The first time my family came to visit me after I moved to New York, they asked where I wanted to meet for lunch and I said, “The 2nd Avenue Deli.” In retrospect, this was an odd choice, seeing as how I’m not big on sandwiches, or meat, or anything piled high with pastrami. But it was a New York icon only blocks from my home, and I was determined to try everything I could in this new city. I have no idea what I ate that day (blintzes, maybe?), but over the years I’ve tasted my way through most of the city, embracing some traditions and discarding others. But the one culinary landmark I’ve adopted more than any other is that most famous one: the bagel.
Don’t get me wrong, there were certainly bagels around growing up, but they often came in heretical flavors like blueberry and chocolate chip (not that I ate those, mind you, although I will admit to twice succumbing to a toasted chocolate chip one, I was ten, and really, I shouldn’t tell you this, but it was quite good, with it’s melty chocolate middles). Back then, my favorite treat was a cinnamon raisin bagel toasted with butter, something I still indulge in when wanting something slightly sweet and densely caloric. Today, pumpernickel bagels are my favorite, with their deep dark brown and undertones of molasses, I love them plain, or with the thinnest schmear of cream cheese.
It was only upon moving to New York that I really discovered the meaning of a good bagel, and it was only when leaving New York that I realized that good bagels are hard to find outside the Big Apple. It wasn’t until leaving the U.S. that making my own bagels even crossed my mind. In fact, if I hadn’t endeavored to make them, I would not have known that bagels are boiled, then baked, it’s the boiling which gives them their characteristic chewey-shiny exterior.
So when this month’s online baking challenge turned out to be bagels, I was happy to try them again. Even though it is a multi-step process, the bagels rise really fast, so there’s not much waiting one usually associates with yeast-doughs. I made both full size and mini bagels (dare I admit that I slightly over-baked one batch of the bagels and then fobbed them off on a friend, who deemed them very good anyways?) I much preferred the mini ones, they made a perfect 3-bite sandwich with caramelized onion and cheese. I’ll probably continue to go to Murray’s for my occasional bagel-fix, but it’s a good skill to have under your belt, especially if you live outside New York.
Bagel dough rises like crazy, which means no long waiting periods characteristic of many yeast doughs. Boiling gives the bagels their shiny surface, and malt syrup imports a traditional tangy taste, though if you don’t have any, sugar works just fine. This makes a lot of bagels, so you'd be well advised to halve the recipe.
6-8 cups bread (high-gluten) flour
4 tablespoons dry yeast
6 tablespoons granulated white sugar or light honey
2 teaspoons salt
3 cups warm water
3-5 tablespoons malt syrup or sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
choice of topping: poppy seeds, salt, sesame seeds, onion, etc.
1. Place the hot water in a large bowl with the 6 tbl sugar to dissolve. Sprinkle the yeast over the surface and stir to combine. Let sit for 5-10 minutes, until the mixture is bubbly.
2. Stir in 3 cups of the flour with the salt to make a soft dough. Continue adding the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, kneading into the dough until incorporated. At some point, you’ll want to turn the dough out onto a well-floured work surface so that you can knead it with your hands. Continue kneading, trying to incorporate most of the flour if possible. It will be quite elastic, but heavy and stiffer than a normal bread dough. Do not make it too dry, however, it should still give easily and stretch easily without tearing.
3. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in volume. This should take about 30 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, fill a large pot with a gallon of water. Add the malt syrup or sugar and bring to a boil. Lower the heat so that the mixture maintains a gentle simmer.
5. Punch down the dough, then divide it into 18-20 chunks of dough (if making mini bagels you’ll want many more chunks of dough). Put half the dough chunks in the fridge while you shape the first half (this will prevent them rising while you are working). Roll each piece of dough into a snake and tuck the ends together to form a bagel. Repeat with remaining dough. Let the bagels sit about 10 minutes, they should rise slightly (technically, they should rise 1/4 volume or ‘half-proof.’)
6. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Working 2-3 at a time, place the bagels in the pot of simmering water. Boil for about 3 minutes, then turn over and simmer another 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to drain on a towel. Repeat with remaining bagels.
7. Place bagels on parchment or silpat lined baking sheets. Brush the bagels with the beaten egg, and add any desired toppings. Bake the bagels for 20 minutes, then flip them over and bake for a final 5 minutes (flipping prevents flat-bottomed bagels). Cool completely on a rack. Do not attempt to slice or eat your bagels until they are completely cooled, as the interior will be smushy.