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A Bagel Mitzvah

I hadn't made bagels from scratch since culinary school. Making bread of any kind can be a bit intimidating and it requires a willingness to make a mess as well as the energy to clean it up. My alarm was set for 6:00 am -- "time to make the bagels," a rhythmic chant circulated in my head.
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There is an old Yiddish saying, "Lign in drerd un bakn baygl," which means, "May you lie in the ground and bake bagels." It's intended to be a curse, sentencing someone to an eternity in Hell, baking delicious bagels they will never get the chance to eat. A curse such as this, exemplifies the humor of Yiddish statements as well as the importance of bagels in Jewish culture. Can you imagine, baking endlessly, day after day, smelling the alluring scent of fresh bagels and never having the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of your labor -- a curse indeed.

As an East Coast transplant from Miami, there are certain delicacies I miss while living in California: southern BBQ, good delis, Cuban food, cafe con leche, arepas, croquetas and, of course, real bagels. I have searched high and low for a decent bagel in town and the best I have found are at Spudnuts Donut shop on upper State Street. Though these are better than most, they are still more dense than I prefer. I've been complaining for a while about the lack of good bagels in town, it was time to actually do something about it -- after all, I am a trained chef.

This past weekend provided me with the perfect excuse to make the mess required of baking fresh bagels. Sunday was "Mitzvah Day" at my son's religious school. The direct translation of the word "mitzvah" in the Jewish religion means a commandment. Amongst reform Jews such as myself, the meaning of a "mitzvah" is to perform a good deed. Since we were the designated snack people for this week's class, I decided our mitzvah would be making homemade fresh bagels. These "poor underprivileged" west coast kids had probably never eaten a proper bagel. It was our civic duty to introduce this Jewish rite of passage. The golden sheen of a finished bagel, the caramelized outer layer, the crunch, the light airy dough -- by G-d, these kids shall be enlightened!

I hadn't made bagels from scratch since culinary school. Making bread of any kind can be a bit intimidating and it requires a willingness to make a mess as well as the energy to clean it up. My alarm was set for 6:00 am -- "time to make the bagels," a rhythmic chant circulated in my head.

I made two batches of dough early Saturday morning. After allowing each batch of dough rise for a couple of hours, I then divided the first batch (by sight, not weight) into 18 pieces. I rolled each piece into a circle, placed them on a parchment lined baking sheet, covered them with plastic wrap and placed them into the refrigerator for 24 hours.


Notice how uneven this bagel dough is? I can hear my bread instructor, Sandy, saying with frustration, "Really? Really? This is not what I taught you." She would be correct, this is what dough looks like when it is not weighed correctly. It's simply inconsistent and not the correct technique to portion dough of any kind.

Fortunately, I had my second batch waiting since my first attempt was highly unsuccessful. For one thing, I couldn't get the pre-rolled bagels off the parchment paper without damaging their shape -- this is a very sticky dough. I got so frustrated, one ball of dough went whizzing by my husband's head on the way to the sink -- luckily, I have been blessed with perfect aim. Garrett took this as a cue to go outside and busy himself, while his crazy hot-tempered wife figured out how to fix this mess.

Once I managed to get the sticky pre-rolled bagels off the cookie sheet, I placed them in the honey enriched boiling water. I drained them on a cooling rack and then placed them onto the pre-heated pizza stones in the oven. They weren't looking pretty, as they were misshapen, of inconsistent size and eventually, they even got burnt. Perhaps someone had cursed me, "Lign in dred un bakn beygl."


Yep, round one was a failure. Take comfort in knowing disastrous cooking results can happen to anyone, including professionals. This negative outcome reminded me of two very important rules: weigh my dough portions and keep a close eye on the oven. Though the first batch did not turn out as expected, the flavor was still quite good. The texture however, was crunchier than desired, as though they had already been toasted.

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

The second batch of dough had not been pre-rolled and instead was simply placed in a covered bowl in the refrigerator for 24 hours. This time around, I correctly weighed each cut of dough, leaving me with 15 portions, each weighing 2.5 ounces. I rounded the dough as I was taught, proceeded to create my circles and made sure to keep an eye on the oven.

Phew! I was triumphant. The second batch was indeed a success.


Montreal Bagels: Adapted from New York Times Cooking
Prep Time: 1 hr 15 min
Cook Time: 11 min
Total Time: 1 hr 26 min
Serves: 15
Notes: I made some slight adjustments to the original recipe. Don't forget to include the 24 hour cold fermentation as inactive time required for the recipe.
1 1/2 cups water, hot from your tap (do not boil, as you don't want to kill the yeast)
2 packages of dry quick-rising yeast
1 tsp sugar
2 1/2 tsp salt
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup oil
1/2 cup honey
5 cups bread flour
water for boiling (about 3 quarts)
1/3 cup honey (for boiling water)
Sesame seeds
Pizza stones or baking tiles
1 cup of bread flour for dusting

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Have your pizza stones or tiles already in your oven

Blend together the water (1 1/2 cups), yeast, sugar and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment.

Add the whole egg, the yolk, oil and 1/2 cup honey, mix well.

Add the 5 cups of flour and mix on medium high-speed until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. This should take about 5-6 minutes. The dough is very sticky and you will have a few remnants stuck to the sides of the bowl.

Flour your hands before removing the dough. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap that has been sprayed with oil on the side touching the dough. Allow to rise for about 2 hours.

Punch it down, recover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for 24 hours. This cold fermentation helps to release sugars, improve flavor and assists in developing a good crust.

Lightly dust your work surface with bread flour. Take a dough scraper and begin to cut and weigh portions. Each portion should weigh about 2.5 ounces.


Once your portions are weighed. Round each portion by rolling it into a ball and pinching the ends, so that you get a nice smooth elastic ball of dough. Whenever you work with dough, you want to work as quickly as possible so that you don't "overwork" the dough.


You can start your boiling water in a large pot with 1/3 cup of honey. Once each portion of dough is rounded, you can now begin to roll each ball into a rope shape. Connect the ends to form a circle. You will want to pinch the ends together so they stick. Roll the seam on your work surface to prevent the seal from breaking.


Once your water is ready, drop three bagels at a time into the water. Once they rise to the top, flip them over with a spider, or slotted spoon and allow to boil for another 20 seconds. Remove and place on a cooling rack. Repeat, until all bagels have been boiled.


Now, you can add your sesame seeds. Pour your seeds into a wide, semi-shallow bowl or container. One at a time, take your boiled bagel and cover with seeds. Place the seeded bagels on parchment paper to cut down clean up time.


Once all your bagels have been seeded, place your bagels directly on the pizza stones. Depending on your oven, these petite bagels will bake rather quickly. I set my timer for 8 minutes. When I checked at 8 minutes they still needed time to achieve a light golden crust, so I set my timer for another 6 minutes. Luckily, I checked 3 minutes in, they were ready to be removed. Remember to keep checking your oven, the difference between the perfect bagel and a burnt bagel can be a matter of 2 minutes.