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WHAT IS A BAGEL? The New York Times has the best definition I have found so far: "A bagel is a round bread made of simple, elegant ingredients: high-gluten flour, salt, water, yeast and malt. Its dough is boiled, then baked, and the result should be a rich caramel color; it should not be pale and blonde. A bagel should weigh four ounces or less and should make a slight cracking sound when you bite into it instead of a whoosh. A bagel should be eaten warm and, ideally, should be no more than four or five hours old when consumed.
To me, a bagel was either a water or egg bagel, plain or topped with sesame, salt or poppy seeds. I schmeared my untoasted bagel with plain cream cheese, sometimes finished with a thin slice of Nova, and I never yearned for more. The outside had a slight crackle when bitten into, with a nice chewy inside. The smoked salmon was buttery and easy to bite into, and wasn't greasy or fishy in smell. Sometimes the bagels were still warm, which only enhanced their much coveted chewy texture, something I still crave today.
The bagels were so fresh and delicious that I had to make myself stop after one (ok--two..). They were not monstrous, but rather in the shape of a nice hand-held meal. But to me and many people that grew up like myself eating bagels only on Sunday, it is not just a piece of bread, it is as part of what I call my Jewish-upbringing and family ritual.
When I read this passage in the New York Times article, a rush of childhood memories flooded in: "The bagel is to a Sunday in Manhattan as the mint julep is to Louisville, Ky., on the first Saturday in May, an indispensable accompaniment to ritual, whether that be a brunch on the Upper West Side or the Kentucky Derby itself. Whether eaten plain or with a "schmear" of cream cheese, with whitefish salad or a slice of Nova, with sesame seeds or salt, toasted or untoasted, by Jew, gentile, Muslim, Buddhist or agnostic, the bagel has, for more than a century, helped define breakfast in New York."
Today, bagels come in all sorts of flavors and sizes, which is still hard for me to get used to. Designer flavors, such as sundried tomato, blueberry, and basil, all paired with flavored cream cheese, seem so foreign and silly. I have seen bagels so huge and all-puffed up, with disappointing soft bread textures, that they aren't true bagels to me. I try and keep an open mind, but to me, a good bagel is always going to be measured by what I grew up with. Unless you're lucky to live in a large metropolitan area, such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago or New York, where I live, you can still buy an "authentic" bagel or if not, it's always fun to make you own.
BAGEL MAKING TIPS
To make authentic bagels at home, there are some important ingredients and techniques that going into making them. Look for recipes with high-gluten flour and malt syrup, and ones that include a boiling step before baking. Our Very Good Bagel recipe is an example.
High-gluten flour makes very chewy bagels. Look for unbleached hard spring wheat flour, not bread or all-purpose, and is labeled as such. If you can't find, bread flour is the second best choice, but won't result in quite a chewy bagel.
Some bagel recipes include malt syrup added to the dough, also marketed under the name "barley syrup". If you can't find malt syrup, you can add honey or brown sugar to the dough, instead, but the "bagel shop flavor" won't be as pronounced.
There's also diastatic barley malt and non-diastatic malt powders, and either type is also fine to use in a bagel recipe, as well. I prefer to use the diastatic kind. Diastatic Malt, a sweet derivative of roasted barley, provides the ability to improve the flavor in bagels through active diastatic enzymes. They break down the carbohydrates and hasten the release of the natural sugars and hence flavors present in the flour starches. Non-diastatic contributes flavor more than color, because it has been heated to the point of neutralizing the enzymes.
Non-diastatic malt powder can be added, as well, to the boiling water to give bagels their distinctive shiny crust. But, baking soda can be added to alkalize the water, replicating the flavor of lye baths used commercially. It, too, causes a shinier and browner crust when it bakes.
Step 1: Mixing
Mix, knead and let rise: are the same procedures used to make any yeast bread. This can be done in a bread machine, a food processor, a heavy duty mixer, or by hand. Peter Reinhart, in his book, Bread Baker's Apprentice, uses a sponge method to make bagels, which I recommend. The pre-ferment improves both flavor and the shelf life of the product.
Knead slightly longer than the recipe suggest; you really want to develop the gluten in the dough, as the bagel-texture should be really chewy.
Divide dough into equal pieces depending on the size bagel you want. I like to weigh the dough pieces to ensure they are exactly alike in size.
SARAH SAYS: I use a kitchen scale to help me portion the dough into equal pieces which will eventually become a bagel. It's the most accurate way. If the recipe doesn't specify the weight of each piece, first weigh the dough to get its total weight. Divide the total weigh by the number of servings indicated in the recipe, thus giving you the weight of each piece.
To divide the dough, always cut straight down with a very sharp knife, bench scraper or wide (clean) putty knife; don't use a sawing motion otherwise you tear the dough and its gluten strands.
Keep already cut dough under a wet kitchen towel or loosely draped greased-side-down plastic wrap to keep the dough from forming a crust or drying out on the outside. A crust that forms won't allow for good expansion of the dough as it rises and/or bakes later, and problems can occur, such as the crust separating from the body of the bagel.
Step 2: Shaping
Shape using any of the following methods: Bagels are shaped like a semi-flattened round ball with a hole in the middle - like a doughnut. There are several ways to do it. After shaping, place on a greased or parchment paper lined baking sheet.
Shape in ball: Work each ball by pulling down the sides and tucking under the bottom of the ball so it looks like a jelly fish underneath. Shape the ball under the palm of your hand, pressing downward until the top of the dough is smooth and firm, about 1 minute. Cover the dough and let rest for about 20 minutes. At this point, the balls can be wrapped in plastic and frozen. DO not refrigerate because the dough keeps rising.
Hole in the Middle Method: From a ball shape, moisten your finger with water and poke your index finger through the center to form the hole. Moisten your finger with water, if necessary to smooth and to reshape the sides. Pull gently to enlarge hole.
The Hole Around the Finger Method: Flatten the ball of dough slightly into a disk shape, folding the bottom edge under and smoothing it until it looks like a doughnut shape. Make a hole in the center of the circle from the bottom up and twirl around your index finger to widen the hole. Reshape the round into a doughnut shape.
The Tube Around the Palm of the Hand Method: To form the bagels, take each piece of dough and roll it into a ball. Flatten the ball, then fold it in half, sealing the edges with your fingertips. Then fold again to form a tight cylinder. Roll the dough into a tube about 9 inches long. Wrap this piece around the palm of your hand, overlapping the dough about 2 inches. Pinch the ends together to form a ring.
Step 3: The Second Rise
Place bagels on the greased or parchment paper lined baking sheet for the second rise, about an inch or two apart. The bagels will puff up and will touch and adhere to one another, unless there is plenty of room in between.
Cover bagel dough with a length of plastic wrap sprayed with nonstick vegetable spray or a very lightly dampened cloth such as a tea towel so they don't dry out. Place them in a draft free location and warm place until puffy, about 20 minutes.
Put the top side of the bagel down into water first, and then turn it over after boiling. When you remove them, the bagels will be top side up and slide off your spatula for draining and adding toppings.
Step 4: Boiling
Bagels are boiled in water and then baked. To start, fill a large (6-quart) pot with water, about 3 to 4 inches deep. Honey or malt syrup can be added, if the recipe suggests.
Drop the bagels into the near boiling water, making sure they float freely. If crowded, the bagels tend to stick together. The bagel may sink to the bottom for a few seconds, and then float to the surface.
Boil on each side, about 3 minutes or less at a time, turning with a slotted spoon or skimmer. When done, the bagel will be puffy and the center will be nearly closed. It should be off-white in color and have some blisters just below the surface. Remove and put on a lightly greased rack for a few minutes to drain.
SARAH SAYS: Put the top side of the bagel down into water first, and then turn it over after boiling. When you remove them, the bagels will be top side up and slide off your spatula for draining and adding toppings.
When cool enough to handle, proceed to Step 5: Glazes and Toppings (below), or if you omit this step, proceed to Step 6: Bake.
Step 5: Optional Glazes and Toppings
Brush top with a glaze and sprinkle seeds before baking.
Step 6: Baking
Preheat the oven: The bagels a best baked in an oven that is HOT and on a shelf placed on the lower level. Preheat it for 45 minutes or so, "the hotter the better!" Note: If baking the bagels directly on a baking stone, place in oven before preheating.
Bagels can be baked on a cookie sheet and/or on a baking(pizza) stone or tiles. I bake my bagels on a rimmed cookie sheet placed on top of the hot stone. Here, I get the best of both worlds: a hot surface to bake them on and less mess.
When the oven is hot, place the unbaked bagels in the oven on the baking sheet or directly onto the baking stone or tiles in the pan or without.
Use steam at the beginning of baking which gives the bagel tops a crisp crust (same technique used when making crusty breads). To do, spray the sides of the oven (not the bagels) with water from a spray bottle.
Or, place a heavy pan, preferably a Jelly roll or long pan, on the floor of the oven before it preheats. Wearing heavily padded kitchen mitts and standing as far as possible away from the oven, pour 1-inch of hot water in the pan or throw a half dozen ice cubes into it. Quickly close the oven door for at least 15 minutes. This will cause an immediate burst of steam. Leave the pan in the oven and remove when the oven has cooled.
Bake the bagels until golden brown, about 10 - 15 minutes, or whatever the recipe specifies. About half-way, turn bagels over when the tops begin to brown. Once they are done on the other side, place them on a wire cake rack to cool.
Step 7: Storing and Using Bagels
Bagels are best when they're eaten fresh from the oven while still warm, but they are also delicious when not. Bagels tend to dry out faster than breads because they don't contain fat or sugar, so freezing them is recommended. Slice them horizontally before freezing so you easily pull them apart.