An unconventional assortment of home-baked bagels. Back row (left to right): cracked pepper (2), black sesame, Aleppo pepper. Front row (left to right): wasabi sesame (2), poppy seed, plain. [Click to embiggen.]
“Lign in drerd un bakn beygl. I’m in Hell, baking bagels.”
- Classic Yiddish response to the question, “How are things?”
It was easy enough to get excellent bagels where I grew up on the south shore of Long Island. On any given Sunday morning, Dad - Eli, hizzownself - would go down to the appetizing store (AKA the local Bagel and Smoked Fish Shoppe) and come back with a white paper sack crammed with a glorious assortment of warm-from-the-oven bagels. As often as not, he would also have scored some smoked fish: Nova Scotia smoked salmon and belly lox. To me, there was no greater Food-Pleasure on Earth than a warm bagel, sliced in twain and slathered with cream cheese, then draped with silken sheets of fish. A 50:50 proportion of novy and belly lox provided the perfect ratio of smoke and salt.
On special occasions, the salmon would be accompanied by something extra. Perhaps a chunk of kippered salmon, or a few delicate slices of sable. And, once in a blue moon, there’d be sturgeon: a kingly treat. (Even then, sturgeon was ridiculously pricey.)
As far as varieties went, things back then were pretty straightforward. You had plain water bagels, of course (boiling in water before baking being an essential part of the process of baking the True Bagel), but there were also sesame seed, onion, garlic, poppyseed, salt, egg, rye, and pumpernickel bagels. The “everything” bagel (combining all of the critical toppings in one delightful amalgam) came along later, as did the loathsome cinnamon-raisin bagel.
You can get bagels in all sorts of styles these days, but anything not included in the above list is of questionable - to me, at least - historical provenance. However, far be it from me to tell you that you shouldn’t enjoy your cinnamon-raisin, blueberry, or cherry vanilla bagel... provided you have the decency to refrain from putting smoked fish on it, an act that desecrates both fish and bagel.
You can get bagels pretty much everywhere these days too, thanks to the Bagelization of America. McDonald’s, Einstein’s, the freezer case at your local supermarket... the damn things are everywhere. And, sad to say, most of them are crap. OK, I don’t expect a bagel from Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonald’s (home of the bacon, egg, and cheese bagel - a shanda!) or from Sara Lee or Lender’s (two freezer-case mainstays) to resemble a real, honest-to-Gawd bagel, but places like Bruegger’s and Einstein’s that ostensibly specialize in the things should know better. Feh.
I’ve actually thought of a few bagel toppings that, while decidedly non-traditional, are nevertheless reasonable extrapolations of what ought to go on a bagel. Wasabi-coated sesame seeds. Black sesame seeds. Aleppo pepper. Cracked black pepper. No bagel place I’m aware of offers this sort of weirdness, though... which means that if I want ’em, I have to make ’em myself.
Which is exactly what I did, using a recipe from Baking Illustrated, from the fine folks at America’s Test Kitchen who publish Cook’s Illustrated magazine.
The tricky part of baking bagels isn’t the boiling, or the kneading, or even the shaping - it’s getting your hands on the requisite high-gluten flour. Regular bread flour is OK, but you really want the high-gluten stuff for the right chew. Fortunately, I had a source: Tommy, proprietor of the Local Bagel and Smoked Fish Emporium, who set me up with a three-pound bag merely for the asking. (He buys it by the fifty-pound sack, a little more than I needed for my essay.)
You knead the crap out of the dough - before electric mixers, bagel bakers all must’ve had arms like Popeye - and then let it sit in the fridge overnight to slow-proof. During this step (the retarding process), slow bacterial fermentation takes place that gives the bagels their characteristic mild lactic acid tang.
They ain’t real bagels unless you boil ’em.
Before you bake the bagels, you give them a brief immersion in boiling water. Mass-produced bagels are often steamed instead, a labor-saving step that results in a fluffier bagel. Yech. (Characteristic grate marks on the bottom are a dead giveaway that the bagels have been steamed.) Thirty seconds is all they need - then the toppings are applied and the bagels go into the oven.
Inquiring minds will want to know: How did they turn out?
Too damn good, actually. It’s been a looooong time since I’ve ripped into a sack of warm bagels and snarfed down a couple in one sitting - nowadays, I am, like as not, to limit myself to half of one, with the lovely chewy insides scooped out and discarded... much like a potato skin. But not today. I dispatched two of these lovelies within minutes of extracting them from the oven.
Am I ashamed? Hell, naw.
Do I want another one? Hell, yeah.