The table as the gravitational center of our lives.

Homemade Bagels

“You are getting sleepy.  You…..are no longer a cat.  You are a bagel.” -ALF, wise-guy Melmac ex-pat alien and late-80′s sitcom hero, attempting to hypnotize Lucky, the Tanner’s cat

And so continues my deep-space mission to Planet Bread…..

I think if I were presented with a very long buffet table full of wonderful, freshly-baked breads from around the world, and given the choice to have only one thing, I would virtually always wind up in a toss-up conundrum between a French baguette and a New York bagel.  On the one hand, there is little bliss on Planet Earth that is more wonderful than a very lightly toasted slice of excellent, fresh French baguette topped with homemade orange marmalade and soft butter.  (Especially if you get to actually eat this in Paris.)  But on the other hand, the same holds true for half an Everything bagel, toasted and topped with a schmear of cream cheese, a slice of smoked Norwegian salmon, some diced red onion, and a sprinkle of briny capers.  I think today we’ll go ahead and focus on the bagels, because I’m nowhere near ready to tackle a proper French baguette.

I’ve come a long way since childhood (now THAT is a loaded statement!), when my favorite breakfast was a frozen Lender’s Egg Bagel (whoa, the brand graphics have changed so much since I last saw these!  It’s been a long time, Lender’s…..), toasted with a bit of butter, and a half-hour of Scooby-Doo on the side.  Now, though, I live in Brooklyn instead of Colorado, and am (by default) much more selective about exactly which bagels make their way to my mouth in the morning.

I’ve always wanted to take a shot at making my own bagels, and became especially intrigued when friend and very-recently-graduated (congrats girl!!!) French Culinary Institute pastry student Justine posted a few pictures of bagels she’d made in class.  I wanted to eat the screen.  I can think of several nights at school where I would’ve happily traded my culinary curriculum for a bit more of what the pastry students got.  In hindsight, I’d say “Organ Meats” night would’ve been gladly swapped out for 5 hours of bagel-making.

Bagel-making isn’t so hard.  You make a dough, let it rise, shape it, boil it, and then bake it.  And, well, I’ll tell you the truth.  These weren’t the best bagels I’ve ever had.  There are places in New York City (nay, 5 blocks away from where I sit right here in Brooklyn!) that can do this to perfection in their sleep, and this was my very first try.  But what they were not, however, was bad!  They were lovely fresh out of the oven, but lost a bit of character over the next few days after I stored them in plastic bags in the refrigerator.  To make these, what I pretty much did was dig through the Tastespotting aggregator for 20 minutes or so to find a recipe that looked remotely delicious and easy, and that had instructions that made some sort of sense to me.  I just wanted to dive in and give it a whirl, and be rewarded with breakfast at the end.  I made these in my pajamas, make-up-less, Sputnik lying next to me and staring up, tail wagging, while I cycled through several cups of French-pressed coffee.  These are my favorite mornings.  When showering and going on about my day take a logical-in-my-world second place to quiet, focused kitchen time (and time with cute puppies hoping for handouts).

I had some trouble here getting the dough to be moist and properly pliable.  You’ll notice in the photo that there are some gaps and ridges in the bagel edges, and I’m guessing that’s because the glutens were overdeveloped and the dough was therefore far too elastic at the time of cooking.  I think, as I work with more and more breads, that a bit less flour/a bit more liquid in the mixing process, a bit more oil involved during rising to keep the dough nice and moist, and a longer resting time to allow the glutens to relax further, would have together solved the problem.

Better-than-Lender’s egg bagels, you’re up next for sure.

Ingredients:

2 cups warm water

2 envelopes active dry yeast

3 tbsp. sugar (plus extra for boiling step)

5 cups flour (plus extra for bench flour), sifted

1 tbsp. kosher salt

Egg wash made from 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tbsp. water

About 1 tbsp. each of sesame seeds and poppy seeds (or whatever you feel like sprinkling on there – could be sea salt, onion powder, parmesan cheese, caraway seeds, etc.  The possibilities are endless.)

Instructions:

1.  In a stainless steel or glass workbowl, combine the yeast, warm water, and sugar, stirring gently to incorporate.  Allow to sit for about 5-7 minutes, or until bubbles have formed on the surface of the liquid.  (This lets you know that the yeast is alive and well in there, and doing its job.)

2.  In a food processor fitted with the dough blade, add 4 cups of the sifted flour and all of the salt, and pulse a few times to combine.  Then, with the food processor running, slowly add the yeast mixture through the feed tube in a gentle stream.  After about 30 seconds or so, the dough will come together in a big, soft ball.  Stop the food processor when this happens, and allow the dough to rest for 15 minutes.  Then, add the remaining flour 1/4 cup at a time, pulsing the food processor each time until thoroughly combined.  You should end up with a nice, stiff dough that is still pliable and not dry.  (NOTE:  You might not need all of the flour here, or you might need more.  A lot of this depends on the humidity in the room, the altitude, the ingredients you are using, etc.  The measurements given here are a good general guideline, but a little bit of this, as with all cooking, is in the feel.)

3.  Turn the dough out onto a clean, lightly floured surface and knead by hand until the dough is very smooth, very elastic, and no longer sticky, about 15 minutes.  (NOTE:  There is a good instructional video on kneading technique here.)  Place the kneaded dough into a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a damp towel, and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 40 minutes to 1 hour.

4.  Again, turn the dough out onto a clean, lightly floured surface.  Divide into 8 equal pieces.  Shape each piece into a bagel shape by gently forming a ball, and then gently poking your thumbs through the center while working your fingers gently around the circumference of the circle to form an even ring.  Place the shaped bagels on a tray lined with parchment paper or a light dusting of flour, and allow to rest for 20 more minutes.

5.  While resting, bring a big pot of water with a good tablespoon of sugar in it to a rapid boil over high heat, and preheat the oven to 400ºF.  Arrange a plate lined with paper towels, and line a clean baking sheet with parchment paper or a sprinkling of cornmeal.  Carefully lift the rested bagels and drop into the boiling water for 30 seconds on one side, then flipping over and boiling for another 30 seconds, working in batches if necessary.  Gently lift bagels out with a slotted spoon and drain briefly on the paper towels before transferring to the prepared baking sheet.  Brush bagels with the egg wash, and sprinkle with sesame and poppy seeds.  Bake on the center rack for about 20 minutes or until bagels have a nice, rich brown color.  Remove from the oven and allow the bagels to cool on a wire rack.

Yield: 8 well-rounded reasons to love breakfast at home

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