I will eat just about any bagel–especially if it is toasted and spread with cream cheese. Even a poorly made bagel somehow tastes better than other poorly made food. It is, of course, quite obvious and pleasing when you feast upon a bagel of the highest order, but I will happily settle for a mediocre bagel in a pinch, and I will probably enjoy it. That being said, I’d never considered making my own bagels. When I pictured bagel making, I imagined mysterious dough formulas, giant vats of swirling boiling water, highly precise temperatures, hours of attention-requiring steps, and all sorts of other scary stuff. I don’t know where I got these notions. For some reason I relegated bagels to the “intimidating baked goods” category of my food brain, along with croissants and fondant icing, never allowing it to reside in the very accessible “bread” category where it belongs. It didn’t really occur to me that if I could enjoy a half decent bagel at the airport, then I could probably enjoy a half decent bagel from my own kitchen. I never bothered to clear up my bagel confusion (until today, of course) and preferred to enjoy their tastiness with a side of mystery and misinformation.
Once again, Peter Reinhart entered the scene, and so on and so forth. (Mr. Reinhart, I promise I will stop sharing your recipes so frequently, it’s just hard to resist!) Once again making life easy and making bread tasty, Reinhart’s signature overnight fermentation cut out at least 50% of the mystery and intimidation that comprised my silly bagel notions. (I used his bagel recipe from Artisan Breads Every Day–an even further simplified and perfected version of the one that appears in Bread Baker’s Apprentice) Ready to apply the same principal of drawing out the most flavor through a long and temperature-reduced fermentation period in the fridge overnight, I began by mixing together the dough.
I combined 1 TB honey (as I had no barley malt syrup), 1 1/4 tsp. dry active yeast (or 1 tsp. instant yeast), 1 1/2 tsp. salt, and 9 oz. lukewarm water. I then mixed in 16 oz. bread flour and began to knead. I hadn’t entirely prepared myself for such a different hydration percentage, and had to remind myself that the dough was supposed to feel this stiff. The higher ratio of flour to water is what makes bagels what they are–chewy and dense and delicious. After a few minutes of preliminary kneading I got into my bagel groove and had accepted the dough for what it was. I then gave the dough a wee rest to pull itself together before a few minutes of final kneading, at which stage it began to feel quite lovely and soft, but still noticeably more stiff than, for example, the dough of a French bread. After an hour-long rise at room temperature, the dough was ready to be manhandled into bagel shapes.
This is where I could sure use some practice. I tried both the “roll into a rope and seal the ends” method of bagel formation, and the “poke a hole in the center and expand” method. I found that I wasn’t particularly gifted at either. No matter which way I shaped, one side was always a bit lumpier than the other, and on occasion, my bagels ended up looking like very thin hula-hoops before I squished them back into recognizable cherubic forms. Regardless, each 4 oz. dough ball ended up bagel-esque.
I brushed these little fellows with olive oil, covered them tightly and stuck them in the refrigerator for their overnight transformation. When I got home from work today, I pulled them out of the fridge, and played the bobbing-for-raw-bagels game. If you stick one of the bagels in a bowl of cold water and it floats, they are all ready to be boiled and baked. If it doesn’t float, you let them proof a little longer and then try again. My little guys were as buoyant and seaworthy as could be, straight out of the fridge, so I got to work boiling some water. At this point, the other 50% of the bagel mystery fell away. No scary and rigid temperature requirements or crazy close monitoring of salinity and acidity levels with test tubes and vials and beeping implements.
The only set-back was that I discovered a nice and steady drip in the bottom of my prized Goodwill purchase–the only correctly sized pot I had for this kitchen experiment. My two alternate vessel choices, aside from welding my leaky pot back together, were either insanely huge or outrageously tiny. I discovered that the insanely huge option, while allowing all of my bagels to boil at once, would never fit on top of my miniature burners, so I went the outrageously tiny route and boiled bagels one or two at a time.
I brought my small pot of water up to a boil, brought it down to a steady simmer, and then added 1 1/2 tsp. honey, 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda, and 1/2 tsp salt (reduced versions of Reinhart’s proportions) to make my “poaching liquid.”
I dropped each bagel in the liquid for a one minute bath on one side, and then flipped it for a thirty second bath on the other side.
After each poaching, I sprinkled a bounty of seeds on top of the now rather sticky little inner tubes, until all six bagels (plus one mini guy) were ready for their final oven treatment.
Sixteen or so minutes later, six (and a half) bread products that actually looked like bagels (much to my surprise!) emerged from my 450 degree oven, all nice and caramelized.
The whole process wan’t remotely intimidating, time consuming, terrifying or disastrous–all of which I had long assumed it would be. It was definitely remotely tasty, and I dare say even quite tasty. On the scale of airport bagel to whatever the opposite of airport bagel would be, these were definitely on the favorable end. The interior was soft and chewy and dense without being brick-like, and the exterior was golden and sweet. Zoom in on the interior!
And zoom in on the exterior!
The body of the bread itself was very flavorful from the long overnight fermentation and from the small amounts of honey and salt, but I couldn’t resist my favorite bagel combination, and I defiled my beautiful new bread with cream cheese. Thank you Peter Reinhart for your bagels, I will now be giving you a break so as to avoid publishing all of your recipes and receiving copyright infringement notices.