Everyone should have a catering trick to easily host a large party. As Jeffrey Archer once told me, while pointing out Oxford landmarks as if it were his university rather than mine, he was famous for his legendary Shepherd’s pie and Krug champagne Christmas soirées.
I have my own party formula: ‘Bagels and Booze’. I am passionate about East London bagels. So is everyone these days. It is perhaps the result of influence from across the Pond, bringing New York cool to our doughy daily sustenance. As a family we’ve been frequenting Brick Lane Beigel Bake for over 25 years. I was too young to comprehend much of London’s geography in those early visits. But I remember that whenever we came anywhere near East London the clamour for bagels would start. Half-hour detours were standard. Two or three from the order were greedily devoured hot in the car.
It felt as if we were off the beaten track back then. Beigel Bake, which has been open 24 hours a day seven days a week since 1974, was by no means our little secret; it was already a local institution. But customers felt much like us: families buying by the dozen, to devour fresh or to freeze (and in our case, drop round to cousins, aunts and uncles). When I go to Beigel Bake now, the queue snakes out the door. Hipsters and tourists, iPhones in hand, cameras at the ready. The orders are now mainly for a single bagel, piled high with pastrami and gherkin for £4.50 apiece. A handsome lunch for sure. But I won’t have it. My unchanging order is 76 plain ones for 30 pence apiece. My smug satisfaction is only heightened by the barely concealed gasps from the manicured moustaches waiting behind me.
I make the pilgrimage in the early hours on the morning of the party – they need to be supremely fresh. There is a silent understanding between me and the fearsome Mrs Cohen: she hands over the order in a brown flour bag, an honour reserved for the six-dozen-and-over-people (and no doubt soon to be made available as ‘merch’ by an entrepreneurial Shoreditch millennial). I accompany the order with a big tub of cream cheese – theirs is richer and thicker than the stuff you tend to find in supermarkets.
I carry the filled bag aloft out the shop like a trophy animal, to the startled stares of passers-by. Then I spend an hour knocking over small children and soiling Savile Row suits as I weave through Liverpool Street, onto the Underground, before – finally – the bagels arrive home.
How to serve them? They can be prepared an hour or two in advance, covered with a damp tea towel. I tend to make three to four different fillings. One, of course, is the classic cream cheese, cucumber and smoked salmon. The latter can be bought from Beigel Bake or your favoured supplier. If you want a real show-stopper, buy a whole side of smoked salmon and ask a friend to carve it into thin slices to order. If you can be bothered you could also make pastrami, served with fat gherkins. I don’t bother, but some other favourite fillings are provided below. And for dessert? Easy: more bagels, filled with PBJ (peanut butter and jelly) or Nutella. You’ll feel quite the domestic goddess.
Feta, harissa and mint filling
300g feta cheese
1 tablespoon rose harissa (Belazu do a good one)
1 large red chilli (preferably one not too hot), deseeded and finely chopped
A bunch of fresh mint, finely chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper
- Crumble the feta into a bowl. Stir in all of the other ingredients.
- Check the seasoning – you probably won’t need any salt given the saltiness of the feta. Put a generous spoonful into each bagel, with a little gem lettuce if you like too. Serve.
Beetroot hummus filling
400g can white chickpeas, drained and rinsed (with the liquid retained in a separate bowl)
2 cooked beetroots (about 250g; either roasted and peeled yourself or bought cooked)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tahini
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin (it is worth toasting in a dry pan and then grinding the cumin seeds in a pestle and mortar for this – you will achieve a better flavour)
¼ teaspoon salt
Black pepper (a few grinds from the mill)
juice of 1 lemon
Place all the ingredients in a food processor and blitz until creamy, with just a little grainy texture. If it’s a bit too dry, add some of the chickpea liquid until you reach the desired consistency.
Check the seasoning, adding more salt, pepper or lemon juice to taste.
Put a generous dollop into each bagel. Top with slices of cucumber or more cooked beetroot. Serve.