Sara Went to Brazil; I Made Bagels

When Sara took off for Sao Paolo, Brazil, in 2012, just a few weeks after our daughter left for college in Pittsburgh, I watched the plane fly off into the distance and thought that this wasn’t how becoming an empty nester was supposed to work out. But Sara was chasing a lifelong dream and it wouldn’t last forever, so I determined to make the best of it.

I filled that gaping 18-month hole in my life with all kinds of boring shit—like working too much and watching lot of sports on TV—and also with a little weird shit, like going to beaches, bringing back smooth round rocks, coating them in clear varnish, and putting feet on them (oh yeah, I made a video of this one). I climbed a lot of mountains. There was a sad stretch too, which I affectionately call “Caipirinha Summer,” after the strong Brazilian cocktail I had learned to make during our Christmas visit to Ihlabela. It sounds romantic, doesn’t it? Well it wasn’t: it was day after day of me sitting alone on my back porch, drinking myself into a dull stupor, bored and lonely. There was no tawdry shit.

Of all the holes that Sara’s absence left in my life, there was only one I filled to my satisfaction: I learned to make my own bagels. For many years Sara had made bagels for me. She loved to bake and I loved bagels. I was the big winner in this exchange, true, and that made it all the harder when she was gone. I tried to fill the hole with grocery-store bagels (blah) and I tried switching to oatmeal, but what I really wanted was a crusty, dense, home-made bagel. And so I learned how to make my own.

Here’s the recipe I use. I got it off the internet and I’ve tweaked it here and there, but it’s basically the same recipe as the original.

Try following the recipe closely first few times, until you get comfortable with the feel of the dough, then by all means experiment. I’m still searching out the perfect way to get chunks of jalapeño into the dough: chopped fresh, they add too much liquid, but roasting makes them to soft and they fall apart. I’ll figure it out, eventually. 

Tom’s Bachelor Bagels

Sponge:

  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 4 cups bread flour (white)
  • 2 1/2 cups lukewarm water

Dough:

  • 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 3 3/4 cups bread flour (I prefer 2-3 cups of this to be wheat)
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon malt powder (I order from Amazon)

or

  • 1 tablespoon malt syrup, honey, or brown sugar (any of these work well)

Finishing touches:

  • Baking soda for the water (1 tablespoon, or a good shake, as you wish)
  • Cornmeal for dusting the pan
  • Toppings for the bagels such as seeds, salt, onion, or garlic

Directions

This is a 2 day recipe, with the bagels spending the night in the refrigerator before baking on day 2. My only rule on when I start is that it’s got be at least 4 hours before bedtime.

Day 1: Kneading and Shaping

To make the sponge, stir the yeast into the white flour in a large mixing bowl. Add the water and stir until all ingredients are blended. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise for two hours in a reasonably warm place.

Remove the plastic wrap and stir the additional yeast, malt powder, and salt into the sponge. I use the kneading hook on my mixer. Then add the rest of the flour; you can add 3 cups right away, then add the last amount slowly as the dough comes together.

A note on this second addition of flour: it’s up to you on the proportion of white and wheat flour. White flour will make a lighter, fluffier bagel; wheat makes it richer, thicker. Over time, I’ve come to prefer 2-3 cups of wheat flour, but make it the way you like. I’ll just say, the wheat flower is “thirstier” and makes for a drier dough, so you might not use quite as much.

Knead the dough in the mixer until it starts to form a dense ball. I’ll say, this dough is so dense that it eventually overheats my mixer and I take it out and finish the kneading by hand. You’re looking for a stiff dough that springs back when you poke it. I generally lookin for a combined kneading time of about 10 minutes, but it’s really all about the feel.

Immediately after kneading, split the dough into 12 equal pieces. This will get you a pretty decent size bagel. Roll each piece into a ball and set it aside. When you have all 12 pieces made, cover them with a damp towel and let them rest for 20-30 minutes.

Shaping the bagel is easy: punch your thumb through the center of each ball and then rotate the dough, working it so that the bagel is as even in width as possible.

Place the shaped bagels on an oiled sheet pan (you can use parchment paper if you prefer), with enough space between the bagels that they can rise a bit. Cover the pan with plastic (I use two small plastic garbage bags, one from each end) and allow the dough to rise for about 20-40 minutes; you just need enough time for the bagels to start to rise and fill in again before you pop them in the fridge to “retard” overnight.

Day 2: Baking

I love a fresh-baked bagel for breakfast so I always do the baking first thing in the morning, but it’s up to you. For me, day 2 starts when I take the bagels out of the fridge, take off the plastic bag, and let them come up to room temp and just start to rise again.

Preheat the oven to 500 (yes, 500). Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add one tablespoon of baking soda to the pot to alkalize the water. Or don’t add baking soda, if you think “alkalize the water” sounds like I’m making something up.

You’ll also want to lightly sprinkle a baking sheet with corn meal to receive your boiled bagels. I often spray my baking sheet with oil before adding the corn meal, because I think it makes clean up easier.

When the pot is boiling, drop a few of the bagels into the pot one at a time and let them boil for 1 minute. Use a large, slotted spoon or spatula to gently flip them over and boil them on the other side for another minute.

Now here’s one trick I learned from experience: you don’t want to put the wet bagel straight from the boiling pot onto the baking sheet. You need to get some of that moisture off. I lay a dish towel on the counter and put a wire rack on top of that, and then I drain my bagels on there before moving them to the baking sheet.

You’ll want to top your bagels while they’re still moist, so don’t wait too long. I’ve had success with salt; everything bagel topping; grated cheese; slices of jalapeño peppers. They’re your bagels, do your thing.

Once the bagels are topped, place the sheet pan into the preheated oven and bake for 7 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 7 minutes until the bagels begin to brown. Remove the pan from the oven and let them cool. Well, let most of them cool but you have to eat one right away.

When it comes to cooking time, it took me a while to get to the 7 minute rule, because my original recipe called for 5 minutes and I ate a lot of undercooked bagels. Don’t be afraid to let the bagels brown a bit. You’ll figure out what is best for your oven.

I generally slice mine once they cool and put them all in a bag in the freezer, then I them each morning of the week and eat them topped with cream cheese and fig jelly but with Mick’s Beyond Buzztail Habanero pepper jelly.