Making bagels — in New York.
The task, on its face, seemed like it would be so simple it was almost laughable. After all, I’ve baked. I happen to live in bagel-central. What could be difficult?
It turns out, a lot.
The idea to make bagels was hatched, as many semi-zany ideas these days are, online. I’d been following the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge, organized by Nicole, a San Diego cook, on her Pinch My Salt blog. Her idea was to learn how to bake bread by trying every single recipe, in order, in Peter Reinhart‘s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. Soon, more than 200 bloggers worldwide joined in. A bread-baking cult was formed.
After being stranded without my beloved oven for two weeks in Singapore, I was eager to bake something — anything. So when bagels were announced as the challenge of the week, I threw in my spatula.
That was the easy part.
For starters, it was oddly difficult to find high-gluten flour, malt powder and malt syrup. I called Whole Foods, Garden of Eden, organic food stores and little food boutiques like Sahadi’s in Brooklyn Heights that sell hard-to-find ingredients. Nada.
After a day of searching, it became rather ludicrous, given that I live in New York, where you can buy bagels on virtually every city block.
I started tearing my hair out; people began questioning the sanity of my quest. “Aiyoh, why did you sign up for something like that?” Chef Simpson said. “Some more, bagels are so cheap!”
With my deadline looming, my local bagel shop, Montague Street Bagels, galloped to the rescue. After explaining my troubles to owner Joe Aceto in as calm a voice as I could muster, he immediately disappeared into his kitchen and emerged with a bag of high-gluten flour.
“What else are you going to put in it?” he asked, wincing when I mentioned malt syrup and powder. “It’s going to give it a bitter taste!” he said, disappearing once again and returning with a little baggie of brown sugar and very stern instructions to “use this instead.” Given that he makes and sells more than 200 bagels a day using an old family recipe — and that he was my high-gluten hero — I figured I should listen to him.
The first step was to mix a teaspoon of instant yeast with four cups of high-gluten flour and let it sit for two hours to let the mixture rise.
Then, I added salt, brown sugar, more instant yeast and a few more cups of high-gluten flour to the mix and and really stirred it up. I’d been tempted to do this using my KitchenAid standmixer but Peter Reinhart, in a recent interview I did with him, had warned me against it. “It’s a fairly stiff dough … it can burn out your KitchenAid,” he said.
I was glad I listened because this was one stiff ball of super-gluey stickiness. I began to understand how getting stuck in ectoplasm might feel.
Then came the kneading — which was supposed to happen for 10 minutes in order to do a successful “windowpane test,” where the dough is so elastic that you can stretch it out to form a semi-sheer “window.”
I kneaded. And kneaded. And kneaded. My hands, my arms, my elbows hurt. There was sweat on my brow.
I began to think that even though Michelle Obama has said, “You know, cooking isn’t one of my huge things,” she might change her mind if she realized how much it could help keep those super-toned arms of hers in shape. Who needs a gym when you can bake bagels?
After 30 minutes of pressing and pummeling, when the dough felt plenty stretchy even without any windowpaning, I made the executive decision to listen to my growing pains and stop. I rolled up the dough into 10 little balls, guesstimating that each one was the 4.5 oz. it was supposed to be.
During that time, I made an important discovery. When it comes to baking, guesstimation would be a “Don’t.”
Comparing notes with other bakers on Twitter, I realized that I was supposed to have 12 bagels, not 10. (Big thanks to Phyl from Of Cabbages & King Cakes and Heather from Flour Girl for setting me straight — I swear I’m buying a kitchen scale soon.)
But it was too late — my bagels had been made. And I had to sleep in them. (Or something like that.)
Besides, Mike, a great lover of all breads, had been growing more excited by the hour about the possibility of home-made bagels for brunch. The next morning, even before his eyes were open, Mike mumbled, “Don’t you have bagels to be making?”
And so the boiling began.
I put them in boiling water for five minutes on each side and then they were ready for coating.
After kicking myself for throwing out the last of the Japanese crushed seaweed, sesame seed and sea salt mix that I sometimes use on rice, I tossed together some rehydrated, minced garlic, sesame seeds and poppy seeds.
I wasn’t sure how much to put on them so I laid it on thickly.
And, into the oven they went for five minutes at 500 degrees and then five more minutes at 450 degrees.
Because my bagels were so massive, they looked a little pale at the end of 10 minutes so I let them go about four minutes longer so they could get that light, honeyed color.
The end result was lovely — I’d never eaten a bagel fresh out of the oven before. The middles were soft and chewy and they had a lightly sweet taste that made them better than versions I’d bought in stores. (Except for bagelshop Joe’s versions, of course — the apprentice can’t knock the master, after all.)
When I’d decided to make bagels, even I questioned the silliness of it. I rarely eat bagels myself — and, what would be the point of learning to make something that I probably will never make again, given that I can buy fantastic, cheap versions all over New York?
Watching Mike attack my bagel, however, I began to understand. And when he asked for seconds and then contemplated thirds, the purpose of this endeavor dawned on me.
The next time I return from Bergdorf with another Sorry-Honey-I-just-couldn’t-resist-them pair of Louboutins, I’m making bagels.