I made bagels. Impressed, aren’t you? Okay, to be honest, I had some help. Perhaps you’ve heard of the fabulous Scratch Baking Company, which happens to be located in my wonderful, little neighborhood? Well, they have just come out with the first edition of a gorgeous new bi-annual publication called Baker’s Notes, which contains stories, photos, illustrations and, most importantly, recipes for some of their popular offerings…including, yes, bagels! I was honored, and admittedly, a little terrified, when dear friend, neighbor and head bread guru Allison Reid asked me if I would follow her bagel-making instructions to see if they made sense.
I vowed to try the recipe without calling or texting her every 5 minutes with questions, but I only made it to the point when the sourdough starter (graciously donated by Scratch) had been mixed with the water, flour and yeast and had come together into a tacky, but loose mass. I texted “My dough has muscle!” The recipe said it should make a thin sheet that tears when you stretch it and mine did this. I was excited. It seemed to my novice bagel baker’s eyes to be an excellent start.
Being passionate about bagel making, it was tough for Al to stay away. When she appeared in my kitchen after the dough had risen for about two and a half hours, I felt immediately relieved and excited that I would be getting a hands-on demo from the expert. This feeling faded quickly, however, when she looked at my dough, tasted it and said “Does this dough have salt in it?” “Salt?” I said trying to sound brave. “No…” and my voice trailed off as I realized I had completely forgotten a very key ingredient! After telling me that she tells her bakers that “Salt is the one thing you can NEVER forget,” I felt just a wee bit better that, in fact, bleary-eyed Scratch bakers had on rare occasions forgotten salt. One solution is to put sea salt on the exterior of the bagel. This does not solve the fact that you have dough that is very sticky to work with (just ask my dog who tried to snag a piece of dough off a cutting board only to find it was glued on there) and that your bagels are going to be essentially flavorless. Oh well. It was too late to start over and I had learned a valuable lesson: NEVER FORGET THE DAMN SALT!
We moved on to the next, and hardest, stage—shaping the dough into tight, but-not-too-tight little balls. I watched Al skillfully and confidently take a wad of dough and loosely cup her hand over it. After a few gentle pushing and pulling twisty movements, she had made it into a perfectly taut round. I tried to copy her, feeling pretty sure I was doing it right. In her most diplomatic voice she said, “That’s really nice, Stace, but you’re not really doing anything.” Oh. So I tried and tried again to get the hang of it. Naturally, by the time the last of 18 little balls of dough rolled around, I was pretty damn good. Several thousand dozen more and I might be as good as Al. We tweaked the language in the instructions a bit after this, but I heartily recommend viewing the fantastic video on the Baker’s Notes site as this is something that is much easier to do once you’ve seen someone else doing it.
The next step, after letting the rounds relax for a bit, is putting holes in them. This was also challenging, but easier than the previous step. Again, a light touch is beneficial—”try easier” as Al would say. After another spell of relaxation, the dough is ready for part one of the cooking process. The boiling part is pretty straight forward, although it takes focus to make sure you’re flipping them and pulling them out of the water quickly and carefully so they don’t get overcooked or damaged. Don’t be alarmed if they look like they have wrinkled old-lady skin when they emerge from their bath.
I doused mine with sea salt given the earlier omission, and because I love salt bagels, but you can top with various seeds if you like. After placing them on a pizza stone in the oven, I couldn’t contain myself. After a few minutes I had to peek. I opened the oven and squealed “It’s working!” The formerly wrinkly rounds were all puffed up and brown and looking beautiful. This was by far the most exciting part of the process.
After 20 minutes, I took them out and tore one open. “Wow, they look like real bagels!” I thought. I slathered some butter on a piece and bit in. My first thought was “Mmmmmm” and my next was “huh, kind of tasteless.” The crispy saltiness on the outside was great, but the inside flavor, as my husband pointed out, was that of a New York City street pretzel. Damn salt. Next time. Still, we enjoyed eating them (I mean, what’s wrong with a pretzel?) and the extras even froze well.
Now I’m sure some of you are wondering “Why would they give away the recipe to their unique, airy, best-in-the-whole-wide-world bagels?!” Well, I can tell you that while I thoroughly enjoyed this process, and plan to try it again, it will not exactly be something I can fit into my schedule on a weekly basis as it took the better part of a Sunday! I will still be buying the bulk of my bagels (say that ten times fast) at Scratch, but a few times a year when I have some down time and feel like having a long and incredibly gratifying baking experience, I’ll be turning to the bagel recipe in Baker’s Notes. And each time I will have a renewed appreciation for all the hard work that goes into those gorgeous bagels whose limited quantities have been known to cause melees in our otherwise law-abiding ‘hood. In the meantime, the recipes for their pimento cheese (which my husband has an unhealthy addiction to), super-fudgy brownies and banana bread will definitely satisfy my craving for less time-intensive, but equally tasty recipes.