I was 14, a boy from the great West Philadelphia suburbs, when my parents announced one glorious spring afternoon that we were going downtown to Super Sunday. As a family, we never went downtown. Certainly not for a fair. It was such an unusual event that I remember it well.
But it was there, under the huge trees that lined Walnut Street, somewhere near the University of Pennsylvania and the Woodland Walk, that I discovered my true connection to the outside world: bagels. On one side of the road was this guy with wiry hair, wearing some kind of tie dyed arrangement across his immense belly and with coke bottle glasses perched on his broad nose. And from his car sporting New York plates spilled more bagels than I had ever seen in my life. Not fancy bagels. Not big bagels. But chewy, dense, lightly crusty bagels and oh! So good!
For a kid whose only contact with bagels was the deli/restaurant up near where Joe Frazier and the posh people lived, this was a revelation. I dug into my pocket, took out my five dollar bill, and nested it into his fat paw. I was rewarded with a broad fleshy smile and a grocery bag full of bagels, and over the next several days I gorged on them the way only a schoolboy can. I had bagels with ham, bagels with jam, and toasted bagels when they became too stale to eat fresh. They were lovely.
Fast forward to the present – more years than I’ll admit to having seen pass. The leading bagels are bread-like, puffy and not at all the way I remember them. They often come in plastic, which ruins their crust. Even in New York City they’re easily twice the size and made for looks, not taste.
So what’s a boy to do? Make your own, I say! And, once you have the hang of it, it’s not all that hard to do, either. If you don’t have a woodfired oven, no problem! Get yourself a pizza stone or 6 quarry tiles to line a rack of your oven. And find some high gluten flour. You’re going to need it to make some of those old time New York Bagels. Just the way they used to make them.
Let’s make bagels!
Flaming Good Bagels
Makes 12 bagels, 3 ounces each
¼ teaspoon saffron
¼ cup boiling water
23 ounces (4 ½ cups) of high-gluten bread flour
2 ½ teaspoons of salt
1 ¾ teaspoons of yeast
1 5/8 cups of water (including the saffron water above)
2 jelly roll pans or sheet pans fitted with parchment paper
Water for boiling
1 egg whisked with 1 teaspoon water
Make the dough: Put the saffron and 2 or 3 ounces of boiling water into a ramekin or small bowl and let steep for 5 minutes. Put the flour, salt and yeast together in a large bread bowl and mix with the handle of a wooden spoon. Strain the saffron water into a 2-cup measure and add room-temperature water to measure 1 5/8 cups. Pour the water into the dry ingredients and mix well to incorporate, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary to make a stiff dough.
Knead the dough in the bowl for a minute and then put it onto a sprinkle of flour on the counter, cover with the bowl and let rest for 20-30 minutes.
After the rest period, knead vigorously for 5 minutes to develop and stretch the gluten. Put it into the unoiled bowl, cover and let rise in a 60º environment for 3 ½ to 4 hours.
Stretch the dough: Once the dough has plumped up to nearly twice its former size, move it to a work counter and press as much air out of it as you can by creating an elongated dough cigar. Curl the edge of it in on itself along the length to create a length of dough with smooth skin.
Stretch the cigar into a snake of dough around 2 feet long, curling and squeezing out the air. Pinch together imperfections along the length, spiral the dough onto the counter, cover with the inverted bowl and let rest for 10 minutes.
Next, stretch the bagel dough out to nearly 4 feet long, smoothing it by rolling on the counter with your palms. If the dough resists stretching, do not force it – let it rest before continuing. Once you have made a 4-foot long snake, cover it and let rest for a further 10 minutes.
Shape the bagels: With a serrated knife, cut the dough snake into 2 equal lengths. On an unfloured counter, roll each piece with your palms until it is 3 feet long, and cut in half again. Now cut each of the 4 pieces into three, giving you 12 pieces of dough about 6 inches long, most of which have 2 freshly cut ends.
Take a piece in both hands and stick the cut ends together with your thumbs and bent forefingers, wrapping the dough around your other fingers to keep the hole open. Pinch together as best you can (no worries here, the bond will hold if you don’t pull it back apart) and set each back onto the counter. Once you have shaped all 12 bagels, go back to the first and, holding the cut ends together with one hand, stretch the rest of the bagel with the other into a bracelet of dough.
Final rise: Put the bagels onto parchment-lined pans, stretching them out one last time if the hole threatens to close. Let rise at room temperature for 45 minutes, covered with a cloth.
Heat the woodfired oven: Your fire should be 2 hours old, with enough heat to sustain for an hour’s baking, but not so much heat that it will scorch the bagels. Keep the fire to either the left or right of center, in order to heat the oven deck. Every 20 minutes for the last hour or so, move your fire side to side to evenly heat the floor tiles. A half hour before the bagels are ready, put two thin sticks of dry wood on and 2 wrist-thick pieces and bring to a flame. A few minutes before putting in the bagels, push the mature coals to the back center of the oven, near the wall, and brush the ashes off of the floor. There should be 6 to 8 fist-sized chunks of glowing hardwood coal and a good bed of embers, but no flame when the bagels go in.
Heat the conventional oven: Heat quarry tiles or a pizza stone on the center rack of your oven at 400º for at least 30 minutes. For more on this, see ‘Baking bread on quarry tiles’.
Make an assembly line: Boil 3 quarts of water. Have a 12-14 inch sauté or frying pan ready on the stove. Put a rack to one side with a pan under it to catch the excess egg and seeds. Mix the egg and water until frothy in a ramekin and have a brush handy. When the bagels have risen for 45 minutes, put the water into the sauté pan and keep at a boil.
For woodfired baking, have two wooden peels ready to one side, and move the fire around as noted above.
Boil and coat the bagels: Put 3 bagels face down into the boiling water, for 30 seconds only. After 30 seconds (no more!), gently flip the bagels with a spatula and boil on the other side for a further 30 seconds. Remove to the rack. Repeat with the other bagels.
After they have cooled for a few minutes brush the boiled bagels with egg wash two times to ensure a good coating. Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon of sesame seed or poppy seed onto each bagel. Brush some with egg and leave unseeded for plain bagels. Carefully move the bagels back to the parchment before baking.
Bake the bagels in a woodfired oven: Slide the bagels on their parchment mats to within 8” of the coals. Close the door completely. Bake for 8 minutes, or until lightly browned where the face is to the fire. Carefully turn the parchment, using a peel and a gloved hand, and bake for a further 7 or 8 minutes, again with the door closed. This time will vary with oven temperature and fire strength.
When they are brown and lovely, remove the bagels from the oven, place them on a rack and allow them to cool for half an hour.
Bake in a conventional oven: Bake the bagels (six at a time) on the parchment paper directly on the quarry tiles for 10 minutes at 375º, turn carefully around and bake for a further 10 minutes, until the bagels are brown and lovely. In the last couple of minutes, you may want to raise the heat a little and turn on the convection fan to improve color. Let cool for half an hour, and then devour!
Final notes: After making bagels three times in the past week, I almost left the woodfired aspect of this out. They came out beautifully every time, but it’s tricky anticipating the fire, the boiling bath, the shaping and the rising time of the bagels all once. I recommend that anyone who has a woodfired oven try making the bagels at least once in a conventional oven in order to get the hang of the process.
I’d like to thank my son for convincing me to make larger bagels; my friends Posy, Josh and Hannah for their help and feedback; and that entrepreneurial hippy from New York for setting me on the right track. Flame on!