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Making bagels (over and over) and finally getting them right

Posted in Baking, and Food & Entertaining

If I have to squander calories on heavy carbs, bagels come second only to pizza in my world.

Italy is a late comer to bagels, where they are still pretty non-existent (a few places serve them in major cities only), probably because a panino is a close cousin which lends itself to glorious variations.

I still remember my first bagel, on a Summer night in London, when my friend Jack, after a night of carousing in some club or other, drove me to the East end – which was far from fashionable at the time – and, at three in the morning, I stood at the counter of Beigel Bake on Brick Lane and enjoyed a bagel with lox. I was 20 and hooked.

When my sister was here last January, I wanted her to taste a real bagel.

If you are from New York, please don’t feel obliged to tell me how superior your bagels are. I tend to agree. You can eat a decent bagel pretty much in all the five boroughs but finding a great bagel in LA is not easy.  Things are changing, though, with the advent of artisanal bagels, whatever they might be. My favorites are from New York Bagel and Deli in Santa Monica, where I can be found, on occasion, early in the morning with a large paper bag full of them.

Over the years, I have attempted to make bagels at home, with varying results, and none to my liking. Why bother, if I could find a better product with much less effort at not much higher cost? Still, my baker’s pride was crestfallen.

When I took my sister for lunch at New York Bagel’s, we happened to strike up a conversation with the owner. I told him about my inability to produce a worthy bagel at home. His advice was to use high-gluten flour (which I already knew) and to let the bagels rest in the fridge overnight before boiling and baking them.

After I came across what looked like a reliable recipe in Joan Nathan‘s King Solomon’s Table (who also advocates letting the bagels sit in the fridge), I decided to give it a try, on a perfect rainy afternoon. I used bread flour and let the bagels rest in the fridge overnight. Then, on Sunday morning, I got up early to bake them.

The effort paid off: the end result was a crunchy and shiny bagel on the outside, dense and chewy on the inside. I was so proud I kept on heaping praise on myself and vowed to organize a brunch where I could boast to my guests I made the bagels.

The original recipe calls for malt syrup – the ingredient that gives the slight sweet flavor to the dough and makes the top shine (even if most commercial bakeries use sugar). I didn’t have any on end and used honey with very respectable results.

RECIPE – Yields 12 medium-sized bagels (smaller than what you would buy in a store)

675 g bread flour (about 5 cups)
1 ts active dry yeast
2 ts salt (I used kosher – use less if using regular iodized salt) + more for boiling
3 T honey, divided
sesame seeds

  • Put the yeast in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment and add 395 ml (1 2/3 C) lukewarm water. Add the flour, salt and 1 T honey. Mix on low-speed until the dough comes together, about 5 minutes. Cover with a cloth and let rest in a warmish, or at least not drafty, spot for a couple of hours.
  • Punch the dough down. Sprinkle some flour on a board and shape the dough in a loose rectangle and cut it into 12 portions. Roll each portion, using your hands, into a 1” thick rope which you will circle around your hand to form the bagel.
  • Put the bagels on a baking sheet sprinkled with some semolina (or flour if you don’t have semolina). Cover tightly with plastic and place in the refrigerator overnight, up to 24 hours.
    When ready to bake, turn the oven on to 450F (230C). Place a large pot half filled with water to boil. When it starts boiling, add 1 T salt and 2 T of honey. Prepare a cooling rack (or other sheet with holes) over the sink, to drain the bagel. Drop the bagels into the boiling water, making sure they don’t overlap (you will probably have to repeat this process twice) and let cook for about three minutes. You will see the bagels popping up to the surface.
  • Use a slotted spoon to fish the bagels out and let them drain for a minute. At this point, you can dip them into the sesame seeds or any other topping of your choosing.
  • Place the bagels back on the baking sheet with the semolina and bake in the lower third of the oven for about 20 minutes, or until they are a nice golden colour.
  • While you wait, brew the coffee and get out the cream cheese, lox or your favorite fillings.

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20 Comments

    • It took me various attempts, over the years, to get them right. It had become personal….

      May 22, 2017
      |Reply
      • Good for you! After the sourdough bread, making bagels is most impressive. Sadly my luck was absent. Baking at high altitude is always an ‘adventure.’ *sigh*

        May 22, 2017
        |Reply
  1. Penni
    Penni

    I will try to make them. One question: do you bake them on the baking sheet with semola?
    I love the way you talk about food…

    May 12, 2017
    |Reply
    • Exactly. So they don’t stick. Just a sprinkle. Flour doesn’t work as well.

      May 12, 2017
      |Reply
  2. Ah, the bagel shops in Brick Lane! I miss them. They’re still delicious and (be still, my beating heart) affordable. I wonder if they have vegetarian options? The last time I went there I was still eating fish, so smoked salmon was my choice…

    Since I’m writing, a baking question: so leaving the dough in the fridge overnight makes it denser? I’ve been trying to make sourdough and my results have been pitiful at best, the bread comes out dense and not to my liking, there isn’t even that bitterness that one should expect with sourdoughs… What am I doing wrong?!

    May 12, 2017
    |Reply
    • I am here to tell you they have a wide array of fillings, as far as I can remember, and I am sure there are veggie choices – and yes, they are incredibly cheap (albeit smaller than the average American bagel). As to the sourdough: are you using a fermented starter? I assume so right? It really needs to be fermented for a long time to get that sour taste. Also, there are tricks to getting the consistency right, i.e. the holes in the dough that you want. But that is a subject for a post. Will write it for next Wed. but do bear in mind that achieving the same result in a home oven is tricky. But we can improve what you have now.

      May 12, 2017
      |Reply
      • I am using a starter, yes. I’ve tried with dry yeast, with fresh yeast and my own mother culture. I think I botch things up on the second rise 😕 Looking forward to that post!

        May 13, 2017
        |Reply
  3. Proverò, non li ho mai fatti e mi piacciono molto

    May 11, 2017
    |Reply
    • Li adoro, specialmente con il salmone affumicato.

      May 12, 2017
      |Reply
      • Anch’io! Devo venire a Los Angeles … 😉

        May 12, 2017
        |Reply
  4. Unfortunately I do not like bagels. I have tried them so often but fail to see their appeal.

    May 11, 2017
    |Reply
    • I love them! Love the outside crust and chewy interior, especially if filled with lox. But there are so many crappy ones around.

      May 12, 2017
      |Reply
      • Give me a baguette any day!😋

        May 12, 2017
        |Reply
        • That is another problem: finding a really good baguette in LA! When I lived in London, and used to go to Paris for the day on business, I would always fly back with a couple of baguettes under my arm!

          May 12, 2017
          |Reply
  5. silvia
    silvia

    Good girl so you can add this to list of things you can cook for me next time I am in LA 😊
    Jack!!!!!!!!!

    May 11, 2017
    |Reply
    • Yes, Jack! Absolutely, will make them for you.

      May 12, 2017
      |Reply
  6. I’ve never really understood the popularity of bagels, but now I wonder whether that is because I’ve never had a really good one. This recipe seems very doable. I had no idea bagels are boiled before baking them. Thanks for this very interesting post.

    May 11, 2017
    |Reply
    • I agree with you there. Havevtried them in every city, including NYC, but really do not care for them.

      May 11, 2017
      |Reply
    • Boiling them gives them the dense texture inside and the shine. Baking them finishes them off and hardens the crust. Other than London, I have never had a worthwhile bagel in Europe. Try and let me know.

      May 12, 2017
      |Reply

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