Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Rebecca's Homemade Bagels

Or, the reason why we might never eat store bought bagels again.

I've been asked a couple times why I decided to feature bagels on my blog this week. Honestly, it's a good question. October is one of the best months for coming up with really creative and fun treats with a Halloween theme, and it's the first month I really consider it legitimate to eat pumpkin flavored everything. I've already found a lot of other recipes I want to try to cram in, and add in the fact that I still want to try to represent everyone equally, finding a chance to fit everything I want to do into 31 days is a little difficult.

But I went with bagels because - aside from being the main course in Rebecca's school lunch set - I was really just curious to see if they were easy to make at home. I like bagels, but I'm not always in the mood to get one while I'm out running errands, and I don't love the store bought frozen ones you pop in the toaster and reheat. I figured I might as well see how difficult they were to make from scratch, because if I could come up with something better, maybe I'd have a better way to enjoy eating them at home.

Bagels are an interesting little creation. I didn't know all that much about them before doing research on them for this blog post, but I vaguely thought they were Polish and had probably started showing up in America and becoming popular around the turn of the 20th century. Apparently, like the snickerdoodle, the exact origins of the bagel are disputed by some, but most people agree that the first true bagel appeared in Krakow in about 1610. It became a staple of the Polish diet, and came over with immigrants when they moved to America. They really took off in New York City, and most of the bagel bakeries worked with Bagel Bakers Local 338, which had contracts with everyone who baked them in the city. They became more a staple of the wider American audience because of the Lender family, who pioneered selling frozen bagels in the 1960's.

As Rebecca's family is Russian, most people would assume that they'd probably never been exposed to bagels before moving to the United States, but as Poland regained its independence from Russia at the end of the First World War, and the book doesn't specify what part of Russia the Rubins came from, it's possible they might have had roots to the bagel's homeland before immigrating. The fact that they never mention Poland specifically as being where the family came from in the Looking Back section or another annotation in her books makes me question this theory, but that doesn't mean it's out of the question. I tend to think it's more likely that the Rubins would have been introduced to bagels thanks to the bakeries in New York, and thus Rebecca's family might have purchased them instead of making them themselves.

I found a recipe for New York Style bagels on The Sophisticated Gourmet, and was very excited to get started. My first stop on this adventure was to the grocery store, looking for bread flour and yeast. I'm not actually sure what the difference between bread flour and normal flour is, especially since the grocery store had so little of it. Don't people want to bake bread anymore?

The yeast was really interesting, especially since I'd never cooked with it before. I sort of messed up the recipe here - you're only supposed to put the yeast and sugar into 1/2 cup of water, and I accidentally dumped it into the full serving of water recommended, but it didn't seem to hurt things at all.

While that sat, I gathered the dry ingredients. This recipe required surprisingly few ingredients, even though I'm not sure why I thought bagels might be more complicated than this.

Once the yeast had... I'm not actually sure what to call it. Fermented? Cooked? Anyway, once it was done, I poured it into the well I'd made in the flour and salt and tried to work it all together. The dough should be elastic-y and smooth when it's all mixed together, but I needed a fair bit more water than the recipe called for to incorporate all the flour. I'd been warned about this before though, so I wasn't too worried about the whole thing.

Kneading it was pretty cool. I have to admit, I'm kind of hoping I have more opportunity to do this sort of thing in the future. It's great for working out frustration and feeling like you're getting a bit of a work out while baking, instead of just wondering how many cookies you're going to devour and how much time it's going to take to stop feeling guilty about eating way too much dough.

Since it was a really nice day out and we knew we had to keep the dough covered for an hour, my mom and I went for a walk while it was rising and left it alone on top of the stove.

When we got back, it had really puffed up in size. I was definitely impressed, especially because I was sort of nervous that maybe the yeast wouldn't work right. As anyone who knows me well will tell you, I'm a worrier. It's a bad habit.

I punched the dough down (which means exactly what it sounds like), and left it alone for a while longer before breaking it up into sections. The original recipe said you should have eight bagels, but either through bad math or just not paying attention well enough, I ended up with nine.

Shaping the dough into nice little balls was hard. The tops were easy to get looking smooth, but the bottoms were pretty horrifying looking no matter what I did to try and smooth them out. I'd love to know what I did wrong and how to fix it in the future, but it was really frustrating and I eventually just gave up and poked the holes in the center.

After letting them sit for ten minutes, it was time to boil them. This was the step that a lot of people were confused by when I mentioned it, but it's what gives the bagels their characteristic chewy flavor, and it was way easier than people made it out to be. Although my mom and I definitely were thinking we need to get some kind of drainable scoop instead of a spatula for any further projects like this.

It's a little difficult to tell in the pictures, but the dough became a little more yellowish off white after it had been boiled.

This next step was optional, and I actually almost skipped out on it because I was initially planning on just making nine plain bagels, but my mom reminded me that the egg wash was what added the shiny texture on the top of the bagels, so we decided to go for it. It's also what holds on a topping, so if you wanted to put on seeds or other treats on top, you'd sprinkle the stuff on after doing the wash. We decided to make three bagels with sea salt on top to see how they tasted, and leave the rest plain.

Our stove has this weird habit of not really projecting smell into the kitchen. Instead, you can best smell whatever you're cooking in the stove either in the bathroom behind the kitchen, or in the hallway to the garage. It's weird, and kind of annoying because you have to stand in a fairly inconvenient spot to smell what you're making, but it caught my brother's interest as soon as he walked in the door, because the house smelled like "Auntie Anne's", which is a chain that makes really delicious pretzels for anyone who's not familiar. It did actually smell pretty similar, which I thought was kind of funny, as the dough I'd snitched tasted more like pizza dough than a bagel or a pretzel.

And here they are right out of the oven!

Ta da!

We were all pretty excited to try one, so I didn't let the one I snagged cool off all the way before splitting it with my mom and taking a bite. Her reaction was pretty priceless. As soon as she bit in, her expression changed to that unique "oh my god, this is the best thing I've ever eaten" look you only get when you've eaten something really tasty, and went "Oh my god, Gwen, this tastes like a real bagel!"

To which I was like, well yeah, it's not some cheap back alley knock off! But her point still stands. This is definitely a restaurant quality bagel you can make at home with relatively little hassle, and considering how fast they vanished, I'm pretty sure we weren't the only two who thought they were a hit. Despite smelling like a pretzel store, they definitely taste like bagels, not pretzels, and the outsides were crunchy while the inside was nice and chewy. Technically, to make this more authentic, we should have put cream cheese and cured salmon on it, but we were all a little impatient to just devour them before they got cold.

They will make you want to come back for seconds. And thirds. And fourths. And-

Honestly, I'm not sure we're ever going to buy store bought bagels again. This recipe is really tasty, and it's really not that hard to make if you're willing to put in maybe half an hour or forty five minutes of work into it. It's also a really versatile thing to make, because you can custom make the bagels to have whatever topping you want, and it probably wouldn't be that difficult to work in a filling, either. My mom's already suggesting making cinnamon sugar ones next, and I definitely wouldn't mind having another one with the sea salt on it. It was a delicious combination. They'll probably store well too, either in a container or in the freezer, and taste just as good cold as they do fresh out of the oven.

Well, okay. Maybe a little less once they've cooled down, but that's just usually how things work.

Out of the nine we started out with, we only have three left, and already everyone's talking about how they wished we had more. I guess it's a good thing I accidentally bought too much bread flour, because I might be making more tomorrow!


  1. These look delicious! I love anything that's bread like and full of carbs though. :)
    I don't like store bought bagels either but have always loved the ones from Dunkin Donuts and Panera.

    1. Those are my favorite, too! Panera is such a dangerous place, everything is sooo good. I think these were a little more similar to a Panera bagel than a Dunkin Donuts one texture wise, and maybe taste too. It's been a while since I've had one, though, so don't quote me haha.