Ten years ago, only 20 percent of Americans had ever eaten a bagel. How things have changed. Today, bagels grace our breakfast tables as often as do toast and muffins. In fact, bagels are everywhere – in bakeries, grocery stores, and restaurants – and bagel franchises are popping up as rapidly as coffee bars.
It all started in 1683 when King Jan Sobieski of Poland, after saving the people of Austria from an invasion by the Turkish army, was honored with a yeast dough shaped into an uneven circle that looked like a stirrup, or beugel. Centuries later, Jewish bakers of Polish and Russian descent perfected the bagel and brought it to Long Island, where it stayed for many years, waiting to be discovered by the rest of us.
When you hunger for warm, fresh-from-the-oven bagels with a moist, chewy texture and a perfect delicate crust, you don’t have to run to the nearest bakery. Over many years of bagel making, I’ve developed a two-step process that lets you get homemade bagels to the table in ten minutes. I’ve also experimented with adding a variety of herbs to my basic bagel recipe; the results are unusual, wonderful flavor combinations.
Traditionally bagel dough is boiled briefly, and then the entire batch is baked at one time. Unless you have a large family that can consume an entire batch of bagels in one sitting, you end up freezing some of the bagels, leaving you with the same precooked, frozen bagels you buy in a store. With the process presented here, however, you boil the dough longer, completing the yeast action. As a result, you can store the boiled dough in airtight packages in the refrigerator, freezer, or even the pantry, then pop a few bagels at a time into the oven and enjoy your own warm, tasty bagel in as little as 10 minutes.
When I’m in the mood, I spend a morning in the kitchen making two or three batches of bagels. For the next several weeks, I enjoy these, one or two at a time, fresh from the oven for breakfast, lunch, or as an accompaniment to stew or soup.
Bagels, like most other breads, provide the perfect medium for enjoying the flavors of your herb garden. Just about any herb works in a bagel, so don’t hesitate to try other traditional or nontraditional herb combinations. For now, gather some thyme, sage, basil, oregano, fennel, caraway, or rosemary, roll up your sleeves, and let’s get started.
When you have room in your freezer and two to three hours of uninterrupted time in which to prepare a batch of bagels, gather together the following materials: a large mixing bowl; measuring spoons and cups; a large wooden spoon; a pastry scraper or dough knife; a clean cloth; a large roasting pan (the heavy-duty foil ones work quite well); 2 baking sheets; a large wire rack (or absorbent towels); and a large slotted spoon.
The dough: Choose a recipe from the ones that follow. Combine all the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the liquid. (On a humid day, use cool liquids; on an average day, use room-temperature liquids; on a dry day, use lukewarm liquids. When the air is dry, moisture is drawn from the dough, causing it to get cold very quickly, inhibiting rising.)
Turn the bagel dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it for 5 to 7 minutes, 150 to 200 strokes, using additional flour as necessary to form a smooth, pliable dough. It should be slightly sticky.
Cover the dough with a clean cloth and allow it to rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
Divide the dough into 16 pieces, about 4 ounces each. Shape each piece into a ball and allow it to rest for about 5 minutes.
Roll each piece of dough into a strand 8 to 9 inches long. Bring the ends of the strand toward you and form a circle by overlapping the ends. With one hand, lift the part of circle farthest from you and, with your other hand, roll through the center hole to seal the ends together. Place the formed bagels on a cornmeal-covered work surface, leaving 2 inches of space between each bagel.
Allow the bagels to rest, uncovered, until a finger makes a light dent and, when picked up, the bagels do not stretch out of shape from their own weight. Depending on the temperature and humidity of the work area, this could take 40 to 60 minutes.
Boiling: Meanwhile, prepare pans for boiling. A large turkey-roasting pan set over two stove burners will hold about eight bagels at a time. Two large, deep skillets or woks will do the same. Fill the pans with water to within 1/2 inch of the top and bring to a steady, gentle boil. Add water as necessary to maintain the highest level possible.
When the bagels appear ready and the water is gently boiling, place a bagel top side down in the water. It should float on the surface of the water with about half of the bagel above water. Add more bagels, being careful to leave room for them to expand. Using a skimmer or slotted spoon, carefully turn the bagels top side up and cook for 5 minutes. Turn the bagels again, and cook for 4 minutes longer. Gently flip the bagels over and scoop them out of the water onto a rack to dry. Repeat with the remaining bagels. This part of the process ensures that the bagels are cooked and the yeast action of the dough is completed.
When the bagels are cool enough to handle, set them top side up in a plate of cornmeal to coat the bottom evenly and then arrange them on a metal baking sheet. Set aside. When the bagels are cooled to room temperature, place them in the freezer. Allow them to harden enough so they snap from the trays, about 30 to 45 minutes. Place the bagels in plastic freezer bags or other airtight storage containers. You may freeze, refrigerate, or place the bagels in the pantry. Frozen bagels keep for 6 months; in the refrigerator, bagels keep for 5 to 7 days; in the pantry, 3 days.
Baking: When ready to bake, place the bagels directly on the rack in an oven preheated to 375°F. Bake frozen bagels for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a rich golden brown. Bake the refrigerated bagels for 12 to 15 minutes and pantry bagels for 10 to 12 minutes. Cool slightly before slicing.
Janet Dob, once a professional bagel maker, now works for the planning district in Charlottesville, Virginia. She still loves to cook.