Bagels have never been one of my things – neither to eat nor to bake. In fact, until recently, I had never tried to make bagels myself. I never gave much thought to the fact that I have never seen a bagel in Sweden, and the bagels I have seen outside the United States were poor, pathetic imitations of real bagels. Think, if you will, of very dry regular bread rolls shaped into a doughnut round with a hole in the middle. Bagels, though, need to be incredibly dense and chewy – not what you get with regular bread. Thus, those who love bagels will be sadly and sorely disappointed if they chance upon what passes for a "bagel" in most of western Europe. I am sure there are exceptions, but not being a bagel connoisseur, I have not gone on a mission to seek them out the way I would with good coffee or bubble tea. (And with bubble tea, I am not necessarily on a hunt for well-prepared bubble tea – I just want to see if and where it exists at all in European cities.) Bagels, as far as I can tell, are just not a part of the European palate – the times I have seen bagels introduced on a limited scale, they did not seem to be particularly popular regardless of how they were done up (toasted/buttered or fully decked out with a smörgåsbord of schmear).
A Swedish colleague and friend who lived for a long time in the US announced a few months ago that she loves and misses bagels and asked if I ever bake those. The truth is, my relationship with yeast breads/doughs is a bit of a roller coaster. I used to make breads, rolls and other such things all the time – but when I started moving around all the time, it sort of fell to the wayside. There is something about bread baking that feels like (as strange as this sounds) you need to be at home to do it. And by "home" I mean a permanent, settled kind of place where you feel comfortable and relaxed. Bread takes patience and caring, and this is not possible for me if I am moving from country to country, oven to oven, and so forth. While I am still a bit too mobile sometimes, I have my home base in the countryside – and the time seemed right to rekindle the romance with bread baking (especially since I had such an eager audience to act as a taste tester).
I did some reading, mixed and matched some recipes and tallied up one bagel-making experience as a total failure. (My friend Naomi informed me that bagels will all turn out right if I just convert first (to Judaism) Shalom!) 🙂 My second experience, last weekend, turned out considerably better – although I used too much flour (all the recipes I found actually dictated too much). Lesson learned and the third time may be the charm.
Nevertheless, my colleague took home the bounty – I made plain, onion, sesame and poppy seed bagels and will probably make a similar array next time. I may possibly attempt to make bagels for the next work fika, assuming I ever sign myself up to be the "provider" of goods/goodies for our weekly fika event. (For those not in the know, in Swedish culture there is something called "fika", which is roughly akin to a "coffee break" but it is a deeply ingrained cultural habit and implies something a bit more formal and organized than just a "coffee break" – even if you could refer to an informal coffee break where you grab a pastry as a "fika", the idea underlying the concept is seemingly more social, about sharing, involves the coffee-and-cake ritual to a high degree. In my office, we have a departmental fika once a week for half an hour and people take turns bringing something sweet like pastry or cookies on their appointed day. I have come to refer to these as "ICA fika" because most people seem to stop off at a grocery store, such as ICA, to pick up their pastry offering(s) – something I would not do, but that much is probably obvious. Not sure how well bagels and cream cheese and other "toppins" (as Wojo Samoa Tyrone would say) would go over as "fika fixins", but it might be worth a try).)
(Unfortunately I forgot to take any pictures – and they were not beauties in any case)
To make bagels the right way, you need to factor in about two days for the whole process. Not two whole days, of course, but you will need to start the day before you actually want to eat your bagels (or really early on the day you want them). You have to make a sponge first and once the bagels are formed, a bit later in the process, you have to “retard” them by putting them in the refrigerator for a few hours (or overnight). It is a multistep process to make these guys turn out right.
You will also want to think about the flour you are using. Bread flour or another high-gluten flour will work best. In Sweden this is called “vetemjöl special”.
First step: The sponge
1 teaspoon instant yeast
4 cups high-gluten or bread flour
2 1/2 cups lukewarm/room-temperature water
In a large bowl (either a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer), mix the sponge ingredients together into a wet dough. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and wait. The sponge should sit for two hours and should have approximately doubled in size. It will be ready when doubled and covered in bubbles.
Second step: Dough
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
2 ½ to 3 cups high-gluten or bread flour, divided (up to 3 ¾ cups if needed)
2 3/4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons honey, molasses, or malt syrup (I used molasses)
In the same bowl as the sponge, add the dough ingredients (yeast, molasses, salt and start off with two cups of flour). Mix well. Now you’re going to knead in the remaining flour, a bit at a time.(In my first attempt, I used too much flour because the original recipe I was semi-following instructed that 3 ¾ cups would be needed, but I think 2 ½ to 3 total would have been sufficient.)
You can add flour in about a quarter-cup at a time to see if you are achieving the right texture. You can do this by hand (about 10 minutes) or with the dough hook of a stand mixer (5 to 6 minutes). The kneaded final product should feel soft and silky, not sticky at all, but be easy to work with and shape into pieces.
Make 16 evenly sized pieces with the dough. Form each piece of dough into a smooth ball and set it on a baking sheet or countertop. Cover a slightly damp kitchen towel, and let rest for about 20 minutes. (Because I used too much flour, my dough balls were not that soft or silky – were a bit dry.)
Next, line two baking sheets with parchment paper, and brush the parchment lightly with oil. Form your bagels, taking a dough ball, holding it with both hands and pushing your thumbs through the center. Smooth the formed bagel by keeping your thumbs on the inside, making a consistent hole in the middle. Place the bagels about 5 cm apart on the prepared sheets. Brush all the prepared bagels lightly with oil and cover with plastic wrap and let them rest again for 20 minutes. At this point, you can retard your bagels – placing the trays in the refrigerator for at least two hours but up to 48 hours if needed. (With one tray I did this; with another I just left them on the countertop for a few hours – both worked fine.)
Third step: Boiling before baking
When you are ready to bake your bagels, fill a deep and wide pot on the stove and bring water to a boil. Preheat your oven to 250C/500F.
1 tablespoon baking soda
Oil for the trays
Bagel toppings (I used toasted sesame seeds, poppy seeds and caramelized onions) – I suggest preparing an egg wash and getting the toppings ready before you start boiling the bagels. An egg wash will help keep the toppings on the bagels!
When the water is boiling add 1 tablespoon of baking soda to the water. Add your bagels to the water. I was able to fit three at a time. Boil each bagel for between one and two minutes on each side (the longer they are boiled, the chewier the end result – I boiled mine on each side for two minutes).Remove from the water with a slotted spoon and replace on the same oiled tray. Repeat with all bagels.
For plain bagels, just place them on the tray. For bagels with toppings, brush the bagel with your egg wash and sprinkle with selected topping as soon as the bagel has been taken from the water.
Bake each tray for a total of 10 minutes, 5 minutes first and then turn the tray around and bake for another 5 minutes. You can bake slightly longer if you want to achieve a darker hue. Remove bagels from the oven and cool on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes before slicing.