The Hole Shebang

The Buckman Bagel Institute brings the old-world bagel back home.

Harley Leiber says it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. When he makes bagels, he likes the cool, misty days—the ones Portland was known for before the weather got all screwy and Midwestern. But now in July, the dough is taxing his mixer in alarming ways. 

"This is the same mixer they would use in a commercial kitchen," he says. It still isn't enough. The glutinous bagel dough jams it up again, then again, then again. He's going to have to knead it the rest of the way by hand. 

Leiber is standing in the kitchen of the Buckman Bagel Institute, established in 2013. It's pretty much just his house. Leiber hung up a shingle—literally—on a 10-by-16-foot gardening shack he'd built himself in his yard three years before. And he wants to teach Portland to make bagels. 

"Go to Fred Meyer, it tastes like bread," says Leiber, who is both always in motion and continually talking in a low-key, affable patter. "Winco is good, I wish they'd boil them. To have that flavor—most bagels are made by commercial bakeries. They don't have the time that it takes. They cut corners. Bowery makes really good boiled bagels, but I think they're crazy. They must work 16 hours a day. No one in their right minds would make boiled bagels as a business."

The real bagels, for Leiber, take three days to make and use barley malt syrup rather than premixed flour. Their yeast is made from starter that sits for a day; the dough is then mixed and kneaded and hand-shaped before sitting again overnight in the refrigerator. The bagels are boiled before they are baked, which leads to rich flavor and a dense, glutinous texture that is nothing at all like bread.

"The taste is not subtle," he says. "It's very different."

He teaches classes, two or six people at time, for $30 a person. He's not doing it for money. Indeed, the robust 62-year-old is very serious about his retirement after years working in criminal justice and at SAIF Corp.—the state-owned insurance company that pays out workers' compensation claims—and limits the classes he'll teach to two a week so they don't start feeling like a job. 

After the fall of Kettelman, the city has indeed experienced a renaissance in boiled bagels—a list that includes Bowery, Henry Higgins, Spielman, and Bundy's. But for Leiber, it's a matter of reviving a lost tradition of making your own bagels at home, a craft begun in Poland and carried down through generations. 

He uses a family recipe culled from his sister Laurie, who also teaches bagel-making in San Francisco. Nonetheless, the two have now developed slight differences of opinion. (She likes 16 minutes in the oven after the boil. He prefers 18.)

"We're Eastern European Jews," he says. "We've always liked good bagels. Both grandparents are from Galicia and Poland. My grandmother made bagels, my father's mother. They were always in the family." He remembers, as a child in San Francisco, asking again and again if the bagels were ready. “They were never ready. You always had to wait for them.”      

The class focuses mostly on making the dough and requires only two basic skills: use of a measuring cup and a willingness to beat the crap out of a basketball-sized hunk of dough. Turns out I'm equipped. And when the little doughnuts of dough magically rise to the top of the boiling water after 15 seconds, the feeling is deeply gratifying. It's like passing a test of character—my soul has been weighed, and found pure.

Word about the Buckman Bagel Institute spreads mostly by word of mouth. Prospective students see Leiber on Facebook. An older woman saw his little sign while on her morning walk and called him.

"I accumulate people," he says. "I wait till I have four or five, and then you're sending them out in the world with this Old World technique.” 

GO: Buckman Bagel Institute, 233 SE 22nd Ave, 442-9030, Nota bene, however: Leiber will be out of town for the month of October.