Ah, the bagel. On a par with Starbucks for its ability to exude a highly contrived air of Manhattan-style chic and sophistication, the bagel is perhaps, after pizza and baguettes, the world's most iconic bread product. I remember thinking I was so cool the day I convinced Mum to buy me a packet of bagels from the supermarket, back in the days where the parents had total control over what foodstuffs were present in our household (other regular items I sneaked into the trolley included Frazzles, those ghastly yet so good bacon-flavoured crisps, and Yum Yums which, if you've never tried one, are like long twisty doughnuts with crunchy sugar icing and, sorry, where have you been living for the last god knows how long?)
I remember that first moment where the bagel emerged from the toaster, its glossy, firm exterior feeling slightly sticky to the touch, its crumb possessing a density quite unlike any other dough-based product I'd sampled. I remember slathering it with butter and eating it for breakfast, and wanting more - that subtle sweetness combined with the chewy crust was a new and addictive combination. But most of all I remember feeling grown-up, cosmopolitan, worthy of mingling with the cast of Friends - thus far my only real insight into the world of cool New Yorkers. The bagel was not an English muffin or a white roll. It was not even a baguette or a ciabatta. The bagel was beyond such rustic frivolity, whispering hints of urban sophistication and a well-heeled life lived amidst vibrant, bustling city streets. It was cool.
Looking back, I feel a bit silly. Bagels no longer possess that certain je-ne-sais-quoi for me that they once did, perhaps because they are ubiquitous and often really rather inferior fare. I had a particularly disappointing experience with a packet of seeded bagels from Asda a few months ago. I'd always wondered what chewing my way through a cardboard box would feel like, and after forcing down one of those bagels I finally had my answer. Large companies seem to think that the word 'bagel' equates with the word 'stale', using the former term to pass off something that was perhaps once bread but now resembles an old boot. Just because it's called a bagel, doesn't mean you have license for it to be tough, mealy and generally deeply unpleasant. Just because bagels beg to be toasted, doesn't mean it's OK for them to be in a near cremated state before they get to the toasting device.
Homemade bagels are a revelation.
After reading this excellent post by one of my favourite food bloggers, thelittleloaf, I finally got round to trying out bagels at home. They've been on my to-cook list for years, but her post spurred me to action, particularly because I realised how little work is actually involved in producing these remarkable little breads in your own kitchen, and also because she too has had disappointing bagel experiences but assured me that the real, freshly baked thing is a different beast altogether. Oh, it really was.
The main difference between baking bagels and baking bread rolls is that you boil them briefly (very briefly - 10 seconds in total) in sugared water before baking them. That's what gives them that firm, chewy, glossy crust. It really is no more difficult than that. You make a basic dough of flour, sugar, water, salt and yeast, leave it to rise, shape it into bagels (no hidden art here - just poke a hole through a ball of dough with your finger or a wooden spoon), leave it to rise again, then boil and bake. The whole process can take under two hours in a warm place.
And oh, are they worth it. These bagels are quite unlike those dry, pappy things from the supermarket. The crust is gorgeously firm and crunchy, while the inside is soft and tender like freshly baked bread. I was really unsure how these were going to turn out, having only ever had mass-produced bagels before, but I'm a total convert. One of the best parts is that you can make sure the hole in the middle isn't too big, so you can actually spread fillings and toppings onto your bagels without them disappearing down that black hole of sadness. Another is the ability to customise your bagel - I can't wait to experiment with other flavours; a sundried tomato and black olive version is next on the list.
I used a mixture of spelt and normal bread flour in these, because I love the stronger flavour of spelt flour - you need a good taste to your bagel to ensure it stands up to those inevitably strong flavourings (smoked salmon, cheese, bacon, salami, maybe even some nutella...not all together, obviously). I also scattered the tops with poppy and sunflower seeds for added crunch and texture, and to make them look prettier. To get a nice golden, chewy crust I brushed the tops of the bagels with beaten egg after boiling and before baking, but this step isn't essential.
These are a world away from anything you can buy in a bag. I love the chewiness of the crust and the soft, yielding crumb. I love the smell emanating from the oven as they bake. I love flipping them over in their little jacuzzi of boiling water, watching the dough seize up and transform into something glossy and firm. I love the crunch of the seeds and the nuttiness of the spelt flour. I particularly love spreading them with cream cheese while still hot, before topping with a pink curl of smoked salmon and a scattering of peppery rocket.
Bagels have regained their coolness, in my eyes.
Do you have a favourite topping that you'd like to slather over a warm, freshly baked bagel?
Homemade spelt and seed bagels (makes six):
Barely adapted from thelittleloaf
150g strong white bread flour
100g spelt flour
1 tsp dry/instant yeast
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp oil
165ml warm water
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
Poppy and sunflower seeds
Put the flours, yeast, salt, tsp sugar and oil in a large bowl. Pour in the water and mix to a smooth dough. Knead on a work surface for 10 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic (or use the dough hook on an electric mixer). Put back in the bowl, cover with a clean tea towel and leave in a warm place (an airing cupboard is ideal) to rise until doubled in size, about 1-2 hours.
When the dough has risen, divide it into six smooth balls. Cover these with the tea towel and put in a warm place for 20 minutes.
Bring a large pan of water to the boil and add the brown sugar. Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Take each ball of dough and make a hole in the middle with your finger, gently stretching the dough out around it to form a bagel shape. Drop each one into the boiling water, leave for five seconds, then flip over and leave for another five seconds. Remove and place on an oiled baking sheet. Brush the tops of the bagels with the beaten egg, then scatter over the seeds.
Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until golden brown but still slightly springy to the touch. Eat while still warm.