I didn’t grow up in a family that dined out all that often. This is partly due to the fact that my brothers and I were raised by a single Colombian mother who was an excellent home cook. What’s the point, she would say, when I can make it better in my own kitchen? She was right, of course. Still, we were kids, and kids love going out to restaurants. The sights, the unpredictability of hungry passersby. So, every other Saturday morning, our mother granted our wishes, and the four of us would pack into our Toyota Corolla in search of the perfect breakfast.
In South Florida, where we lived, the options were near endless — among them, a classic New York–style Jewish deli on almost every corner. We craved the fresh bagels that you could smell from the street: onion, poppy seed, the works. My go-to was pumpernickel with homemade cream cheese and a thin slice of tomato. My youngest brother always went for the cinnamon bagel, which never quite did it for me.
Despite its ubiquity, cinnamon remains one of the more controversial bagel flavors. It isn’t quite sweet, and it doesn’t readily lend itself to savory toppings like lox and capers. It took a national chain — one with 2,200 locations across the United States and Canada — to show me the true promise of a cinnamon-flavored bagel, by essentially turning it into a cake.
I am talking, obviously, about the Cinnamon Crunch Bagel from Panera Bread.
You might think of Panera Bread as the culinary equivalent of late-career Coldplay albums: filled with cheap thrills (uh, Blueberry Scone) and middle-aged clichés (Broccoli Cheddar Soup). Somehow, Panera Bread manages to be both unbearably boring and slyly charming at the same time. It’s the unofficial headquarters of neighborhood-watch meetings, budding novelists, and suburban teens hosting midweek Bible study. On paper, it’s a place I would never go, but it only takes one perfect menu item — this bagel — to keep me coming back.
It’s so good I pay no mind to the fact that it is missing a hole at the center, which is a detail I typically look for in a bagel. Its sweetness and satisfying crunch take me back; it is the cinnamon bagel that children imagine. It is also strangely beautiful, its golden outside and flakes of sugar shimmering in the light like a newly minted coin. I take it any way I can get it: toasted, untoasted, a little burnt around the edges.
It makes me full and happy, and the mesmerizing fragrance of cinnamon greets me as soon as I walk through the door.
Let’s be clear: It does not hold a candle to the sesame bagel from Russ & Daughters or the bright-orange egg number they serve at Absolute Bagels. Yet I feel no shame championing this bagel to even the most ardent East Coast bagel purists, because this is not really a bagel. It clocks in at 420 calories and has 82 grams of carbs. It is the equivalent of eating roughly eight Oreos, and it is almost as sweet. Somehow, this is a food item that is still recognizably a bagel, but it has liberated itself from its inherent bagelness to become something else, something far more dessertlike. It could be considered a breakfast food, but only if you also consider cookies to be breakfast food.
What it is most is a reminder that, sometimes, younger siblings have knowledge to impart, even if it’s just a bagel flavor, and it takes a chain founded in Missouri to show you how right they were.