You Call These Bagels?

Berliners get a taste of the real thing, thanks to the baking ministrations of Laurel (Powers) Kratochvila, A05

Laurel Kratochvila at her bagel shop in Berlin

Laurel (Powers) Kratochvila, A05, was fed up with what passed for a bagel in Berlin. So after two and a half years of suffering through the German capital’s sorry bagel scene, she did what any good Jewish girl from Massachusetts with a degree in physics would do: boiled and baked her own creations. The result is Fine Bagels, the cozy bakery she opened in the front room of the Shakespeare and Sons bookstore on a stroller-laden stretch of the former East Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg last June.

At her new shop, Kratochvila, whose mother’s maiden name is Fine, set the record straight on what makes a proper bagel in a city where bakeries too often lump the dense bread in with every other brötchen in town. “They are misrepresenting a wonderful Jewish food,” she said when I stopped by for a snack one afternoon. “If I had grown up eating these bagels, I wouldn’t be interested in them.”

Breads labeled as “bagels” litter menus throughout Berlin, but the majority are bagel impostors, mere “bread in the shape of a ring,” she said. These sorry excuses for bagels do not bear the crackling crust and dense middle that elevate a true bagel to the realm of culinary greatness, and that also make bagels often the first food to hit the chopping block at the start of a diet.

Kratochvila crafts hers the right way in her postage-stamp-sized kitchen in the back of the Raumerstrasse bookstore, a popular American and British expat hangout where rent is free, since the storeowner is her Czech husband, Roman. She blends the dough using her modest KitchenAid mixer, then kneads it and molds it into rings using skills she honed as a teenager in Sharon, Mass., where her nightly nine-o’clock curfew gave her ample time to work on her baking.

The bagels rest overnight and then are flash boiled—this crucial step gives the crust that essential crispy texture—before hitting the oven. The finished products get a schmear of at least cream cheese, and can be further outfitted with other classic toppings like lox, tomatoes, red onion and capers.

Kratochvila insists that her bagels be toasted as well. “They’re just nicer that way,” she said. But her strict standards rubbed some confused Berliners the wrong way when the shop opened in June. Most of the city’s cafés use the bagel as a vehicle for any old sandwich. “A lot of people came in and said ‘You’re not doing it right’ or ‘Those things don’t belong on a bagel,’” she said. “But I’m not going to let anyone tell me that this is wrong.”

Fine Bagels started as a modest operation, a way for Kratochvila, who after graduating from Tufts in three years spent the next six working for an NGO in Nepal and then at the Prague offshoot of Shakespeare and Sons, to reconnect with her roots. In June of last year she cooked only 24 bagels a day, and had trouble going through even those. But six months later she’d hired three employees and routinely sold out of 120 bagels a day, she said. She and Roman are looking for a new space where they can expand both the bagel and the book businesses.

Her customers include more and more Germans who have converted to the American Jewish bagel tradition. She has also reeled in a number of traveling or expatriated East Coasters who share her craving for a taste of home. “Almost every day,” she said, “someone comes in and loudly announces that they’re from Brooklyn and are looking for the real thing.”

This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Tufts Magazine.

Ben Kochman, A13, lives in Brooklyn and is a staff reporter at the Bronx Times.

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