I have wanted to make this American deli classic of salt beef and bagels for a very long time. Two reasons really – firstly, I love it but when you but it in London the portions are rarely anywhere near as generous as the ones I have had in New York. Secondly it sounds like a challenge but not too much of one!
Tom Kerridge, the chef of the only 2 michelin starred pub in the UK (next available Friday night reservation? December 2014!) has a recipe for this in his new book, and when our Israeli friends confirmed they would be coming to dinner at ours before Christmas, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to try out this Jewish (I think it is, anyway) dish on them.
You have to be ready to start one week before you plan to serve the dish, so make sure you are prepared. Firstly you need to brine the brisket, which is not difficult but is a bit of a pain in the neck as the non-metallic container you have to fully submerge the meat in can take up quite a lot of room in your fridge.
The brining liquid itself was a challenge because the recipe includes saltpetre – an ingredient which is unavailable on the high street (it can be used to make explosives so is not easily available) and has mixed reviews online because you have to be extremely careful when you use it. Frankly the idea of killing guests with one ingredient alarmed me, and it’s only used for aesthetics (it maintains the pink colour of the meat instead of it turning grey – well, at least that’s according to all the reviews I read on the subject). So I decided to do without saltpetre and instead made the brine with a mixture of salt, sugar, water and spices.
I managed to buy a tupperware container big enough for the brisket to live in for one week (it wasn’t easy to find one, so bear this in mind as well, because it also needs to be small enough to fit in your fridge). I squeezed the 2kg brisket into the box and added the now-cooled brine. Obviously the meat floated to the top, and so I ended up coming up with an ingenious way of keeping the meat submerged – pushing it down under the brine with cookie cutters! Okay, not actually ingenious at all, but it did work.
Halfway through the week the beef had to be turned over (not sure why, but I thought it best to follow the instructions just in case), and then after its extended bath you move onto the next stage of the process, which is to boil up the beef and then allow it to cool in the cooking liquor completely. So I advise you to plan your timetable so that you are ready to boil the beef the day before you plan to serve it.
You thoroughly rinse the beef (which has taken on a dark, treacly appearance due to the demerara sugar in the brine) and then simmer it with water and vegetables for 3 hours until tender. When that’s ready, it can sit in it’s cooking liquor and you can move on to the bagels and pickled veggies.
Firstly the picked veg, which were also part of Tom’s recipe. Here you can use whichever veggies you like, although I chose radishes, carrots, cucumber and onion according to his recipe, but missed out the mushrooms which I hate. You soak these sliced vegetables in a pickling mix which also has to be made and then cooled (it’s a relatively small amount of mixture and so doesn’t take long) for at least 2 hours, but I continued to eat them for a couple of days whilst they remained in the pickling liquor and they remained delicious.
Tom doesn’t give a recipe for bagels but I was really keen to make my own, so turned to my dearest Nigella for her recipe, which is available in How to be a Domestic Goddess. Okay, they are not difficult to make (a bit of a faff to boil and then bake them), but they nearly destroyed my beloved KitchenAid. She does say the dough is tough, and boy it is. They tasted fantastic but I can buy authentic bagels from the Happening Bagel Store in Finsbury Park (nothing like those crappy things you can buy in the supermarket which look like anaemic doughnuts), so I’ll be doing that in future and giving my KitchenAid the chance of a few more years of life.
Sadly my friends had to cancel their attendance at ours at the last minute and so Andrew and I found ourselves in the situation of having 2 kilos of beef, 15 bagels, bowls of pickles and cream cheese to eat between ourselves. At such short notice, none of our friends were free to join us for the Jewish feast, and so we were obliged to eat as much as possible on our own!
So we each had a bagel, sliced but not toasted as they were so fresh, topped with cream cheese which had been mixed with cracked black pepper, then slices of beef laid on top (which didn’t look grey at all so I don’t see what value the saltpetre would add), and pickled veg on the side.
This genuinely is a meal in itself – the bagels are so much more substantial than supermarket ones, and the beef is very rich, so you really can’t eat much more than one (although Andrew – in training for Christmas binges – managed to put away two). I froze the remaining bagels for breakfast over the next few weeks, and also froze most of the beef (I’ll let you know how that turns out when I defrost it). We had no problem getting through the pickled veg, and I will probably keep some of the pickling liquid in the fridge so that we have a ready supply of these deliciously crispy, tangy veggies.
Apart from the bagels, I’d make it all again, as although you need to start the brining process one week ahead, none of the steps are particularly cumbersome. And the taste of homemade salt beef (and the feeling of accomplishment in making it) is definitely worth the effort. Here’s how I made it all.
Salt beef, pickles and cream cheese by Tom Kerridge
- 2-2.5kg boned brisket
- Brine: 2l water, 500g seasalt, 400g demerara sugar, 6 bayleaves, 6 cloves, 1 bunch thyme, 2tsp black peppercorns
- Braising: 2 carrots, 1 onion, 1 bulb of garlic, 4 celery sticks, 4 bay leaves, 1 bunch rosemary
- Pickling mix: 1l white wine vinegar, 250ml water, 500g caster sugar, 5 star anise, 2 cloves, 1 cinnamon stick, 2 tablespoons white peppercorns, 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, 1 tablespoon fennel seeds; choice of vegetables
7 days before you want to cook the brisket, mix all of the brining ingredients together in a pan and bring to the boil, stirring so that the sugar and salt dissolves. Simmer for 5 minutes before allowing to cool completely, and then submerge the brisket in the brine and store it in a non-metallic container. The meat must be completely covered. Turn it over halfway through the week.
Take it out of the container after 7 days and rinse it thoroughly. Then put it into a large saucepan with the chopped braising vegetables (slice the garlic bulb in half through the middle) and cover with water. Simmer uncovered for 2.5 – 3 hours until the meat is tender, and then allow to cool completely in the stock, without a lid on. Once cool, cover until needed.
For the pickling mix, bring all the ingredients to boil in a large saucepan and simmer for 10-15 minutes, then allow to cool and infuse before adding the sliced vegetables to the pickling liquid and leave for 2 hours minimum at room temperature in a non-metallic bowl.
1kg strong white flour, 1 tablespoon salt, 1 pack easy yeast, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, 500ml warm water, 2 tablespoons malt extract
Combine the flour, salt and yeast in a bowl. Mix the sugar and oil with the water and then mix the two. Knead together, which is very hard work. My KitchenAid took around 15 minutes to get the dough smooth and silky and it nearly came apart with the effort, so beware. Prove in a warm place for one hour until risen. Punch the dough down and divide into 3 equal sized pieces. Divide each of those pieces into five and roll into sausages, then join the ends to make a classic bagel shape. Leave to rise again for 20 minutes. While that is happening, put a large pan of water onto the boil and when simmering, add the malt extract (available in Holland and Barrett or you could use sugar if you can’t find it). Also preheat your oven to 240 degrees.
Add each bagel to the simmering water for one minute, turning over halfway through, and then put them on a greased baking tray and top with whichever topping you fancy (I did 5 with poppy seeds, 5 with sunflower seeds, and 5 plain). I found I could boil 3 bagels at a time but they did start to unravel! Once all of them are poached and topped with seeds, bake for 10-15 minutes.
Slice a bagel in half. Smear with cream cheese and cracked black pepper. Add slices of succulent beef. Top with pickles if you can, or add them on the side if you can’t. Try and bite a piece of daintily. Fail. Shove it in your mouth anyway you like because it tastes so nice and you don’t care anyway. Go to sleep so your stomach has time to return to its normal size and then start again.