Hand-rolled and home-baked in Aspen: Bam! Bagels! is on a roll
When businesses and schools shut down this past spring, Avery Lieb got fired up. Instead of simply researching a “passion project” to present via video to her seventh-grade class as independent study during the pandemic’s stay-at-home order, Lieb turned on the oven in her family’s kitchen. Her gut feeling was to start baking.
“I knew I wanted to make a bagel business,” Lieb says matter-of-factly, while prepping a batch of orders for Bam! Bagels! last week. “I love baking, and there aren’t very many good bagel shops in Aspen. I like how they’re bread, but little and cute.”
Inspired by visits to her maternal grandmother in New York City, where she tasted the real deal, and using a recipe made over the years by her father, an energy consultant with a background in baking, Lieb got to work. A happy accident early on led to her current formula, a simple ratio of organic flour, two types of malt, salt, and Aspen tap water. Oh, and a big spoonful of 100-year-old sourdough starter that her dad scooped up in Italy some 20 years ago. “That’s important because it helps the dough rise,” Lieb notes. The result: beautifully puffed bagels that satisfy a craving.
Lieb began her school project by building a website: BamBagels.com. There she launched a blog to explore interesting bagel topics and share facts learned during her research. Among them: Why bagels have holes, who invented the bagel, regional differences in bagels, and a cost analysis that breaks down why she charges $3 per bagel. She also discovered that her paternal great-grandparents owned a bakery in Johannesburg, South Africa, long ago.
“That was mostly for the school project,” says Lieb, explaining that she was required to weave in subjects such as math, science, history, art and language. “But now I think it’s nice, because people know what they’re buying.” (To fulfill the latter requirement, Lieb translated her shopping page to accept orders in Spanish.)
When I arrive at 8 a.m. to see Lieb’s home-baked operation, she’s in a groove. The tough part is done already. At 3 p.m. the day before she mixed the dough, which rested 30 minutes before kneading. Then she covered the bowl for three hours of bulk fermentation. Once portioned, 18- to 20-gram dough balls rest again in long proofing boxes, stored inside a car in the cool garage overnight, which slows fermentation so the dough doesn’t rise too much in 12 hours.
Now Lieb shows me how she hand-shapes the hole in each inflated orb of dough. She slips the bagels into a big pot of boiling water, where they cook about 30 seconds per side, before transferring them to burlap-covered baking boards. (A splash of water on the fabric prevents dough from sticking and creates steam.) Midway through the bake, Lieb flips the bagels onto a hot baking stone, which helps offset heat loss from constantly opening the oven door.
Lieb, who turned 13 in May, moves around the small kitchen in what looks like a choreographed dance. Wearing a mask, she is alternately pressing a timer, sprinkling spoonfuls of seed mixture onto Everything bagels, rinsing off baking boards, and transferring puffed, golden orbs to cooling racks. Her notebook order log indicates how many bagels to wrap in each brown paper bag, tied with ribbon and a brand-new business card. She’ll deliver some by bicycle; the rest will go into a cooler on her front porch for socially distanced customer pickup.
Lieb sold her first batch of Bam! Bagels!—available in Plain, Everything, and Cinnamon-Raisin—on May 3. Social media and word of mouth have drawn enough buzz that Lieb has recruited her 10-year-old sister as official helper and taste-tester. Everyone agrees that Lieb’s chewy, New York-style bagels are in a class of their own here in Aspen. When neighbor and Olympic ski racer Wiley Maple posted about her bagels on Instagram, orders surged.
“It’s a lot of work, so to have people love it is necessary to keep it up,” says Lieb’s mother, Kim Master, a coffee fanatic who launched her own “elaborate passion project,” Red Butte Roasters, in 2015. “Everyone has been so supportive. It gives her—and our whole family—a deeper sense of connection with the community.”
By focusing on quality control of a single item, Lieb has been able to adapt to challenges (flour shortages during corona) and let positive feedback fuel Bam! Bagels!
“She’s kept it simple,” Masters says. “It’s hard to go wrong when you have an amazing bread product.”