Growing up in Fairfield County — New York City just a quick train ride away — I was sure I was eating some of the best (if not the best) bagels in the world. Ess-a-Bagel, Russ & Daughters, Absolute Bagels, Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee, Murray's, Tompkins Square Bagels — these are the bagel shops that had my love and allegiance for most of my life.
But that all changed when I visited a small bakery in South Portland, Maine.
The Bakery That Changed My Mind About Bagels
My husband and I are regulars to Maine, so we'd heard murmurs about the bagels at Scratch Baking Company. The straightforward, no-frills neighborhood joint — not a subway tile, fancy light fixture, or marble tabletop in site — opened in South Portland in 2004 and has been quietly churning out some of the best baked goods you'll ever eat. At least that's what we had heard. We had also heard that we should get there early to beat the crowds.
One summer trip, we decided to try our luck. We arrived at 7:30 a.m. to find a line snaking out the door and down the block. Not ones to be deterred by a wait, we got out of the car and secured our place in line.
I was excitedly mapping out all the toppings I was going to get on my bagel — capers, tomatoes, onion — when a helpful woman turned around and clued us in about how it works: Grab your bagels (the limit depends on time of year; check their sign), choose a tub of cream cheese (they have plain and herb-flecked) from the fridge, and then, if you're lucky, find a seat outside.
To say I was not happy about this revelation is an understatement. How boring, I thought. But we'd already been waiting for 20 minutes; at that point we were committed.
When we finally got our bagels — one Maine sea salt bagel each and a single-serve portion of the herb cream cheese — we went outside to find all the seating occupied. Hungry and annoyed, we sat on the steps of a neighboring building and tore into our bagels, which were still warm from the oven. Eschewing the little plastic knife they have near the register, we dunked them right into the cream cheese.
My husband and I sat in stunned silence, occasionally glancing over at each other with looks of Can you believe how good this is? while we devoured our bagels.
Why Scratch Bagels Are the Best Bagels
Made with a sourdough starter (affectionately named Lulu), the dough is slowly fermented overnight. In the morning, it gets hand-rolled, boiled, and baked in a stone hearth deck oven before being delivered to bins that run the length of one side of the bakery.
The tang from the sourdough hits you on the nose right upfront. The slightly crackly crust, studded with big gray flakes of sea salt, gives way to a perfectly soft, chewy center. And the house-made cream cheese, bursting with fresh herbs and scallions, is a cool complement to the warm bagel.
Scratch has plans in the works to open a new location soon, a toast bar where you can get all those things I once wanted — a sliced bagel, toasted, with all the fixings — but I probably won't go. Instead I'll head to their original location, grab my dozen salt bagels (I now know better than to get just one!) and a container of herb cream cheese, and sit on those steps. Ripping apart that bagel with my hands and dunking it into the cream cheese is an experience I've recreated plenty of times since that first morning — and it never loses its allure.
Have you ever tried these bagels? Do you agree they're the best?