BBA Challenge Bread #3: Bagels

Published December 17, 2011 by livinggraciously

Many moons ago, when I was a young pup of 26 or so, living in Alaska, I made bagels a few times, mostly to take on camping trips. They were whole wheat, cinnamon-raisin bagels, which we ate with peanut butter, apple slices, and cheddar cheese, an amazingly tasty lunch  that could fuel many hours of hiking or paddling.

But the bagels themselves? They were awful: sad, misshapen lumps of vaguely ring-shaped bread. They didn’t rise well, they didn’t have anything in common with any bagel you’d find in a store, and we only enjoyed them because we were engaged in activities that burned about 700 calories an hour. Anything would have tasted good.

So given my sad history with bagels – arguably the best bread of all – I was anticipating this week’s bread challenge with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. This bagel recipe was certainly more sophisticated than the one I used 25 years ago, and I wasn’t going to try it with whole wheat flour the first time out, so I figured that I had a decent shot at making a food substance that didn’t require climbing a mountain to enjoy.

The bagels in Reinhart’s book are a two-day process–something I’ve gotten quite used to in bread baking. The process was a bit different than most, though, and there was no long rise of the dough prior to shaping. I had to read the instructions several times to make certain that I actually comprehended the process.

It was also the first recipe to call for an ingredient that I would consider to be a bit “exotic” (the definition of exotic ingredient is, of course, one that you’ve never cooked with before), malt syrup. The information about the recipe conceded that a different sweetener could be substituted, but that the result would just not be quite the same. So when I saw that Earth Fare carried malt syrup, I bought some, just for bagels. We call this, “dedication.”

The recipe also suggested using special, high-gluten flour in order to get that extra-chewy bagel flavor. This I chose not to do. King Arthur’s bread flour has a relatively high gluten percentage, and Ferrett is a little hesitant to bite into really chewy bagels because of his dental work. So less-chewy was quite acceptable.

The first step for bagels is a sponge, a very wet preferment (it contained all the liquid for the recipe) that sits for a couple hours getting bubbly and yeasty. (The book mentioned that sourdough can be used for bagels, but suggested not using it the first time, so I didn’t.) I mixed up the preferment and left it to get all bubbly:

As I was also making dinner in the midst of all this, and as our house is quite cool and stuff rises at a leisurely pace, the preferment actually sat for about three hours. At that point, the instructions are to stir in the other ingredients and then knead until all the flour is incorporated and the dough is silky and smooth. I measured in additional yeast and salt, and then cracked open the barley syrup.

And wondered why, in his suggestions for alternatives, Reinhart didn’t suggest molasses. Because it looked, smelled and tasted very much like molasses. Ah, well. It will no doubt come in handy at some point….

I began stirring in the flour, and it quickly became apparent that this whole mess had to be transferred to the countertop and the kneading had to begin. It was the weirdest feeling dough I’ve ever worked with. Because of the amount of flour suspended in the sponge, it felt at first like a non-Newtonian fluid.

The sensation of handling it was both freaky and fun. Eventually it started absorbing the rest of the flour, but for a long time was strangely lumpy. After 10 minutes of kneading, though, it was quite smooth and easily workable – in fact, almost rubbery.

This was good, because the next step was to divide the dough into 4-1/2 ounce segments and round it into little balls:

I understood better why there isn’t a rising period first. The gluten was still quite flexible throughout the dough, so it was sturdy enough to be torn into little bits and then mashed back together without much resistance from the gluten skin. The balls all had to rest for about 20 minutes, to let the gluten relax, and then shaping began.

Now, the traditional way to shape bagels is to roll each ball out into a tube, wrap the tube around your hand, and then roll the two ends together. To keep with tradition, I shaped one bagel in that way;

The final result shows why this method is a pain in the butt:

Not very even. The “cheaters” method is to flatten your ball of dough, poke your thumb  through the middle, and then turn the circle in your hand until it’s the right size. That worked okay, but was kind of boring. So I developed a modification. I poked through the middle with thumb and pointer finger, then twirled the bagel on my pointer finger until it was a little bigger than the perfect size (the elasticity of the dough means there will be some bounce-back). This method was so easy, and so fun, that I called my husband into the kitchen to make some bagels with me.

Once they are formed, the trays of bagels go into the refrigerator overnight. Two large jellyroll trays of bagels. Once again, I am glad for the auxiliary fridge:

In the morning comes the boiling and baking steps. The recipe said that the raw bagels could be held for two days, so I decided to cook only one tray of them this morning. Our friend Angie is here visiting, so I took orders for what kind of bagels people wanted. I could do this because I had ordered the King Arthur Everything Bagel topping mix. Once again, I made sure everything was on hand for the next step in the process:

One giant pot of boiling water, one oven preheated to 500(!) degrees, toppings to go on the wet bagels.

When I started boiling them, I was kind of disappointed with how flat they were.

I was careful to place them back on the tray with the same side up, because the bottoms were very flat. Then after sprinkling with toppings, into the oven they went.

12 minutes later, they came back out:

I couldn’t believe how gorgeous they were! They had sprung beautifully in the oven, puffing up and browning perfectly:

Once they were marginally cooled, I sliced them and we slathered them with the cream cheese Ferrett and Angie had generously braved the snow to acquire. Ferrett was also a total sweetheart and bought my some lox (the best part is I don’t have to share them because no one else likes them!) and I spooned a few capers into my sandwich:

These bagels were delicious! We all devoured them, moaning with flavor ecstasy the entire time. Our only complaint is that we are all still too full to eat the second ones.

Okay, well maybe Ferrett had one more complaint. He gently chided me that I’ve been baking too much bread lately. We’ve had some go stale simply because we had more of it than we could eat, and he suggested that maybe I should slow down a little.

I began to get defensive about this accusation, then I glanced at the counter, and took this picture:

The bowl next to the bagels? Not some dirty dishes needing to go into the dishwasher. No, that’s a sourdough bread that I’d mixed up and was letting rest before I kneaded it. With another tray of bagels waiting in the basement, there’s a chance that Ferrett might have a bit of a point.

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