Bagels in the time of Corona

We are now living through a pandemic. Going to the bakery involves masks, gloves, strict social distancing ballets, and disinfectant. It feels apocalyptic. Creating bagels at home requires being covered in flour, messiness, kneading, the smell of baking in the morning. It feels…homey.

How to decide?

Bagels are pretty unique in the bread family in two ways: one is their torus (donut) shape, with a hole in the middle. This shape gives the bagel as much surface area as possible for their size, so that the dense insides can cook all the way through. The other is the curious step of picking up the risen torus entire, tender and fluffy from the bubbles trapped inside, and slipping it into boiling water for a minute before baking.

It’s odd, I tell you. I’ve made a wide variety of breads, from multigrain loafs baked in 9 by 4s to free-standing sourdough loafs to chapatis roasted on a griddle to pooris fried in oil. The step of boiling is completely unique. Generally, when you boil dough, you get dumplings, not bread.

And yet, here we are. Is a matter of fact, the boiling gives the bagel a sheen—and more importantly, a smooth soft shell, that preserves the shape and density during baking. That’s how you achieve the chewiness that for some reason is a match made in heaven (or “match made in leaven” perhaps) with cream cheese.

The method

Bagel dough is pretty standard, if perhaps drier and denser than a standard loaf bread destined to turn into slices and sandwiches. You have the option to add as much whole wheat flour as you like up to about 50%—I generally go with a third whole wheat, two-thirds not.

The list of toppings and flavorings that can be added, either to the dough, or on the surface of the boiled torus before baking, are endless: from cinnamon, to onions or garlic, to seeds like poppy, sesame, caraway. But I’m going to focus on the bagel recipe as a basic template, for you to experiment with on on your own dime.

Just like standard bread, there is a first rise. Depending on the amount of yeast added, and the temperature around your countertop, this can go from an hour to overnight in the fridge.

Just like standard bread, there is a shaping and a second rise. But rather than shape into a loaf, one breaks the bagel dough into pieces, rolls each piece into a snake about a foot long, and joins the snake head to mouth into a torus shape.

Then, of course, there is the boiling and the baking.

Sugar: this recipe is ideal for people who get tired of the amount of added sugar in commercially available food; it has no sugar at all. If you want to add some, you can add a teaspoon to a tablespoon or sugar or honey dissolved in the water.

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Flour + water

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Mixing the dough

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Dough

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After first rise

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Break into six pieces

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Start shaping each

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Rolled out to snake shape

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Join at ends

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Start second rise

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Risen

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Boil

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Toppings

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Done!

Bagels

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups flour (up to a third whole wheat, the rest bread flour or all-purpose)
  • 1 tsp instant yeast
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1.25 cups water
  • 0.5 onion, sliced, for onion bagels (optional)
  • 2 tbsp mix of sesame and poppy seeds, for seeded bagel (optional)
  • other topping ideas:
    • garlic
    • shredded cheese
    • jalapenos
    • caraway seeds

Method:

Collect your flours in a wide bowl. Sprinkle the instant yeast over and stir it into the flour with a fork. Then sprinkle the salt over and stir that in as well.

Make a well in the center of the flour with a chopstick. Pour the water in. Start mixing the flour into the water with your chopstick (a wooden one works best because it won’t stick to the mixture). Once most of it is mixed in, turn the dough onto a counter to knead.

Continue to knead for a few minutes, until you have a smooth ball of dough. Cover with oil and plastic wrap, and leave it to rise for about an hour or two, or until puffy and almost doubled.

Divide the dough into six approximately equal pieces, using a pastry scraper to make neat cuts, rather than pulling it apart. Cover all the pieces with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap while you work on shaping each piece.

To shape a piece into a torus shape: gently roll into a foot long shape with some stretching, some rolling, some flattening, resting it for minutes at a time. Moisten the two ends with some water and connect end-to-end in a bagel shape.

Place them side by side on a well-floured cookie sheet, with at least a couple inches between them. Cover with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap to avoid drying out. Leave to rise for another hour or two.

Pre-heat oven to 425° F.

Set a large pot of water to boil. When it comes to a rolling boil, lower the heat to just above a simmer. One by one, gently scoop up each bagel by teasing it onto a slotted spoon and lower into the boiling water. Boil each side for 30 seconds and leave to drain. This is the time to put toppings on, such as fried onions or sesame seeds.

Place the tray with the boiled bagels into the oven for 20-25 minutes. Wait at least half hour before slicing them.

They go very well with butter, or cream cheese, or my idiosyncratic favorite: cream cheese and jam.

I’d love to hear in comments or on Twitter/Facebook if this worked for you. I would love to see pictures of your bagels!

(Follow me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry and on Facebook at The Odd Pantry.)

Star-studded raisin-pecan bread

Star-studded bread

Star-studded bread

A lot of what I know about bread-baking I learnt at the home of Rose Levy Berenbaum. No, she is not my favorite aunt or neighbor (though how I wish she were) — she was in her home, on TV, and I was in my home, watching TV and earnestly taking notes.

I have made several of the breads in her book The Bread Bible, and this one is one of my favorites. Of course breads with raisins and nuts are quite common. But the standard configuration they come in is the sliced bread with a square shape, sprinkled with cinnamon and a swirl in the middle. Now that is wonderful, but there’s more to raisin-nut breads than the cinnamon swirl.

The Bread Bible

The Bread Bible

This particular bread (called the Raisin Pecan bread in the book) is a free-form loaf that is baked ‘naked’ in the oven, outside of any pans. Those are my favorite kinds of breads because of their crustiness. There is no cinnamon — that is the other difference. There is no swirl, instead the raisins and pecans are nicely spread throughout the loaf, hence the name that I gave it — star-studded. There is no added sweetness, making it less of a confection and more of an adult dinner bread. Spread with something creamy like clotted cream or a nice white cheddar it is one of the most popular snacks in our home.

She uses some ingenious tricks to enhance the flavor. A sponge is mixed hours ahead or the previous day. Raisins are soaked for 30 minutes, no more; and the soaking water is used in the bread. Some of the pecans are ground fine to be mixed in with the dough, some are just broken bits and add a delightful crunchiness to many bites. The nut and raisins are mixed in in a very delicate procedure, after all the heavy kneading is done,  to avoid a mess of runny raisin juice. Simple, small tricks, but they make a big difference.

I made one more modification — I substituted quite a bit of the flour with whole wheat, because we like that in our household.

Star-studded Raisin-Nut Bread

Mixing the sponge

Mixing the sponge

Soaked raisins

Soaked raisins

Pecans

Pecans with some pistachio thrown in

Straining ground pecans

Straining ground pecans

Ground pecans and bits

Ground pecans and bits

Sponge risen

Sponge risen

Mixing the dough

Mixing the dough

Spreading pecans

Spreading pecans

Adding raisins

Adding raisins

Rolling it up

Rolling it up

Ready for first rise

Ready for first rise

Shaped ready for second rise

Shaped ready for second rise

Risen

Risen

Scored

Scored

Done

Done

Star-studded bread (adapted from Rose Levy Berenbaum's raisin-pecan bread)

  • Servings: 2 pound loaf
  • Print

Ingredients for soaking raisins:
  • 1 cup raisins or currants
  • 1/3 cup water
Method for soaking raisins:

Soak the raisins in hot water for half an hour. At this point, drain the raisins and you will be left with 1/4 cup water, that you can use to make the sponge below.

Ingredients for sponge:
  • 1 cup bread flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1 cup water (including raisin soaking water)
  • 1 tablespoon demerara sugar
Method for sponge:

Mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl, then pour in the water (remember to use 1/4 cup of the raisin water for added flavor), and stir stir stir with a wooden spoon or chopstick, almost like you are whisking it. The sponge will look like batter with some air incorporated into it. Cover with a plastic wrap and keep aside at room temperature for at least 1.5 hours, at most a whole day.

Ingredients for dough:
  • 1.5 cups plus couple teaspoons more of whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1.25 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup finely ground pecans
  • 1.5 cups coarsely broken pecans (I substituted some with pistachios)
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • All the sponge from above
  • All the raisins from above
Method for dough:

Stir together the flour, the yeast, the salt. Add in the sponge and the oil and the ground pecans, stir with a chopstick or the dough hook to moisten fully.  Cover with plastic wrap and leave it aside for 10 minutes. Come back to it and knead it properly into a dough. Let it rest for 10 more minutes.

Now flatten the dough and spread it out into a rough rectangle about 10 inches by 15 inches. Spread the broken pecans bits all over the rectangle leaving an inch border on all sides. Then spread the raisins over the same area evenly. Start rolling up the dough from a short end, also taking care to tuck in the edges. All the nuts and raisins will be hidden inside.

You do need to knead it lightly after, just to get it all to combine. At this point nuts and raisins might start falling out of your dough ball, just do your best to tuck them back in.

Cover with oil and allow the first rise until it is doubled, which will take about 2 hours. Shape it into a loaf and allow the second rise till doubled, covered with plastic wrap or a damp towel. This will take about 1 hour.

Heat the oven to 400ºF. Score the bread with a sharp, serrated knife. Each cut should go about half an inch deep. Mist the bread and put into the oven on a middle rack. In the first 5 minutes, mist inside the oven with a water spray bottle and quickly close the oven, about 3 or 4 times. After the first 5 minutes bring the temperature down to 375ºF. Continue baking for 40 to 50 minutes until it is golden brown.