Raise your hand if you nursed a sourdough starter in 2020.
We had time on our hands, store shelves were empty, yeast was unavailable and the craze to comfort ourselves with home-baked bread was in full swing.
Yes, my hand is up. But my starter is not. It was remarkably easy to get going, but the bread wasn’t that good. The weekly discard made killer biscuits and pancakes, but those have to be slathered with butter, jam, and honey — not the best answer to a healthy lockdown diet. So with little ceremony, I gave it up.
Jennifer Balin did not. After Sugar and Olives (her remarkably personal restaurant on the Norwalk-Westport line) shut down, she too got the itch for a home-grown starter. The difference is that she made it work.
Starting with bread — three loaves a day, twenty-one loaves a week — Balin got pretty serious about sourdough right off the bat. Soon enough, she turned her high-energy focus to bagels. After all, no one else was doing them.
No one else was doing bagels because they’re hard. Wild-yeast starters are finicky, high-maintenance and not usually used for bagels. They take time, attention and perseverance. You only have to know Jennifer for a few minutes to understand that if anyone can do it, she can.
Relying on trial and error along with help from fellow bakers, her aptly named Badass Bagels have achieved cult status. Word of their great flavor, light but chewy crumb and deeply-browned crisp crust has spread among insiders by word of mouth.
Every Thursday 3 to 5 PM and Saturday 10 to noon, there’s a line out the door at 21 Lois Street to pick up pre-orders. Show up without ordering at your peril. On a recent Saturday, every bagel was spoken for and the hopeful folks who hadn’t ordered went away empty-handed. Orders are made by texting 203.816.0028
Balin’s four-day process begins with the wild yeast sourdough starter which exists in three states: hungry, fed and ripe — ready to use three days later.
Mixed with flour and water, the starter forms a sticky, stretchy levain which then ferments for about six hours before being transformed into bagel dough. The batch only yields 50 bagels, so the process is repeated time after time.
The starters, Balin’s babies, have to be fed daily. While bagels are only sold two days a week, she’s there every day caring for them and nurturing the fermentation.
At last, the finished dough is ready to be hand-shaped by a dexterous team of helpers. See the video of them in action at sugarandolives.com. Proofed in boiling water, as bagels always are, they finally end up in the oven.
What’s a bagel without cream cheese? At Badass, Balin’s signature creativity is at work here too. Choose from pimento-scallion, shallot-Banyuls vinegar, hot honey and pistachio, preserved lemon and fried caper and smoky black garlic. Check the website menu for seasonal flavors and Balin’s recommendations.
To complete the bagel experience, Balin also cures her own Faroe Island salmon for gravlax and makes whitefish salad in-house.
Balin has jumped into the bagel business with both feet. “It was crazy over the pandemic,” she said. As word spread, her bagels seemed a modest indulgence and a good excuse to get out of the house for a contactless pickup.
Now that things are steadying, she has developed a few regular delivery clients in addition to the store hours. (One company in Stamford gets dozens every Thursday to lure home-workers back to the office.)
The sign out front proclaims, “Taming wild yeast since 2020.” Balin has assumed the work of our many abandoned sourdough starters and taken them to a whole new level. If you’re looking for good news from our lockdown, these bagels are definitely on the list.
Frank Whitman can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.