Bagels and baguettes have to be eaten fast

There is a great article in the New York Times about bagels, the quintissential New York bread. It made me feel quite nostalgic.

When I lived in New York, I bought a bagel from my favorite place, Ess-a-Bagel, at least once a week. Ess-a-Bagel bagels are huge and filling, so just one would sustain me for breakfast and lunch. It would have been healthier perhaps (going on the theory that frequent smaller meals are better for you) to have half for breakfast, and save the other half for lunchtime. But I knew this was no good. A bagel has to be eaten as soon as it's bought.

Here is how the Times article defines what a bagel is:

A bagel is a round bread made of simple, elegant ingredients: high-gluten flour, salt, water, yeast and malt. Its dough is boiled, then baked, and the result should be a rich caramel color; it should not be pale and blond. A bagel should weigh four ounces or less and should make a slight cracking sound when you bite into it instead of a whoosh. A bagel should be eaten warm and, ideally, should be no more than four or five hours old when consumed.

A bagel, like a baguette, has no trace of added fat. White flour is for all practical purposes fat free. Any bread that is made with just white flour, yeast, water and flavorings (or yeast food, which is what that bit of sugar or malt you put in is) is extremely perishable. In addition, while breads made with natural leavening agents like sourdough do have good keeping qualities, bread made with yeast doesn't. That's why day-old baguette is really only good to eat toasted with stuff on it if at all, and why even hours-old bagels are past their peak. You simply cannot reheat a bagel successfully, in my experience. You can't even reheat it that well from frozen.

So I put the following bagel recipe with a word of caution: if you have leftovers, they aren't going to be that good. One way to deal with them is to turn them into bagel chips - slice them thinly, brush with something flavorful (butter, or olive oil, and a sprinkle of some dried herbs or garlic salt etc.) and bake them until they are golden brown and crispy. You can try freezing them, but they will be a bit tough no matter how you try to defrost them. (And microwaving bread is the worst thing you can do.) I only make bagels because it's impossible to get good bagels here in Zürich. (It is, however, possible to get excellent Bretzeln, big soft pretzels, here, which makes up for the lack of good bagel. Please don't even mention the abomination they call bagel sold at a certain place that will remain nameless in the Hauptbahnhof Shop-Ville.) If I was still within walking distance of Ess-a-Bagel, I wouldn't even bother.

This recipe is adapted (as I always tend to do with recipes I use frequently) from a terrific cookbook called the New York Cookbook. It's from one of the bagel temples mentioned in the Times article, Bagel Oasis in Fresh Meadows, Queens, and is very reliable. The only problem is that it makes a lot of bagels. Bagel party maybe?

Ess-A-Bagel is on East 51st Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan. Go with an appetite, and before noon.

Bagel Oasis Bagels

For the homesick New Yorker; makes 12 bagels

  • 4 cups of high gluten flour, such as bread flour or Zopfmehl
  • 1 package of dry yeast
  • 1 Tbs of brown sugar or malt (see notes)
  • 1 Tbs salt
  • 1 1/2 cups of lukewarm water (warm but not hot to the touch when you put your finger in)
  • Cornmeal for dusting the pans
  • Toppings to sprinkle on, such as sesame seeds, poppy seeds, dried garlic, dried onion flakes, even herbs like thyme or the "Herbs de Provence" mixture (optional and don't go too wild)

Proof the yeast. This means putting the yeast into a bowl or cup with half the sugar or malt and the water, mixing and leaving to bubble and foam in a warm place, for about 5-10 minutes. If it doesn't budge, that means the yeast is dead, so start over.

Add the salt and rest of the sugar. Add the flour 1 cup at a time, mixing well. Add more flour if necessary to make a dough ball that you can handle. Don't add too much!

Turn out onto a floured surface and knead well for about 5-10 minutes until it's nice and stretchy and smooth. The feel of good stretchy dough is hard to explain in words - you have to feel it with your hands. Bagel dough is pretty easy to get right - when you stretch it out you should see long strands. The surface should be just a bit shiny, not floury.

Put the dough ball in a large bowl, cover and let rise in a warm spot for about 40 minutes until more than doubled in bulk. (I don't grease the bowl, though you may choose to. You just have to scrape the dough off the bowl a bit when the rising is done. If I need the bowl for something else, I put the dough in a plastic bag, blow some air in, seal up the bag and leave it in a warm place to rise.)

Make ready a couple of baking sheets by oiling them with vegetable oil and dusting them with cornmeal.

Take a piece, and give it a good twist while forming a ring around one or two fingers, depending on how big you want your bagel hole to be. Pinch together the joining. This does take a bit of practice, but even malformed bagels come out looking fairly decent at the end so don't worry too much. Put each formed bagel on the baking sheets with space between them, and let rise uncovered for about 30 minutes.

In the meantime, put a big pot of water to boil, and turn the oven on to 420° F / 220° C (a bit lower if you have a convection oven).

Lower the heat of the water so it's not rolling in the pan. Use a slotted spoon or spatula to carefully put the bagels, one by one, in the water, for about 1-2 minutes each on each side, turning them over carefully with the spoon or spatula. Do not overcrowd the pot or overboil the bagels. Take each out and place on a thick kitchen towl or stack of towels to drain.

Place the bagels on other cornmeal-dusted baking sheets (or, re-dust the ones you were using). Sprinkle each with the topping of your choice. Place in the oven and bake for about 12 minutes. If you do not have a convection oven, turn the sheets at this point and bake for about 5-10 minutes more until golden brown. Take them off the sheets and let cool on a rack, or on a stack of dry kitchen towels.

Serve while still warm with cream cheese (Boursin is great ... and it's actually cheaper than the Philadelphia kind here), smoked salmon, other smoked fish, or buttered and toasted.

Note: malt, or barley malt, is available as a nutrition supplement. I have noticed that it seems to make the surface of the bagel slightly shinier and sort of more golden than sugar. But flavor wise it doesn't make much of a difference.

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