making bagels: a photo/essay

despite being many thousands of miles from my favorite foods, i have to say i’m making a pretty respectable effort here to recover some of these in my little corner of the boot. so yes, i’ve been craving a bagel with some of my favorite schmear (scallion cream cheese) of late and i figured hey, what do the bagel guys on montague street in brooklyn heights have that i don’t have, other than an industrial oven, temperature indications on said oven, access to the right flours, and years of experience?

so i started with this. i managed to track down some barley malt syrup from the one spice store in bra that sources obscure foodstuffs fairly unreliably. after a failed first attempt with 00 flour (much too fine and intended for pasta) and underkneading, i rallied and tried again. i have to say, mark bittman is my go-to guy for nearly everything, but he fails me wherever bread is concerned. (i tried to make scallion pancakes last week according to his recipe and abandoned it halfway because it was just so absurdly off my mother’s version, which i could only vaguely remember. my improvised, half-bittman, half-mom version was actually quite good.) that said, these worked out pretty well for the most part, with much tweaking along the way. see for yourself:

as everyone knows, real bagels are a two-step process of boiling and baking. i was advised to boil my little guys in water with a little baking soda. i’ll have to bone up on my mcgee to see what’s up, but it didn’t see to impart any discernible nastiness flavor-wise to the end product. didn’t really make it taste discernibly better either.

here’s my sheet tray of bagels — boiled on the left, about to be boiled on the right. i don’t know if it’s because my dough’s still underworked, but the boiled guys are pretty ugly looking, aren’t they? next time, i going to try to work them again before shaping and the second rise and see if that gets rid of the wrinklies.

and here they are, all in their beauteous, thoroughly-baked glory! i have to say, even though i have no idea what temperature my oven is ever at (the little knob gives me a choice between big flame, little flame, and a sort of gradient in between), it does a more than adequate job. with the silpat i finally remembered to bring back to italy with me, i got properly browned crusts, top and bottom, and a lovely, crispy exterior. and sadly, i have no cooling rack, so i improvised (just like when i bought a pair of pantyhose at the supermarket to strain my paneer) by using my dishrack.

there’s a lady at the market here who sells wonderful cheeses, raw milk, and even has cream cheese as well (it’s called “philadelphia” here, sadly), and i was totally psyched to have both bagels AND artisanal cream cheese, but i dunno — there’s just something lacking in the cream cheese. no verve. i may have to resort to actual Philly (which has a sort of off gumminess to it). even adding scallions to cheese lady’s cream cheese didn’t really work. maybe i’ll just have to use her kickass tomini instead.

my beef with these bagels is that there’s just barely a hint of bagel-y flavor. they’re pretty insipid, actually. the texture is dead on, however, which gives me hope. that was half the battle. the plan for version 3.0 is to put twice as much salt and malt syrup in. but there’s something about bagels, especially the really good new york ones, that gives off a really fundamental aroma. i always thought it was the yeast, but it must be the malt, because it’s much more particular than a plain old bread smell. can someone go to their local bagelry and find out from the bakers what i need to do to improve my bagels? i promise bagels and schmear on me when i’m back in the states.


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