Hey, so, I kind of need you to do me a favor. It's no big deal, really. Just a little favor. Leetle.
What are you doing Sunday morning? Want to come over for breakfast? Please?
See, the thing is, I just figured out how to make bagels. I spent my whole life convinced that they were complicated and difficult to make at home, that there was no point in even trying, that bagels were just one of those things best left to the experts. My whole life! And now I'm trying to make up for lost time. Thirty-three years' worth, to be exact.
Because - because! - it turns out that making bagels is about as difficult as tying a shoelace. Or washing your hair. Or licking a stamp. I'm only exaggerating a tiny bit, I promise.
All you really need is Peter Reinhart's recipe. Oh, sure, it says you have to use fancy bread flour, but I made this with the plain, old all-purpose in my pantry, and the bagels were perfection: chewy on the inside, crisp on the outside. It also asks for barley malt syrup, but I was far too lazy to go out hunting for that when I had honey in the pantry (which Baker Reinhart says is an acceptable replacement) and the bagels were delicious as can be. You can even do it all by hand, needing no stand-mixer or food processor or anything of the like.
Easy. So easy! I can't get over it.
Here's what happens. You make a stiff little dough just by mixing together the flour, water, yeast, honey and salt. It'll look a little coarse when you get it all together, kind of like this:
You let that sit for a few minutes, just to relax. Then comes the fun part: kneading! Don't worry, it's just for a little bit, two, three minutes, tops. A few slip slap, slip slaps and you've got this:
I don't know about you, but to me a gorgeous ball of bread dough, luminous and glowing in the late-winter light, is a thing of beauty. I could sit and gaze at it for hours, so full of promise and possibility. And the way it feels! Satiny smooth, like the underside of my grandma's arms. Some people have Apple products, others have automated vehicles; me, I've got dough to moon over.
Once you've finished gazing at your ball of dough adoringly, you pop it in an oiled bowl and refrigerate it for a while. For example, if you wanted fresh bagels for Sunday morning breakfast, you could make the dough on Saturday around lunchtime, pop it in the fridge until just before bedtime and then shape the bagels and refrigerate them before going to sleep.
Let's say you're doing it that way and it's now Saturday evening and the dough's been in the fridge since lunch. You take the dough out of the fridge and gently remove the now-puffed dough from the bowl. Divide it into six or eight pieces. (I made eight bagels out of this batch and I loved the modest size of them, but my mother complained that her bagel wasn't big enough. So if you like puffier bagels, just make six.) This next bit is really the most complicated part of the whole deal:
Take each piece of dough and roll it out into a snake. Form the snake into a ring, pressing and working the ends of the dough into each other so that the ring doesn't come apart. This takes more pressure than I expected and I kept thinking, as I squeeeezed, that I was hurting the bagel dough or something like that. (Maybe I should spend less time gazing lovingly at dough balls and more time telling myself that anthropomorphizing dough isn't the best use of my critical faculties.) You'll get the hang of it. Luckily, bread dough is pretty forgiving. Plop your pretty little rings on an oiled piece of parchment paper, cover them with plastic wrap, stick them in the fridge and go do something fun with the rest of your evening.
The next morning, get up a little earlier than everyone else. Take the dough out of the fridge and let it warm up to room temperature. The best part is right around the corner, I'm so excited for you! Boil some water and add baking soda and salt to the water. Then gently slide the bagels, all puffed and wondrous under your fingertips, into the water (just a few at a time, unless you're working with a cauldron). In the water, the bagels expand a little and develop a bit of a skin. You turn them around, letting the other side have a go as well, and then you take them out and put them back on the baking sheet.
I happen to think poppy seeds were put on this earth to be paired with bagels, but you can do whatever you like with the bagels at this point. Sesame seeds, poppy seeds, nothing at all, this is up to you. (Only the cinnamon sugar route should be done after baking - check the original recipe for more on this.)
Just looking at these photographs is flooding me with warm, fuzzy feelings. I want to hug Peter Reinhart! I want to festoon myself with bagels! And I want to have you all over for Sunday breakfast so I can make a triple batch of these again!
Once the boiled bagels are adorned with their cap of seeds, slide the baking sheet into a hot oven and get the breakfast table ready. Lox! Cream cheese! Butter! I hope you are prepared. Rouse those sleepy heads who have no idea just how good they've got it, or not yet, in any case.
Because just about 15 minutes later, you're going to have a tray of gorgeously brown and crisp-skinned bagels in your kitchen, making your house smell like H&H (I used to live across the street from their 80th Street outpost - I know that smell like I know my own mother's). It will seem barbaric, completely inhumane, but you have to force yourself to wait about thirty minutes before slicing open a bagel and eating it for breakfast. Busy yourself with other things, like buying stock in a flour company.
Excruciatingly, the minutes will somehow tick by and then, finally, you can throw yourself at your table and have yourself a bagel so good you will not believe your mouth. They're chewy in all the right places, their crust is speckled with the tinest, prettiest blisters, they have little pockets just waiting to be filled with a smear of cream cheese. And you made them. From scratch. Unbelievable.
I swear to all that is holey (har) that these bagels are so good you won't even need H&H anymore. No, not even you, New Yorkers! I know you might not believe me. But that's what brings me around to my original question. What are you doing on Sunday morning?
Makes 6 to 8 bagels
3 1/2 cups (1 pound) unbleached flour (bread or all-purpose)
3 teaspoons salt, divided
3/4 teaspoon instant yeast
1 tablespoon honey or barley malt syrup, if you've got it
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon baking soda
Poppy or sesame seeds
1. By hand, mix the flour, 2 teaspoons salt, the yeast, honey and the water until the ingredients form a stiff, coarse ball of dough (about 3 minutes). If necessary, add a little more water. Let the dough rest 5 minutes.
2. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface until the dough feels stiff yet supple, with a satiny, slightly tacky feel, 2 to 3 minutes. If the dough seems too soft or too tacky, sprinkle over just enough flour as needed.
3. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and place it in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to several hours. Keep in mind that the bagels must be shaped before proofing overnight.
4. When ready to shape the bagels, line a baking sheet with lightly greased parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
5. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and divide it into 6 to 8 equal pieces. Form each piece into a loose, round ball by rolling it on a clean, dry work surface with a cupped hand; do not use any flour on the surface. If the dough slides around and won't ball up, wipe the work surface with a damp paper towel and try again - the slight amount of moisture will provide enough "bite" for the dough to form a ball. When each piece has been formed into a ball, you are ready to shape the bagels.
6. Using your hands and a fair amount of pressure, roll each dough ball into a "rope" 8 to 10 inches long. (Moisten the work surface with a damp paper towel, if necessary, to get the necessary bite or friction). Slightly taper the rope at the ends so that they are thinner than the middle. Place one end of the dough between your thumb and forefinger and wrap it around your hand until the ends overlap in your palm; they should overlap by about 2 inches. Squeeze the overlapping ends together and then press the joined ends into the work surface, rolling them back and forth a few times until they are completely sealed.
7. Remove the dough from your hand and squeeze as necessary to even out the thickness so that there is a 2-inch hole in the center. Place the bagel on the prepared sheet pan. Repeat with the other pieces. Lightly wipe the bagels with oil, cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight.
8. Remove the bagels from the refrigerator 90 minutes before you plan to bake them. Fill a large stockpot with 3 quarts of water (be sure the water is at least 4 inches deep), cover with a lid, and slowly bring the water to a boil. When it comes to a boil, add the remaining teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of baking soda, reduce the heat and simmer with the lid on.
9. Thirty minutes before baking, heat the oven to 500 degrees.
10. Test the bagels by placing one in a bowl of cold water. If it sinks and doesn't float to the surface, return it to the sheet, wait 15 minutes and then test it again. When one bagel passes the float test, they are ready for the pot.
11. Gently lift each bagel and drop it into the simmering water. Add as many as will comfortably fit in the pot. After 1 minute, use a slotted spoon to flip each bagel over. Poach for an extra 30 seconds. Using the slotted spoon, remove each bagel and return it to the lined baking sheet. Continue until all the bagels have been poached. Generously sprinkle each bagel with a topping.
12. Place the baking sheet in the oven and reduce the heat to 450 degrees. Bake for 8 minutes and then rotate the sheet (if using two sheets, also switch their positions). Check the underside of the bagels. If they are getting too dark, place another sheet under the baking sheet. Bake until the bagels are golden brown, an additional 8 to 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer the bagels to a rack for at least 30 minutes before serving.