Not many people remember their first encounter with a bagel, but I do. Having grown up in the small town of Penn Yan in upstate New York, I missed out on cultural diversity. Either I was completely self-absorbed or differences simply weren’t talked about. When I walked into Grant Hall as a freshman at Oneonta State College in 1979 all that changed.
I nearly fell over myself when I learned that some of the girls I’d be living with were Jewish. Outside of a global studies unit on the Holocaust, I had no frame of reference as to what it meant to practice Judaism and no concept whatsoever of traditional foods linked to their history.
The word bagel, in German, means bracelet. According to the Book of Jewish Food, the shape of the bagel – with no beginning and no end – symbolized the eternal cycle of life. Frequently sold by street vendors in baskets or on long sticks, it was the standard bread of Jews in Eastern Europe in the 17th century.
Eventually when people immigrated to the United States, they brought the bagel with them and some made a living selling them from pushcarts in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Recognizing there was a big gap in my understanding of the world around me, I was naturally curious. Unfortunately, I lacked (as I sometimes still do) appropriate social protocols. My roommate, Debbie, remembers me asking, “So, do you speak Jewish?” Clearly I had a lot to learn. Maybe it was her patience, and that recognition of how much there was to learn, that eventually led me to a year of studying world religions at an interfaith seminary.
Thankfully, Debbie was willing to share not just her faith but a whole world that I had never experienced!
When she brought me home to meet her family, she introduced me to Long Island flea markets, New York City, and bagels with lox. I still love flea markets and New York City, but I’ve never been able to wrap myself around the lox. Pass the cream cheese please.
During my 4 years in Oneonta, one of my pleasures was the bagel shop downtown where I tasted my first bagel. It was worth the bus ride or the long walk down the hill to get there and frequently ended up a stop on our late nights back to campus. Though a novelty at first, it became a part of my blood. Of course bagel shops are all over the place today but you know what they say about your first love, right?
Bagels are not hard to make. After months of hearing me list ingredients, contemplate whether or not you really need the barley malt and why bagels have to be boiled before baking, my daughter (a die-hard bagel lover!) finally tired of waiting, pulled out the bread bowl and made the bagels herself!
Since then we’ve made bagels plenty of times. I haven’t experimented with the barley malt that many cookbooks say make them taste and look like a bagel-store-bagel. I’ll get to it. Since I try to keep things as simple as possible, I question whether I really need it. We have, however, experimented with things already in our cupboard like dried blueberries or cinnamon and raisins.
I’m still working on making mine a classic bagel with just the perfect crust and rise, you’ll likely have to play with a few batches, too. For me, the process is as important as the results. Even if they’re not perfect, they’ll still be delicious and get eaten plus you’ll learn a lot along the way!
For this batch, we made a classic “Everything Bagel” topping. We love the garlic. We love the onion. Most people probably don’t love us quite so much when we’re breathing on them with our garlic-onion breath for the rest of the day, but so it goes.
You’ll notice in the pictures that Cori looks pretty spiffy. That’s because one of the wonderful things about making bagels is that you can make them the day before, put them in the fridge then just take them out in the morning to boil and bake. Easy! We love them hot out of the oven with butter or as an egg sandwich!
Let the kids into the kitchen when you start shaping these. They’ll love it!!! If you do some experimenting, let me know how they come out. If you have any tips or tricks…..please post them here! I’d also love to hear about any of your first encounters with a bagel! Please feel free to share this post with someone who might like to start experimenting along with us! Don’t forget to like Kneading Life on Facebook and join my contact list at the top of the page!
Enjoy your time around the bread bowl or come knead with me this Saturday at 9 am: Upcoming Classes.
*This bagel recipe is a modified version of “My Best Bagels” from Bread Alone.
My Best Bagels
1 1/4 cups non-chlorinated water
4 tsp yeast
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 T. fine sea salt
2 1/2- 3 cups all-purpose flour
1 egg white, lightly beaten
Combine the yeast and water in a large bowl. Stir until yeast dissolves. Add the whole wheat flour, salt, and enough white flour to make a thick mass that is difficult to stir.
Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, adding more of the remaining flour until the dough is soft and smooth, approximately15 minutes. I like to add enough flour to make it a dough that’s firm but pliable.
Let the dough rise, covered, until doubled in volume.
Divide the dough into 8 pieces.
Cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap and place in a moderately warm draft free place (74-80 degrees) for 10 minutes.
*Note I wanted hot bagels in the morning so I started late in the day then at this point, I put mine on a cornmeal dusted cookie sheet, covered them in plastic wrap, and put them in the fridge to finish when I woke up! You could continue right on to boiling if you’d rather. Just make sure before you start boiling them that you test one to be sure it floats when you put it in so that you know they’re ready for this step! If it doesn’t float pull it right out and wait a bit.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees at least 30 minutes before baking with a baking stone centered in the oven. If you don’t have a baking stone, make due with a parchment lined cookie sheet that has been dusted with cornmeal.
Combine 3 quarts water and 2 T. barley malt syrup (I didn’t). I’ve also read that you can boil the bagels in a large pot with 1/4 cup honey. This time, I opted for Peter Reinhardt’s method of adding a tablespoon of baking soda to a boiling pot of water.
Place bagels into the boiling water. After 1 minute flip them over and boil for another minute. Remove with a slotted spoon to a parchment-lined sheet pan that has been dusted with cornmeal. You can do them a minute longer if you like your bagels chewy.
Place the bagels on the middle shelf of the oven and bake until lightly golden; approximately 15 – 20 minutes.
If you can stand waiting, cool them till they’re at least just warm. Slather with butter or cream cheese and enjoy!
Want to experiment with another fun bread? Try Scavenger’s Bread and take a trip through your own kitchen cupboards!