Living in New York can quickly turn one into a bagel snob, and with good reason. It’s impossible to go back to the dense, mushy disappointments found in supermarket sleeves or Dunkin’ Donuts once you’ve experienced the wonder of H&H or La Bagel Delight. And until last week, I was among the many who refused to eat bagels outside of New York. That is, until our fateful post-Christmas trip to Rhode Island.
We showed up at Joe and Katherine’s the Wednesday after Christmas hoping for good company, a few New England outings, and lots of cooking. We didn’t expect to stumble on the best bagels of our lives—so good that Joe actually smuggled some in his pocket when we went ice skating. It was his first time on the ice (yes, he’d never been ice skating in all his 30 years), and during a particularly stressful moment he stopped mid-glide, rummaged through his pocket and pulled out a stuffed napkin. “I eat when I’m nervous,” he said, and started chowing on a bagel he’d stolen from the breakfast table. I couldn’t blame him. I was just jealous that I hadn’t thought to do the same thing.
Katherine, we found, has mastered the art of homemade bagels. They’re so good you don’t even reach for a schmear.
She kindly surprised us with a batch when we arrived and made another that night so we could document the miraculous project. Those were gone within 24 hours, so she made yet another batch so we could bring them home. Somehow, during our three-hour ride back to Connecticut, they disappeared. I don’t know how that happened.
We made such a fuss that the recipe was in my inbox by the time we got back to Brooklyn. It’s only right that I share it with you—such miracles shouldn’t be kept secret. [Note: This recipe looks super scary, but don’t let its length scare you. It’s really not that bad.]
Adapted from Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads, by Bernard Clayton
3½ cups bread flour or all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon dry yeast
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1½ cups hot water (120-130°F)
3 quarts water
1½ tablespoons sugar
1 egg white + 1 teaspoon water, beaten
Coarse salt, shredded onion, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, or caraway seeds
cornmeal (for baking sheet)
Make the Dough:
In a mixing bowl, measure 3 cups of the flour and stir in all the remaining dry ingredients. Pour in the hot water, and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon and beat for about 2 minutes. Gradually add the remaining ½ cup of flour, stirring by hand. When the batter becomes thick lift the dough from the bowl and place it on a lightly floured work surface. Knead the dough by hand (using a push, turn and fold motion) for about 10 minutes or until the dough is firm and solid when pinched. Add flour as needed if the dough is sticky in your hands.
Place the dough in an oiled mixing bowl, cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap, and set aside at room temperature until it has doubled in volume – about 1 hour.
Near the end of this rising time, bring the 3 quarts of water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the sugar; then, reduce the heat and leave the water just barely moving – at a slow simmer.
Shape the Bagels:
When the dough has doubled in volume, turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface and punch it down with extended fingers to remove excess gas. Divide the dough into 10 pieces (each will weigh about 3-4 ounces). Shape each piece into a ball. Allow the balls to stand and relax for a few minutes – then flatten each one with the palm of your hand. With your thumb, press deep into the center of the bagel and tear the depression open with your fingers. Pull the hole open, pull it down over a finger and smooth the rough edges. It should look like a bagel! Form all of the bagels and place them on your work surface.
Cover the shaped bagels with wax paper or parchment paper. Leave them at room temperature just until the dough has risen slightly – about 10 minutes (this is called a “half proof”). [Note: If the bagels are allowed to rise too much during this “second rise” – they will not sink when put in the simmering water; but, if that should happen, just pretend that they DID sink – and cook them for the same 1 minute as described below.]
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Grease a baking sheet and sprinkle with cornmeal.
Baking the Bagels:
Slip one bagel at a time using a large skimmer into the gently simmering water. Simmer only 2 or 3 bagels at a time. The bagels will sink and then rise again after a few seconds. Simmer gently for one minute, turning each bagel over once during that time. Lift each bagel out of the water with the skimmer, drain briefly on a towel, then place on the baking sheet. Repeat with all bagels.
Brush each bagel lightly with the egg-white-water mixture. Sprinkle topping over the bagels if desired. Place the baking sheet on the middle rack of the pre-heated oven for 25-30 minutes. When the bagel tops are a light brown, turn them over to complete baking. This step will give the bagels a rounded shape instead of flat on the bottom. When brown and shiny, remove them from the oven and place them on a cooling rack.