Week 1: Attack of the Bagel-Shaped Objects

So, I decided to kick off the new year by getting dumped. I know it’s not the traditional way to celebrate, but I’m trying to expand my horizons and get out of my comfort zone. (Trust me, I’m way out of my comfort zone right now. Yay for me.) Actually, I shouldn’t take credit for the idea — this was 100 percent my friend’s decision. Regardless of whose act of genius it was, however, I now have to find a way to cope with my life.

I had already decided to start the bagel project, so — even though my friend’s kvetching about the lack of decent fresh bagels in our area was part of the inspiration for the thing — I recommitted myself to the plan and took stock of what I had.

At present I own eight books, one magazine, and one bread machine instruction manual containing a grand total of 13 bagel recipes. (WARNING: THIS MAY CHANGE.) I had contemplated amassing many more recipes and baking a different one each week, but that’s not really how baking works. Even under the most controlled circumstances there can be variables, so a better way for me to proceed would be to choose one recipe, prepare it as written the first week, juke around with it for the rest of the month, then switch to the next recipe. Along the way I could make notes on which variations had been improvements and which ones had set bagel-making back to the Stone Age.

For the January master recipe I chose the one in my bread machine instruction manual, and I’ll tell you why. Winter’s a crazy time here in Wisconsin, and the dependable levels of humidity that you need for baking can be hard to come by. My bread machine provides a perfect environment for making the early stages of the dough; if I use the machine in the winter then I’ll only have to worry about the age of the flour, the age of the yeast, the quality of the honey, the filtering of the water, the warmth of the rising environment, the length of the boil, and the quality of the bake.

In theory, it will be like riding a bike with training wheels as I move from bread machine-specific recipes and mixes to scratch baking. By the time the wheels come off in the summer, I will have the confidence gained from baking dozens of delicious bagels, the humidity will be back in town, and I’ll be ready to experiment more in the kitchen.

Ironically, the recipe in the bread machine instruction manual is the only bagel recipe I have that is not a recipe. It is an ingredient list with measurements. Water, honey, flour, salt, yeast: menu setting 10. (To be fair, the pasta setting is treated the same way. If you intend to use a bread machine to prepare your pasta dough, the manufacturer presumes you already know how to make pasta.) How many bagels will this recipe make? Who knows?

Well, I figured, this couldn’t be too much of a problem. I’ve made bagels before. I’ll just lift the rest of the directions from one of the other bagel recipes.

  • Joy of Cooking: boil for 4-5 minutes, bake 20-25 minutes at 400°F.
  • Betty Crocker: boil 4 minutes, bake 30-35 minutes at 375°F.
  • Artisan Bread Machine Cookbook: boil 2 minutes, bake 20-22 minutes at 350°F.
  • Smart Bread Machine Recipes: all three recipes say boil 1 minute, bake 25 minutes at 350°F.
  • Art of Jesuit Breadmaking: boil 7 minutes, bake 10 minutes, apply an egg wash, bake for 20 more minutes at 375°F.
  • Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book: boil 1 minute, bake 35 minutes at 425°F.
  • Uprisings recipe 1: boil 2 minutes, bake 25-30 minutes at 350°F.
  • Uprisings recipe 2: boil 30-60 seconds and bake 20 minutes at 425°F OR 30 minutes at 350°F.
  • Cook’s Illustrated: boil 40 seconds, bake 10-12 minutes on each side at 450°F.
  • Professional Baking: boil 1 minute, bake 20 minutes at 450°F.

Well, that was illuminating.

The idea here (I reminded myself) is not to bake the perfect batch of bagels the first time out, it is to learn more about baking bagels. And for that, all I need is a starting point. Next week I can make some changes and hope for improvement.

At least I can state that this is the most basic recipe.

Week 1 recipe
(quantities omitted to protect the innocent)

water
honey
unbleached white flour
salt
active dry yeast

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The dough in the bread machine bucket looked like soup when I pulled it out. As I stirred it, it collapsed and revealed unincorporated flour within its fluffy, sticky mass.

I’m sure I added between a half cup and a full cup of flour to the dough as I tried to work it and divide it into six bagel-sized portions, but even when it was time to slip the bagels into the boiling water, they were still too runny and sticky; I had to use more flour to get the rings (well, most of them were rings) to hold together.

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They were enormous, and for the larger ones I developed a technique requiring two utensils and a quick backwards jump so I wouldn’t splash myself with boiling water during the flip.

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Into the 350°F oven they went for 30 minutes, to be turned over at the 15-minute mark. While the bagels were in the oven, I cleaned my work surface and got all my tools into the sink. James Beard’s ghost probably haunts your kitchen if you don’t clean as you go.

Turning point at 15 minutes: Wow. I didn’t know that anything could stick to Silpat. I scraped the bagels off the nonstick liner with a spatula, flipped them, and set the timer for 15 minutes more. They didn’t even look as if they’d been baking. They hadn’t even changed color.

After 30 total minutes I turned them again. They were still sticking to the Silpat but beginning to turn brown in spots. I put another five minutes on the timer.

All right. I’ll give them five more minutes. But that’s it.

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At 4:30 they were out of the oven and cooling. I couldn’t wait to slice one open and see what on earth it might look like inside. (The results of this recipe may change my entire plan for the project. I’m definitely at Kitchen Zero.) After a few minutes I selected one of the “bagels,” sliced it, and gave it two passes through my toaster. It didn’t look toasted at that point, but it was starting to sound crispy and I didn’t want to push my luck. At 5pm the whipped cream cheese spread hit the bagel-shaped object.

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The first bite tasted gummy and was hard to choke down. (I made it through half of a half.) Maybe I was preoccupied with trying to decide how many flaws the bagel actually had. I suppose that it would prevent starvation, but without the layer of cream cheese I doubted that anyone would take it for a bagel. It looked more like a raw croissant. Let’s call it an Approximately Bagel-Shaped Object and find a way to move forward.

The same nine-year-old child who asked, “What are you making, Mom?” when I slid a baking sheet with six bagels into the oven came to me later and said in his most supportive voice, “They look like great bagels.”

“I don’t think they do, honey,” I replied, “but the next ones will be better.”

“Well,” he said, “they’re the biggest bagels I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of bagels.”

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