Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bagels, old NY style

This is the country of bread, so we have a lot of kinds to choose from (in fact, there's a wonderful organic bakery across the street from my apartment). Bread has been a staple in my home ever since I can remember.
Bread, yes. Bagels? Not so much.
Actually, bagels only became available around here about 5 years ago. You still hardly find them in grocery stores, let alone bakeries. There are a few bagel shops, but I refuse to spend a whole euro or more on a plain bagel (to put this into perspective: a plain bread roll costs between 10 and 30 cents). And on top of that, the bagel shops are not even open on Sundays. Go figure.
Plus, real NY bagels are different than those sold here. They are tougher and very chewy, while ours have a fluffy, bready texture.
Anyway, it was make it yourself or cough up the cash for store-bought bagels. So I surrendered and started looking for recipes. Fortunately, a friend of mine has this book and was willing to lend it to me when I complained to her about the overwhelming number of recipes out there. She said this one was the best.
It's a little time-consuming, but it's not too hard to make if you go by your instincts.
It's basically made up of 5 stages: Making the sponge, making the dough, shaping, cooking, baking. However, they stretch over (at least) 2 days.

Here's the recipe (adapted from Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice; makes 8 average-sized bagels):

Day 1: Making the Sponge

  • 300 g (2 cups) bread flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 300 ml (1 1/4 cups) warm water
Combine flour and yeast in a big mixing bowl, add the water and stir (I used a fork) until it forms a very sticky dough. It doesn't need to be smooth. Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel or plastic wrap and leave it alone in a warm place for about 2 hours. I actually put it in my bed, because the thing just wouldn't rise. It should about double in volume and be very bubbly. It doesn't necessarily look bubbly. Resist the urge to add more water. I did that once. Bad idea. When it's ready, it collapses very easily when you tap the bowl on the counter or stir the dough. That's fine and intentional.

Making the Dough

  • 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
  • at least 260g (1 3/4 cup PLUS 2 Tablespoons) bread flour (I needed about 400 g, but start with 260 g and add as you go, if necessary).
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 tablespoon barley malt syrup (I got it at the organic food store)
When the sponge is ready (i.e. foamy), add the yeast and stir. Then add the salt, the malt syrup and about 4/5 (i.e. 200 g) of the flour. Mix well until the dough forms a ball and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Add the rest of the flour gradually, until the dough reaches a tough consistency. It should absolutely not be sticky or tacky. If you have added all the flour and the dough is still tacky, add more flour gradually until it doesn't stick to your hands anymore. I had to add about a cup (=140 g) more than stated in the recipe.
Now knead the bagel dough for at least 10-15 minutes. It needs to be stiff but not dry, and soft, but definitely not tacky. It's perfect when you can thinly stretch out a piece of dough between your fingers and not have it rip instantly (windowpane test). My dough took over 20 minutes until it was ready. If you want to save some time, use your stand mixer (dough hook).


When your dough is ready, divide it into 8 equal pieces (you can make more or fewer, depending on how big you want your bagels). Form each piece into a roll by tightly pinching together the corners you get from cutting the dough. Don't roll it between your palms like you would with cookie dough. The pinching method creates a nice smooth surface.
Place the dough ball seams down on a plate or baking tray lined with a lightly oiled sheet of parchment paper.
Cover the balls with a damp tea towel and let them rest for 20-25 minutes.
Now they're ready to get their bagel shape.
Poke your finger through the center of the dough ball and stretch the resulting hole. I just let it carefully spin around my index finger. Just take care to stretch the dough evenly. Make the holes a little bigger than you want them to be in the end, they will change a little as the bagels rest, cook and bake.
Put the shaped bagel back onto the oiled parchment, cover them with the damp towel or plastic wrap (I prefer to cover them with both - first the damp towel, then the plastic wrap) and let them rest again. Give them 20 minutes to rise slightly. If they don't, let them sit for a little longer and check on them every 10-15 minutes. They are ready to be retired to the fridge when a test bagel floats within 10 seconds of being dropped into a bowl of water. I didn't do that because mine rose significantly, but if you do, gently dry your test bagel with a paper towel and put it back on the tray.
Put the bagels into the refrigerator (covered) for at least 8 hours and up to 2 days.

Day 2: Cooking

  • 1 Tablespoon or so of baking soda
  • 2 Tablespoons of barley malt syrup
  • Toppings (I used sesame, but you could use poppyseeds, kosher salt, dried onions, different herbs... whatever floats your boat)
  • Semolina flour or cornmeal (optional)
Preheat the oven to 250°C (500 °F). Bring a big pot of water to a boil (a wider pot is better than a tall one). Add the baking soda and the barley syrup.
Get the bagels from the fridge. Drop as many as comfortably fit at once into the water and boil them for one minute. Flip them and boil for another minute.
While the bagels are cooking, sprinkle the tray with semolina to prevent the bagels from sticking. I forgot to do this the second time I made these and they still didn't stick, so suit yourself.
I used a skimmer to lift the bagels out of the water and put them back on the baking tray. If you want to use toppings, put them on the bagels now. If you're quick, you don't even need an egg wash.


Put the tray in the oven (middle rack) and bake 5 minutes. Then rotate it 180° and bake for another 5 minutes. I actually omitted this step, because my oven bakes very evenly. If yours doesn't, you should rotate your tray. Keep baking your bagels until you like their color. The recipe said to bake them for a total of 10 minutes, but I baked them for 17. Just keep checking on them and judge by the color.
Take them out and let them cool for at least 15 minutes.

Serve with cream cheese and smoked salmon (lox) or whatever else you like on your bagels. I made sundried tomato cream cheese (left in the above picture).

What else is there to say?

  • My bagels deflated slightly overnight. I kept the first batch I made on the balcony and apparently, it wasn't cold enough out there. So don't make more bagels than can fit in your fridge.
  • My first batch also had formed bubbles where the dough touched the plastic wrap. That's where water seeped in and made the bagels a little too chewy. I found that covering the bagels with a damp towel instead of/beneath the plastic wrap minimized that while still preventing the bagels from drying out.
  • The original recipe called for high gluten flour, which I couldn't find around here. I used all bread flour the first time. The second time I made these, I grabbed the wrong bag and used bread flour for the sponge, but all-purpose flour for the dough. I honestly couldn't even taste a difference, so if you're not a purist, go with the bread flour.
  • The barley malt syrup is absolutely essential. It gives the bagels a very typical flavor. You could probably use some kind of strong honey (fir honey might work), but barley malt is readily available even in Germany (try organic food stores; I got mine at BioCompany), so there's really no reason not to use it. The recipe calls for adding it to the dough, but I found that the bagels got a better color and a better taste by additionally adding some syrup to the boiling water.
By the way, excuse me for not taking more pictures, the bagels were all gone before I had a chance to. When I make these again, I will provide pictures, I promise. Can't be that long, either, the boyfriend has already requested them again for next weekend.

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