A familiar scent wafted in the air as I observed a pastry class. I followed it, like a hunting dog, to the kitchen classroom next door.
At Stratford University’s Woodbridge, Va., campus last summer, Chef instructor Charleen Huebner was demonstrating how bagels are made. Mesh spider in hand, she stood over a wide, shallow pan in which four-inch rings of ruddy, almond-colored dough bobbed like Halloween apples on the surface of simmering, malt-flavored water.
The malt. The bagels in the oven. They mingled to produce the aroma that had drawn me in.
While turning the rings over, Huebner explained that malt imparts extra flavor and gives bagels a nice, shiny golden color. Kettling, or poaching, them briefly in hot water before baking gelatinizes the starch on the surface of the dough and sets the crust. That keeps the bagels from rising too much in the oven, which would make them too soft inside.
“What you want a bagel to be,” she said, “is chewy, not too big, and dome-shaped all around. It should have a pronounced hole in the center — not a pucker — and a beautiful shine on the outside. The inside should be dense, with a fine crumb.”
Her final product was all of that. The one I sampled, encrusted with sesame seeds, was still warm when I schmeared on cream cheese speckled with bright vegetable bits.
Bagels, like pizza, are one of those hot-button foodstuffs that evoke strong feelings. My memories of bygone pleasure are so visceral that latter-day specimens are hard-pressed to live up to them, let alone surpass them. But that day, Huebner’s bagels made the grade.
The experience in Huebner’s kitchen transported me back to Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, where as a child I would accompany my stepfather on Sunday morning runs to Iz Cohen’s delicatessen. After acquiring provisions there for our family’s weekly brunch, we would cross Murray Avenue and head to Bagel Land.
In that store’s close, narrow space hung the fusing smells of freshly baked, yeasty bagels and the near-burnt bits of onion and garlic that topped some of them. The place sweltered even in winter, its windows fogged from the steam rising off the water bath of dough rounds. A baker’s assistant flipped them with a long paddle before lining them up to be baked in the deck oven.
Recently, I decided to get in on the action by returning to Woodbridge for a bagel-making lesson. Many of the students at Stratford are adults seeking to change careers. (An associate of applied science degree in culinary arts there costs just over $30,000.) Huebner, 47, earned culinary arts and baking and pastry degrees in 1993 from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and then worked in the restaurant and catering industries. She joined Stratford’s staff as a full-time instructor in 2003.
Artisan Baking — 13 days spread over five weeks — is a required course for the school’s baking and pastry students. They learn how to make French, sourdough and rye breads, Danish pastries, croissants, brioche, non-leavened and leavened flatbreads, pretzels and bialys.
Huebner added bagels to the list eight years ago. She calls her recipe “a fusion of trial and error, research and knowledge from well-known breadmakers Peter Reinhart, Jeffrey Hamelman and Dan Leader.”
When I entered Huebner’s pristine, organized kitchen for my lesson, dough ingredients were lined up waiting to be assembled. As all professional bakers do, Huebner insists that for precision and consistency, ingredients must be weighed rather than measured by volume.
Into the bowl of a stand mixer went bread flour, salt, dry active yeast proofed in water, some light brown sugar and a wad of pre-ferment starter known as poolish, a combination of flour, water and yeast that had been left out on the counter for several hours to bubble, indicating that fermentation was taking place.
“Using a starter cuts down on the total proofing time of a dough and improves its flavor and texture by jump-starting the fermentation,” Huebner says.
As the flour mixture came together around the hook, the motor of the stand mixer seemed as if it was straining. Huebner noticed my concern.
“Bagels are low in hydration,” she explained. “About 52 per cent. So it will be a stiff dough. You can add water if it is too dry. If there is too much water, you won’t get the nice roundness. You will get more of a ‘bagel flat’ — which still tastes good.”
Her bagel dough was much firmer than a sandwich bread dough, so it took a little resolve to tear off pieces of it, which Huebner weighed to make sure each one was four ounces. She rolled them into balls on the countertop, using the palm of her hand. After they had rested for 15 minutes, she made a hole in the center with the index and middle fingers of one hand, lifting the ball off the counter and widening the hole to make it large enough to insert two fingers from her other hand as well. She used all four fingers to widen the center hole to about 1 1/2 inches across.
After all of the formed rings of dough were arranged on a cornmeal-dusted baking sheet, she enclosed the sheet in a plastic bag.
“Overnight proofing slows down the yeast, which mellows the flavor and yields a nicer product,” Huebner said as she extracted a sheet of proofed bagels from the reach-in. “You have to let them come to room temperature before kettling them; otherwise they will sink.”
We poached the proofed rounds briefly, then pressed their tops into poppy seeds, sesame seeds or an “everything” mix that included little bits of Litehouse freeze-dried red onions and garlic. (The last two are wonderful products I had never seen before. Huebner finds them at her local supermarket.) Then we baked them for roughly 18 minutes in a 450-degree oven. These bagels tasted just like the ones I’d had at Stratford in July.
Next stop: a bagel-baking frenzy at home. I had to add extra water to my dough, which was stiffer than the one from the lesson.
I devised two toppings for my bagels: one fiery with jalapeno, chipotle and Korean dried pepper I had on hand, plus zesty Spanish smoked paprika and crushed pink and black peppercorns; the other an everything mix made with sundry seeds and Japanese rice seasoning. My cream cheese-based spreads included one made with pan-seared cauliflower, curry and golden raisins and another with every hot pepper I could get my hands on. My favorite, though, was a BLT spread made with bacon bits, sun-dried tomato paste and crushed kale chips.
As my first-ever batch of homemade bagels baked, their familiar fragrance told me I was on the right track. When I sliced my first one open, its proper shape, golden brown crust, pleasing shine and fine crumb were all as they should be. I yanked off a bite with my teeth and noted the chewiness, savoring the heady mix of malt, yeast, salt, pepper, toasted seeds, onion and garlic.
I tried to remember what Bagel Land’s bagels had tasted like, but I couldn’t. My memory, it seems, had developed some holes.
Hagedorn is the co-author, most recently, of ‘My Irish Table: Recipes From the Homeland and Restaurant Eve,’ with Cathal Armstrong.
MAKES: Seven bagels
PREPARATION: The starter, or poolish, needs 3 to 4 hours’ resting time. There will be leftover poolish, which can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Bring to room temperature before using. It can be added to pancake mix or bread dough or used as the base of a starter. The bagel dough needs to rest at room temperature for 15 minutes, then 1 hour, then in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours and preferably overnight. Baked bagels can be frozen for up to 3 months; you may wish to cut them in half before freezing.
For the poolish
1 cup (5 1/2 ounces or 156 grams) unbleached bread flour
3/4 cup (6 ounces or 170 grams) water, at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon active dry yeast
For the bagels
A few tablespoons semolina or cornmeal, for the 2 baking sheets
1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
3/4 cup water, at room temperature, plus more as needed
3 cups minus 1 tablespoon unbleached bread flour (1 pound or 454 grams)
1 tablespoon kosher salt (1/2 ounce or 14 grams)
2 tablespoons (1 ounce or 22 grams) packed light brown sugar or honey
2 tablespoons barley malt syrup, such as Eden brand, or 2 tablespoons diastatic malt powder, such as King Arthur brand (see headnote)
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
Toppings of preference, such as poppy seeds, sesame seeds or caraway seeds, sea salt, minced garlic or onion or an “everything” mix
For the poolish: Use a spoon to combine the flour, water and yeast in a mixing bowl, stirring to form a soft, sticky dough. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it stand at room temperature for 3 to 4 hours or until the sponge becomes bubbly and foamy. The yield should be about 11 ounces.
For the bagels: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, then dust it lightly with cornmeal.
Stir the yeast into the water in a small bowl until dissolved; let it sit for 3 minutes. (Check after a minute or so for bubbles, to make sure the yeast is alive.)
Combine 1 cup (8 ounces) of the poolish, the flour, salt and brown sugar or honey in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough-hook attachment. Add the yeast mixture and stir until the flour is hydrated and a dough begins to form. (This ensures that no dry bits of flour will be stranded in the bottom of the bowl.) Beat on medium speed for 10 to 12 minutes. The dough should be dense and fairly dry to the touch, but smooth and stretchable. You might need to add a tablespoon or two of water to achieve the desired texture.
Cut the dough into 7 equal portions, about 4 1/2 ounces each. (Weigh the dough and divide by 7 to get the exact figure.) Use the open palm of your hand to roll each piece into a ball on the countertop. Cover the balls of dough loosely with plastic wrap and let them rest on the counter for 15 minutes.
To form the bagels, bring your index and middle finger together and poke a hole straight down into the center of a ball of dough and through it. Lift the dough off the table and spread your two fingers apart to create a hole large enough to work the index and middle fingers of your other hand through the hole in the opposite direction. Using a motion similar to pedaling a bicycle, rotate both sets of fingers over and over to expand the hole and the dough circle; the gluten will be quite strong and elastic. Make each bagel 4 inches across and the center hole about 1 1/2 inches wide.
Place the shaped pieces 2 inches apart on the dusted baking sheet. Enclose the sheet in a plastic bag or wrap it loosely in plastic wrap. Let the bagels rise until they look slightly puffy, about 1 hour. (They will not double in bulk.)
Transfer the covered baking sheet to the refrigerator for at least 6 hours or, preferably, overnight.
Thirty minutes before you plan to bake the bagels, remove them from the refrigerator.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment and lightly dust it with semolina or cornmeal. Line a second baking sheet with a dish towel. Pour preferred bagel toppings onto small plates.
To kettle the bagels, fill a large, wide pot with 3 inches of water; bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium so the water is barely bubbling. Stir in the malt syrup or powder and the tablespoon of sugar.
Reshape the bagels if necessary to make sure the center holes are still 1 1/2 inches wide and the bagels are 4 inches across. (The holes will shrink during baking.)
Working in batches of two or three, gently drop the dough into the water. Be careful not to crowd the pan; the pieces need enough room to float without touching. They should sink, then bob to the surface within 15 seconds. After a minute, flip the bagels over with a slotted spoon and poach them on the other side for 1 minute.
Use a slotted spoon to transfer the poached bagels to the towel-lined sheet to drain, flatter side down. If you choose to top the bagels, invert each one onto a plate of topping mix, press it down and then shake off the excess. Transfer the topped bagels to the dusted baking sheet, topped sides up, spaced 2 inches apart.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly browned. Rotate the baking sheet from front to back halfway through so the bagels brown evenly.
Transfer the bagels to a wire rack to cool for at least 30 minutes before serving.
To freeze the bagels right away, cool them completely and seal tightly in a freezer-safe zip-top bag.