes.

Environmentally-Correct Bagels

4 cups whole-wheat flour (for sweeter bagels use a 50/50 mixture of whole-wheat and white flour)

2-1/3 cups lukewarm water

1-1/2 cups starter

1 tablespoon salt

1/3 cup safflower oil

1/3 cup maple syrup

Mix the flour and water in a bowl. Let rest for 30 minutes. Add the starter and mix thoroughly. Add salt and mix thoroughly. Add the oil and syrup and mix for five minutes. Let the dough rest for 20 minutes. Knead the dough by turning it 20 times and then letting it rest again for 20 minutes. Do this cycle of kneading and resting an additional five times.

Portion the dough into baseball-sized balls, then poke your fingers through the center to make a bagel shape. Boil the bagels in water for 2 minutes a side. Remove from boiling water. When the bagels are cool enough to touch, dip into sesame or poppy seeds (optional) and place on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper.

Cook in a preheated 425-degree oven for about 30 minutes. Remove when browned on top and bottom.

Engaging with the Environment at Crissy Field Center

To get a catalog of the classes offered at Crissy Field Center, call 415-561-7690 or visit There is a fee for classes (generally around $15) and preregistration is required. Book early, as classes tend to fill up. Crissy Field, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is also offering a terrific Summer Camp for kids ages 6 to 14, with weeklong day camps devoted to raptors, cooking, and animal adventures, plus an overnight camping trip. For more information, contact the center at the number above.

Crissy Field Center is located in the Presidio at the corner of Mason and Halleck streets in the new Crissy Field Park. There is parking nearby, and a very good café in the building. h

Are We There Yet? is a Noe Valley Voice feature about places to go and things to do with your kids. If there's an activity or outing you'd like to see explored, please e-mail Janis Cooke Newman at