I’ve always loved bagels. Chewy, tasty, slightly crispy – they’re the whole package. But I’ve recently upped my bagel ante. Gone are the days when all I’d do is wax lyrical about the different ways to top a bagel – of which, incidentally, there are so very many more than the four I mentioned here back in the day.
You see, I’ve now baked bagels.
And I can’t go back. They’re too good, and they’re so easy to make. In fact, I think it’s safe to say I’m now forever ruined for supermarket simalcrums.
I have baker extraordinaire Peter Reinhart to thank for this particularly wonderful new addition to my life. Not being a native New Yorker, or living near enough London’s Brick Lane, believe me when I say that I did not know bagels could taste like this.
Baking these came about as part of the recent bread-baking kick I’ve been on. And, let me tell you, a little bit – and I do mean a “little” bit – of effort here goes a long way. Get the dough started the day before, then forget about them as they prove overnight and return to them fresh the next day to poach and bake them and – before you know it – BAGELS! You’ll soon be very popular. And for good reason. Who doesn’t love a freshly-baked bagel on a Sunday morning? Plus, it’s simple enough you can do it on a Sunday morning pre-coffee. And those who know me know I don’t like to do many things pre-coffee.
You’ll find the recipe all over the place, not least on Smitten Kitchen, The Wednesday Chef and the LA Times. Oh, and, of course, in Reinhart’s own book, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. So you could take our collective word for it when we say that they’re wonderful, and easy, and so very tasty. You could be nodding your head as you read this, thinking, sure, the bagels might be nice but that lot are probably wrong about the process being easy. Don’t. Trust is a beautiful thing and all, but screw it. Don’t take our word for it. Find out for yourself that these are glorious. Just a word of warning: you will be forever ruined for all other (store-bought) bagels.
A few things to note:
- The recipe says it makes 6-8. But I’ve had the best results making six. While you definitely can get eight out of the dough, the resulting bagels are just not as big (in diameter or depth). What’s the point? Size matters, folks.
- When it comes to shaping the bagels, don’t be shy. I was tentative with the rolling and shaping of one batch and all I got was air bubbles and sad, flat bagels for my trouble. I mean, they were delicious, but they were by no means voluptuous. Again, what’s the point? Give those babies a good squeeze and get all the air out.
- The original recipe calls for barley malt syrup as the sweetener. I’ve never gone to the trouble of buying the stuff myself because honey works really well, but if you’d like some, take a look at Sous Chef – it’s an online emporium of all things food.
- Toppings: once you’ve boiled them, you can adorn your bagels with a topping, although keeping them plain is a solid move too. Personally, I love poppy seeds, or sesame seeds (black or white). Just sprinkle them liberally over your poached bagel before putting them in the oven. You can also make these sweet with a cinnamon sugar topping (just bake them plain and add the cinnamon-sugar at the end). Dealer’s choice.
3 1/2 cups bread flour
3 teaspoons salt, divided (2 tsps dough/1 tsp boiling water)
3/4 teaspoon instant yeast
1 tablespoon honey (or barley malt syrup)
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon baking soda, e.g. bicarbonate of soda (for the boiling stage)
Neutral oil (e.g. vegetable or sunflower) to grease the proving bowl and the baking tray
Topping of your choice (sesame seeds, poppy seeds, cinnamon sugar, dried onion or garlic, or have a go at making The Kitchn’s Everything Bagel Spice)
The day before you want to eat them:
First, mix together the bread flour, 2 teaspoons of the salt, the yeast, honey and water until it comes together as a stiff dough. (I tend to start with a wooden spoon, then give up and get stuck in with my hands). Once it’s come together, which should take about 3 minutes, leave the dough to rest for 5 minutes.
While the dough rests, give your mixing bowl a quick wash and dry, then lightly oil it. The dough will rest in this later.
Next, knead the dough on a lightly-floured surface. No knead to be too aggressive with your kneading (couldn’t resist) – just purposeful. And if you want to take a little break, feel free. Dough always likes having a bit of a rest. What you’re aiming for is a firm but smooth, almost satiny dough. This should only take another 3 minutes or so.
- If your dough feels too wet or sticky, sprinkle a bit more flour on the surface you’re kneading on, a little at a time until it feels workable.
- If your dough is too stiff/dry, not supple, the best thing to do is run your hands under the tap, shake off the excess and then start kneading the dough again. The moisture on your hands will start to give a bit more hydration to your dough in easy-to-absorb amounts. You might need to do this more than once if it’s being particularly truculent.
- Remember, dough and flour are vulnerable to the temperature and the weather. If you get into one of the above situations, you most likely didn’t do anything wrong, the mixture is just being temperamental. Or it’s raining. Whatever it’s doing, just give it what it wants, and it’ll behave again.
Leave the dough to rest in the pre-oiled bowl. Just cover it with clingfilm and pop it in the fridge for a couple of hours (min: one hour).
Prepare a baking sheet by lining it with greaseproof/baking paper and wiping it lightly with some neutral oil.
Next, shape the bagels. Once it’s rested, separate the dough into 6 (or 8) roughly equal-sized pieces and roll them into little balls using a slightly cupped hand. Note: don’t flour your surface for this stage, it should be clean and, if necessary, a little damp (wipe the surface lightly with a clean, damp cloth, or a piece of kitchen roll) to get more “bite” as you roll.
Roll each ball into a rope of dough about 8-10 inches long. This is where you should use a good amount of pressure – don’t be shy. You want to make sure there are no air bubbles.
Now shape the bagels! Take a rope of dough between your thumb and forefinger and wrap it around the back of your hand. Overlap the two ends in your palm by about 2 inches. Squeeze the two ends together, then roll the two joined ends back and forth on the slightly damp surface to seal.
FYI: You might find that the side with the join is a bit narrower – you can even it out by going around and giving the whole bagel a bit of a squeeze.
Lay your shaped bagels on the lightly oiled and lined baking tray, cover the whole thing with cling film and leave to prove in the fridge overnight.
The next morning:
Bring the bagels to room temperature before baking. So, when you wake up, stumble to the fridge and take the bagels out roughly 90 minutes before you want to cook them.
Test that the bagels are ready to cook by gently sliding one into a bowl of water. If it’s ready, it’ll float. If not, put it back with the others and leave them alone for a bit longer (15 minutes or so, then try again). Once they’re ready, you can poach them.
Get a big pan of water boiling (you want at least 4 inches of water – I use a soup pot). When it’s boiling, add the teaspoon of baking soda and the remaining teaspoon of salt. Get the oven preheating to 250/260C (basically as high as your oven will go).
Bring the water to a simmer and start poaching the bagels in batches – 1 minute for the first side, then flip the bagel over and give it a further 30 seconds. Take out of the water and put on a slightly oiled baking tray. Repeat.
Sprinkle over your choice of topping (but if you’re making cinnamon-sugar bagels, you’ll add this topping once the bagels have baked) and put the bagels in the oven. Immediately reduce the heat to 230C.
Bake for 8 minutes, then turn the tray around (so that the side facing the back now faces the front) and bake for another 8-12 minutes. Keep an eye on them though – you don’t want them to get too dark.
When they’re ready, let the bagels cool slightly on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Then DEVOUR.
A final word:
- If you’re making cinnamon-sugar bagels, brush them with melted butter as soon as they come out of the oven and sprinkle over your cinnamon-sugar mix. It’ll form a crust as it cools.
- Try one of the four bagel toppings/fillings I wrote about last time.
- Or, for a true NY experience, try a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel. My favourite way to do this is borrowed from New York Cult Recipes (a great book by Marc Grossman):
- Generously spread the top and bottom halves of your bagel with cream cheese. On the bottom, layer – in order – smoked salmon, a slice of white onion, and two or three slices of tomato. Top with the other half of the bagel and enjoy, preferably with some coffee, a glass of OJ and the paper. As Grossman rightly points out: “nothing can beat it!”