Sag Harbor Days: Birthday Bagels

Real New York bagels can be recreated at home.

Today is my dad’s birthday, and although I celebrated with him earlier in the month, I’m thinking of him now. He’s hard to shop for, so I was happy when he made a special gift request. He and mom want for almost nothing at their tropical retirement paradise. But they can’t get real bagels, so he asked me to bake a batch while I was visiting. When he tasted them, just out of the oven, he gave them his highest compliment: “Not bad.”

I admit I was a little rusty, living in a place where bagels are not uncommon. After looking at a few recipes, I put together one with ingredients they had on hand. While experts will tell you that you need bread flour, I used regular old all-purpose flour. They also insist that barley malt syrup is essential for giving bagels their golden crusts and mild but essential sweetness. I found that a spoonful of brown sugar in the dough worked just as well.

Bagel dough is relatively stiff and dry, contributing to bagels’ chewy, rather than fluffy, texture. To prevent motor burnout or the possibility of my mom’s KitchenAid mixer walking off the countertop during kneading, I kneaded my bagel dough by hand.

Shaping the dough into perfect circles was always the most difficult part of the process for me. Then I discovered a genius hack on the King Arthur Flour website. Rather than rolling each piece into a rope and then joining the ends together, which often results in bagels of uneven thickness with visible wrinkles and cracks at the point of connection, simply shape the pieces into rounds and poke a hole through each round with your finger, gently stretching the hole until it is about an inch in diameter.

Boiling gives bagels their unique look. Bagel dough is chilled in the refrigerator rather than fermented on a countertop, cooling it down to well below a standard room temperature of 70 degrees. So par-boiling the bagels before putting them in the oven brings the interior temperature of the dough up high enough so the yeast will become active in the oven. At the same time, par-boiling kills the yeast close to the surface, solidifying the crust and limiting the rise so that the bagels keep their characteristic donut shape and dense texture. Finally, par-boiling contributes to a beautiful shine by gelatinizing the starches on the surface of the dough before the bagels go into the oven. The pre-gelatinized starches turn shiny and golden in the oven.

Classic Bagels

Makes 8 reasonable-size bagels

1 ½ cups warm water, plus 2 quarts water for boiling

2 teaspoons instant yeast

4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

3 tablespoon light brown sugar

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 egg white, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons poppy seeds

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

  1. Combine 1 ½ cups water and the instant yeast in a large mixing bowl. Add the flour, salt, and 1 tablespoon of brown sugar and stir with a rubber spatula until a rough dough forms. Turn the dough out onto the countertop and knead until it is smooth and elastic, 10 to 12 minutes. (For bread novices, this is how you knead: push downward and outward on the dough with the heel of one hand, then pull the far edge of the dough back over the top, rotate the ball, and repeat.) Transfer to a large, clean bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let stand until puffy and almost doubled in size, 1 ½ to 2 hours.
  2. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Turn the dough onto the countertop and divide into 8 equal pieces. Shape each piece into a tight round (to do this: Gather one piece of dough together in a rough ball by cupping your hands around the dough and rotating it on the counter several times) Poke a hole through each dough round with your index finger and gently stretch the dough until the hole is about 1 1/2 inch in diameter. Place four bagels on each of the two baking sheets. Drape with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature 1 hour. Refrigerate 12 to 24 hours.
  3. Preheat to 450 degrees. In a large pot, bring the remaining 2 quarts water, remaining 2 tablespoons light brown sugar, and granulated sugar to a simmer.
  4. Place 4 bagels in the simmering water and cook 2 minutes at a bare simmer, turning once. With a slotted spoon or spatula return to the baking sheet. Brush with egg white, sprinkle with seeds, and bake until shiny and golden, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Repeat with remaining bagels.