New Traditions: Spicing Up a Bagel Spread

bagel sandwich
Spicing Up a Bagel SpreadToastyKen/Flickr

Yom Kippur, the Jewish calendar's annual day of atonement, and its most significant fast day, has produced a beloved food tradition: the break-fast bagel spread. After a long day spent not eating, families and friends gather together to break the fast with a celebratory meal. The fare tends to be light: orange juice, quiche, and other gentle foods that won't assault an empty stomach. But at the center of virtually every break fast is the bagel spread.

Unfortunately, the typical spread has become a rather rote, uninspired affair with bread-y faux bagels, bland cream cheese, mayo-drenched salads, and watery tomatoes. If you are in charge of break fast this year (or if you're just looking for a stellar brunch), here are a few ideas and recipes to help you do it justice.

The breads

It almost goes without saying, but a good bagel break fast hinges around having good bagels on the table. Include a wide variety of choices—poppy seed, pumpernickel, sesame, salt, onion, and everything bagels—to placate your guests (no doubt, they will have strong feelings about their favorite bagel).

If you do not happen to live in one of the few existing bagel meccas (like New York City or Montreal), or near a traditional Jewish deli or bakery, place an order to have them shipped from the legendary New York appetizing store Russ & Daughters (note: they have a $150 order minimum for Yom Kippur, so get your cream cheese and smoked salmon while you're at it), or roll up your sleeves and try baking your own. For good measure, pile a few loaves of hearty, artisanal bread and some warm pita on the table alongside the bagel tray.

The spreads

With all due respect to tradition, when it comes to cream cheese there is life beyond Philadelphia. Try folding in a few teaspoons of chopped fresh herbs like chives, tarragon, or basil into Organic Valley's Neufchatel, a mild goat cheese, or the delicious German soft cheese called quark. (Vermont Butter & Cheese Company's quark is especially tasty.)

In addition, offer a variety of homemade spreads like hummus (regular or edamame, pesto, egg salad, white fish or tuna salad, olive tapenade, and—because otherwise your relatives might revolt—a plate of smoked fish that could feature lox, gravlax, chub, or trout. Visit Russ & Daughters online if you cannot find these fish in your area.

The veggies

Yom Kippur falls in the early autumn, when tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, and red onions (all musts for any decent bagel break fast) are still available at most farmers' markets. So head out to the market and let your table reflect the season's last hurrah, before everyone hunkers down for winter. Add a few bowls of salty goodies like capers, pickles, and olives to top off your bagel sandwich and rejuvenate your taste buds after their daylong hiatus. —By Leah Koenig, a freelance writer, home cook, and food columnist for the Forward