Bagels: the Basic Roll with a Hole
The concept of a bagel is centuries old. Bagels can be found almost anywhere if one has a mind to look for them. Ancient Rome had them, China too. Bagels can even be seen depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics. The practical advantage of the bagel or any roll with a hole is ease of transportation. Thread anywhere from a dozen to say hundreds of bagels on a string or a stick and bam! transportation, no longer an issue. The mind reels at how many bagels could be safely transported if one had a long enough stick.
Based on popular consensus, the first bagels probably did hail from Egypt and the greater Mediterranean. Curiously enough, the Mayo Clinic left bagels off their list of foods included in the Mediterranean Diet, not pointing any fingers, just making an observation. These ancient bagels came in two varieties the bagele which is a soft sesame seed-studded roll still eaten in Israel today and the ka’ak (sounds similar to the noise made when one takes a toothbrush a little too far back on the tongue) which has a crisp texture to be compared with pretzels. Neither of these “bagels” are boiled, however, a distinguishing characteristic of the bagels we think of today.
The first mention of a boiled bagel crops up in 17th century Poland when we see a man by the name of Jan Sobieski rise to the throne. A progressive thinker and a huge proponent of “free bread” (think free love only apply it to bread), Jan was the first king apparently ever to not restrict the baking of bread to the confines of the Krakow Bakers Guild. Prior to this Jews had been excluded from the guild due to the commonly held belief that they were the “enemies of the church”, and as such were denied the right to make bread because of its connection to Jesus and the holy sacrament.
Still overcoming many longstanding prejudices, when the Jews finally were allowed to bake bread commercially, many people wouldn’t’ buy it. The church even spoke out against them forbidding Christians from buying Jewish foodstuffs. Slightly relenting later the church deemed it permissible for gentiles to buy bread handled by Jews as long as it had been boiled first. Inspired by the traditional Polish bagel-like roll called obwarzanek,(which literally translates to the word “par-boiled”) we see the emergence of the first Jewish bagels. And so the bagel became the chosen bread of the Jewish people beating out challah and rye out of necessity over preference.
Sobieski, after shaking up the hierarchy of the bread guild, went on to save Austria from a Turkish invasion. His valiant efforts during the invasion inspired the most popular origin story for the bagel although it completely disregards his changes among the guild and his relations with the Jews. The story goes that the first real bagel was made in commemoration of Sobieski’s valiance on the battlefield. Inspired by his brave leader a Viennese baker made a roll in the shape of a stirrup, calling it a beugel (meaning “stirrup” in Austrian).
The more plausible origin of the bagel, and the one propounded by Maria Balinska, author of The Bagel: A Surprising History of a Modest Bread, suggests that the bagel was an offshoot of the soft pretzel brought to Poland via German immigrants in the 14th century. At the time pretzels were making their way out of the monasteries and into the homes of Germans possibly morphing into the aforementioned obwarzanek.
The shelf-life of the bagel, like the moment some say it commemorated, is a heroic thing. With its hard shiny exterior, bagels lasted for a long time making them not only delicious but practical. When the bagels finally did become stale it was a common practice to simply dunk them into hot liquid, which apparently did not make them soggy but instead reinvigorated them. Like a phoenix from the ashes, the bagel apparently had two lives.
Though we are unsure exactly when the bagel made its debut in America, we do know that by 1900 there were over 70 bakeries that made them in New York City, almost all of them Jewish. In fact, bagels didn’t become common among the Gentiles of America until the 1950’s. In the wake of WWII the mindset of America towards Jews had changed, and for the first time in history, we see a quasi Judeophilia emerge. In the face of this new acceptance Jews began to spread out, their recipes and customs were shared and what was once a very closed community of people began to slowly open.
So why was the bagel so popular? How did it manage to capture the hearts of Americans who had no nostalgic ties to the bread, and who lived in an age when the ease of transportation a lá stick was significantly less important? One writer puts forth the notion that it was the bagel’s uninteresting traits that made it enticing. Unlike other foods, the bagel did not taste foreign. Its similarities to the bread and sandwiches intrinsic to most American’s diets is precisely what made it so desirable. The bagel had just enough novelty to make it exciting without becoming exotic.
“A bagel should be eaten warm and, ideally, should be no more than four or five hours old when consumed. All else is not a bagel.”
-Ed Levine, The New York Times
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 ½ tablespoons (4 ½ teaspoons) granulated sugar
1 ¼ cups / 300ml warm water (you may need ± ¼ cup /60ml more, I know I did)
3 ½ cups (500g) bread flour or high gluten flour(will need extra for kneading)
1 ½ teaspoons salt
In ½ a cup of the warm water add the sugar and the yeast and allow to rest for five minutes undisturbed until the sugar and yeast have dissolved and begun to bubble in the water.
Mix the flour and water in a large bowl and using your hand create a well in the center, pouring in the warm yeasty mixture.
Pour ⅓ cup of the remaining warm water into the flour and begin mixing. Some people like to do all of this within the bowl of standing mixer. But at least for this part, I like to use nothing but my hands. This gives the baker a chance to feel the dough, and know when it’s reached the consistency they want. You’re looking for a dough that is moist yet firm. Depending on where you live that can take anywhere from a tablespoon to an additional ⅓ cup of water.
On a floured countertop knead the dough, working in as much flour as possible to ensure a stiff dough. This takes roughly ten minutes, once the dough is smooth and almost elastic, form it into a ball and place in a greased bowl.
Cover with a clean damp dish towel and allow to rise undisturbed in a warm draft-free spot for an hour, or until doubled in size.
When the dough has achieved the size you want, punch it down and allow it to rest an additional ten minutes before dividing.
Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces and begin shaping into rounds. The best way to achieve a taut round ball is to cup your hands into a claw. Pressing the dough against the surface of your table move your hand in a circular motion. This should allow you to achieve very nice even balls of dough. Repeat with the remaining seven.
Using your thumb poke a hole through the center of your round of dough. Stretch the dough until you’ve achieved a circle about 2 inches in diameter and an even ring of dough all the way around. Place the now shaped bagels on a heavily greased baking pan. We say heavily because there is nothing worse than pulling your bagel out of shape due right before you boil them, undoing all your hard work and resulting in wonky bagels.
Cover the bagels with a damp cloth again and allow them to rest another ten minutes. Preheat your oven to 425F.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, reduce the heat. Using a slotted spoon submerge as many bagels as your pot will comfortably hold in quick succession. After they initially sink they should quickly rise to the surface. After bobbing up allow them to continue to cook for 1 minute before turning and cooking an additional minute.
*The chewier you like your bagels the longer you should allow them to boil in the water. Experiment with two or even three minutes to find your ideal bagel consistency.
As they finish lay the bagels on a paper towel or clean kitchen towel to soak up the excess water.
Egg wash your bagels and if adding toppings (ex: poppy seeds, dried onions, caraway etc.) do so now.
Transfer you washed and dressed bagels to an oiled baking pan and place in the oven for approximately 20 minutes. Or until golden brown.
At this point in most recipes, the baker and recipients are warned to be patient and let whatever they’ve just finished making cool on a wire rack. With bagels, I say anything other than immediate consumption is madness. There are only a few golden hours one has before the typical bagel begins to harden and get stale. I recommend taking full advantage of the fact that you made your own.
*Like any baked good a bagel is enjoyed right after it has emerged from the oven, but these moments of sheer bliss are few and far between. In order to preserve some of the freshness and relive those moments to a lesser degree, store your bagels in a paper bag. Wrap them again in a larger bag of plastic and freeze. To thaw, moisten the bagels slightly with water and bake until warm and toasty. Bagels keep well in the freezer for up to 6 months.