Sunday, 24 February 2013


Bagels under kitchen paper
...because Dan has them every morning for breakfast and I wanted to see if I could.

The recipe I used is from The Bread Baker's Apprentice and there's a good account of bagels being made from this recipe on the excellent amateur bakers' website, The Fresh Loaf - although I take issue with the writer's jaunty exclamation of how easy it is to make them. There are seven processes and the whole thing takes two days. Which is bonkers - though I did manage it. (My thanks to Marian Binkley - anthropologist and superior baker - for steering me towards this recipe.)

I'm not going to write down the whole method as it's on The Fresh Loaf. Instead, I thought I'd fill in one or two gaps between this and the description in the original book, and add my own commentary of how it went - which was not all according to plan.

Both the book and the website are American so, before the commentary, there's a UK-friendly ingredients list. (Does anybody else wonder how US cup measurements work? There's never any guide to exactly how much they should contain. Do you round a cup measurement? Or should they be level? And if there is no definitive answer, are American bakers more skilful than British ones? Or do they just use witchcraft?)  Thankfully, the book had ounce measurements as well as cups, so I was able to convert them easily.

3.5g (1 teaspoon) fast-action yeast
510g strong white bread flour
550ml (1 pint) water at room temperature

1.5g (half a teaspoon) fast-action yeast
490g strong white bread flour
20g salt
1 tablespoon malt extract (or honey, or brown sugar)

To finish
1 tablespoon bicarbonate of soda
Semolina flour, for dusting
Topping of choice - seeds, salt, minced garlic or onions, etc...
Gloopy sponge

Commentary on The Fresh Loaf method
Process 1
The 'sponge' is the first thing you make. Mix the ingredients in a large bowl, using a whisk until it has formed a thick, smooth, stretchy, gluey batter. Cover the bowl with a tea towel, or cling film, and leave it to stand for 2 hours, during which time it should roughly double in size. It will collapse a bit when you bang the bowl on the tabletop.

Process 2
Dry, heavy dough before kneading
This is the 'dough'. Add 400g of the flour and all the other dough ingredients to the sponge (I used malt extract rather than powder; it reminds me of weekly childhood doses to 'build up my strength'). Then follow The Fresh Loaf in order to mix, add remaining flour and knead. The dough is initially much drier and stiffer than a normal bread dough, but it was silky and pliable, if still quite heavy after 10 minutes' kneading.

Here's me, shaping a bagel
Make the hole  bigger than you
think is sensible
Process 3
Immediately shape into 12 x 125g rolls, then make these into bagel shapes, as described, and cover with damp kitchen paper. Leave to rest for 20 minutes.

Process 4
Once the bagels have rested, lay them on two baking trays lined with oiled greaseproof paper, put each try into a clean plastic bag, and leave to rest for another 20 minutes.

Process 5
Put both trays-in-the-bag in the fridge overnight, where the bagels will rise slowly.

Process 6
Next day, turn on the oven to 250C (500F, gas 9). Bring a large pan of water to boil and follow the instructions given on The Fresh Loaf. Dan and I really enjoyed this bit. There's something ever-so-slightly risky about turning bits of dough in wildly boiling water - especially when you're 9.

At this point, I made several mistakes. Here they are: 
(1) Although I turned over the greaseproof paper on each baking tray (so I got a new layer of oil), I didn't sprinkle it with semolina, thinking the oil alone would be enough. 
(2) I then found it impossible to believe that you should put the just-boiled bagels on the baking try while completely wet. So I patted them dry, particularly the undersides. 
The combination meant that my bagels stuck beautifully to the paper during baking so that I had to spend some time peeling it off the burning hot bagels when they came out of the oven. 

(1) do add semolina, 
(2) do put the completely wet bagels on the baking trays, and
(3) on advice from Marian B, mist the boiled bagels with a little extra water before topping them with your sesame seeds or poppy seeds or herbs or onions or whatever just before they go into the oven (I used sesame seeds on half of mine). Phew!

Process 7
Baking at last! Follow The Fresh Loaf instructions. It's a bit of a faff, but turning the trays round and the heat down does seem to ensure that all the bagels brown evenly. For each tray, I ended up taking the outside four bagels off first and returning the two in the middle to the oven, in order to get them properly brown - and you can imagine how much fun it was, getting the baking-hot outside bagels off the paper they were stuck to quickly enough to put the middle ones back in. Oh yes, there were burned fingers.

Given my wrong-headedness over the semolina and the patting dry, they turned out pretty well. These are not the light fare that we're used to getting in plastic bags from Tesco - they are serious, chewy things that would keep you going for most of the day. Dan liked them a lot. My north-London Jewish husband says they remind him of the bagels he had in childhood - and Marian B thought they were OK too, if a little squat (that'll be the patting dry). Toasted, I found that they tasted rather more like a crumpet than a modern bagel. 

So, nice. But I'm not sure quite nice enough to fanny around this much, at least not often.


  1. The answer to your question is, professional bakers in the US don't use cups, they use weight measurements. Volume measurements like cups are good for eyeballing things where exact proportions don't really matter (I use them for translating "a pinch of this" and "a handful of that"). For baking cups are pretty rubbish, for obvious reasons.

    Why everything gets converted to volume measurements for home cooks, I don't know.

  2. One other thing on how cups work - if you think of cups as a fluid measurement, they make a lot more sense. A cup is the volume of 8 fl. oz (roughly 237 ml) of water. And yes, generally if you're baking with cups you level it out first.

    Baking is tricky, though, because using weight measurements allows you to switch out ingredients easily, but that doesn't mean you can do a clean switch. I can switch out my white flour for whole wheat flour by weight, but the whole wheat flour might absorb water differently (and it does, at least my fresh milled flour does), so I have to adjust the liquid volume to compensate.

  3. Aw, Melissa, you've pricked my witchcraft bubble!

    Having played with my own set of cups, I found them to be pretty accurate for liquid measurements - but insanely unpredictable with dry ingredients, even when I tapped them to deal with air pockets and levelled them off. You won't find me using them often.

    At the end of your first comment, I guess you meant to say, 'Why everything gets converted to cup measurements for home cooks, I don't know.' Thanks for your frequent comments, by the way.