Growing up there was always good bread available in the little loaf household. My mum didn’t regularly make her own – although when she did we’d fall on it fresh from the oven, devouring slabs of buttered bread so hot they still felt slightly doughy – but she’d always buy loaves from the local bakery rather than anything more mass produced. Nothing particularly fancy, just good a wholemeal tin, nutty malted grain or a batch of poppy seed rolls to fill for our packed lunches at school.
With the arrival of a farmers market in more recent years, her loyalty has strayed. The bakery is still there, but while their honest loaves are perfectly good, they pale in comparison to the six-seeded spelt, rustic rye and ancient sourdough on offer around the corner every Saturday morning. While I’d have to agree that the market-bought breads are delicious, exciting and most likely more expertly made than those from this bakery, I still have to sneak a peak in the window every time I pass to see what’s on offer, for old times’ sake.
Behind the counter are two or three shelves stacked high with loaves, while in the window sit trays of old school treats – giant iced buns, cinnamon swirls, different types of tart and shiny glazed doughnuts piled high. It wasn’t often we had these sorts of snacks as kids, but I do remember a couple of occasions when we’d be allowed a chocolate doughnut as a special after school indulgence. Simpler than their jam-filled cousins these consisted of a soft, sweet ring of dough, bread-like in texture with a cracked chocolate glaze and just enough grease to slightly seep through their brown paper packaging on the (hurried, no eating in the street for us) journey home.
The first bagel I ever ate reminded me of a bad version of those doughnuts. Taken from a plastic multi-pack and sliced in half it was shiny, solid and almost too tough to eat. A few minutes in the toaster helped it to develop a softer, more bread-like texture but the dough still tasted somewhat stale and slightly too sweet. It wasn’t inedible, but felt a little like a doughnut masquerading as something more wholesome in a bland, ineffective way. I’m not normally an either/or sort of a girl but a thought lodged itself firmly in my head that day – why eat a bagel when it’s essentially an inferior version of a doughnut?
Because, of course, it isn’t. As you may have guessed, my first foray into the world of bagels wasn’t the best introduction. Judging the bagel by a plastic bag of mass produced product with a shelf life of weeks is a little like comparing Mighty White to a crusty artisan cob. You can’t. So when I saw that this month’s Fresh From the Oven challenge was to make bagels, I jumped at the chance to try my hand at something a little more authentic.
After trawling various articles and foodie sites, I discovered that bagels have been sold in Brick Lane since the mid nineteenth century and were taken to the US by immigrant Polish Jews where – as is often the case – they were reproduced and super-sized; a New York bagel is an enormous thing compared to its smaller, British cousin. A good bagel should be dense but not heavy, curiously chewy and slightly crispy on the outside with yeasty notes, an ever-so-slight sweetness and a good hole structure. More than just a ‘roll with a hole’, the bagel is an art form on which essays have been written and over which battles have been fought. Boring and bland the bagel is not.
My first experience of baking these little round rings has been a good one. Poaching bread is pretty bizarre, but lots of fun as you flip the floating rounds of dough, and an absolute must to achieve the taste and texture you’re looking for here. Fresh from the oven these bagels are sublime, but anything over an hour after baking and I’d suggest toasting them to feel the full benefit of their doughy goodness. I didn’t give mine an egg wash hence the slightly more anaemic looking crust, but if you’re looking for more of a golden colour, do give them a brush before baking.
We ate ours straight from the oven with nothing but butter, then again for breakfast the next day with smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. Salt beef or cream cheese are other classic fillings, or try them toasted and spread with avocado mashed with coriander, lemon and a little chilli. Anyone with a sweeter tooth will appreciate the joy of spreading these with peanut butter and jam or Nutella, nuts and chopped banana, and you can also amend the recipe below to use different seeds – caraway, fennel, poppy – or stir in slightly more unorthodox additions; raisins, cinnamon, blueberries etc.
While these bagels are definitely a work in progress, they’re delicious enough to convince me to make them again, and to separate them entirely from the pappy versions I’ve eaten in the past. If you’ve never made your own bagels, I urge you to give them a go. And if you haven’t heard of Fresh From the Oven, click on the link to find out a bit more about this brilliant baking community, and how you could get involved.
250g strong white bread flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp dry yeast
1 tsp rapeseed oil
165ml warm water
1 tbsp malt extract
Pumpkin, poppy & sesame seeds to top
Mix together the flour and salt in a large bowl. Stir in the sugar, yeast, rapeseed oil and warm water then bring together as a dough and knead until smooth, shiny and elastic – about 10 minutes. Cover the bowl and set aside to rise and double in size – about one hour.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C. Remove your dough from the bowl and divide into equal balls – 8 if you’re making normal size bagels or 16 for the mini versions. I made a mixture of both but do bear in mind you’ll need to allow for this when working out your baking times. Roll each round of dough into a smooth ball, cover with a cloth and leave for a further 20 minutes.
Now shape your bagel. The easiest way is to stick a wooden spoon in the centre then stretch it out slightly with your fingers. I think it’s more authentic to make them out of rolls, but this is the way that works for me.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C. Bring a large pan of water to the boil and add your malt extract. Drop in each bagel, leave for five seconds, then flip over and leave a further five seconds before removing. Place the poached bagels on an oiled tray, sprinkle with seeds and bake for 10-15 minutes if they’re mini, 15-20 minutes for a standard size, or until golden in colour.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Eat. Or toast, then eat. Enjoy.