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By the Book: Daniel Stevens’ Bagels

November 13th 03:11pm, 2012

I may have been the biggest proponent of dedicating an entire issue to bread, but I’m no expert when it comes to turning flour, water and yeast into a loaf of wonderfulness. Truth is, besides the basic tea-time breads, I’ve never actually tried my hand at a real yeast bread – the kind that needs time to rise, to proof, to ferment. I figured Daniel Stevens’ The River Cottage Bread Handbook was a good guide for dipping my toe in the water of bread baking. And what better time for such an experiment than a rainy Sunday?

As with most authentic yeast bread recipes, this one had a short ingredient list and required more patience than technique. But there’s a reason why bakers say perfecting bread takes practice. 

First, my dough wouldn’t come together. It was shaggy to begin with and, once I started kneading (wrongly, I might add), the goal of “smooth and elastic” began to seem farther and farther away. So I scrapped my first batch and vowed to do better on the second. I gathered all of my mise en place ahead of time to make sure that the yeast was activated at just the right time and looked back to the earlier section of the book on kneading, which the recipe sadly didn’t tell me to do. I also took the time to read the section on shaping the kneading dough into a round, which the recipe did, in fact, send me to. I felt I was ready.

And it turns out, I was. Now, I won’t say it was the most beautiful round I’d ever seen (This is the underside after shaping, not the smooth side.), but it was a far cry from the shaggy, flour-coated hunk my first attempt yielded. And after a few sessions of placing the fingers of one hand atop the dough, pushing the dough with the heel of the other and then folding the edges of that pushed dough back on top of the round (See a much better description of this process below.), the “smooth and elastic” descriptor suited it almost perfectly. Next, it was time to let it rise. But for how long? With zero time instructions listed, I looked back to this recipe and gave it a good hour and a half by the window.

A mere 90 minutes later, the round had doubled and I had mentally patted myself on the back at least twice. It was time to punch it down (or, as the recipe so interestingly describes it “deflate it”) and then break it into 12 equal pieces. Roll them up, wet the ends, press them together and you have 12 doughnut hole-like rings that are ready to be proofed. Again, no time instructions. So I followed these instructions and gave them an hour.

And poof! They were ready to be poached. Except that when I did, two of my carefully crafted bagels broke right where I’d sealed them and were as resistant as a divorcing couple in counseling to reuniting. Nothing more was to be done.

So I brushed them with egg, sprinkled half of them with poppy seeds and put them in the oven for 20 to 30 minutes. To get that gorgeous golden hue, I actually had to bake them for an extra 10 minutes. But as soon as they cooled, I could tell that I was onto something. Flavorful and salty with a crust that glistened and was wonderfully crisp, I finally understood that sense of accomplishment bread bakers speak of. A tad heavy for my liking, the bagels had a denseness that I credit to my over-kneading, not the recipe. They were by no means perfect, but I’m sure with a little more practice, they could be.

And as for that lowly, unhinged couple? Well, they were the first to be eaten.

Makes 12 Bagels

Until recently, most of the bagels I had eaten seemed bland, somewhat dry and rather boring. That was until I came across a bagel recipe in an old Jewish cookbook and was enlightened. Good bagels, like the ones you are about to make, are slightly sweet and curiously chewy, with a soft, shiny, tasty crust. You poach them fro a couple of minutes in water before you bake them – the oddest thing you are ever likely to do to a piece of dough.

4 cups (1 lb. plus 2 oz./500 g.) white bread flour
1 ½ tsp. (0.18 oz./5 g.) instant yeast
2 tsp. (0.35 oz./10 g) fine salt
1 cup plus 1 Tbsp. warm water
1 ½ Tbsp. (0.7 oz./20 g.) superfine sugar
3 ½ Tbsp. vegetable oil, plus extra for coating

To finish:
1 medium free-range egg, beaten
Poppy or sesame seeds (optional)

• In a large bowl, mix together all of the dough ingredients. Knead on a clean surface until smooth and elastic (see below). Shape into a round (again, see below), coat with a little extra oil and place in a clean bowl. Let rise, covered with a plastic bag.
• When the dough has doubled in size, deflate it and divide into 12 pieces. One at a time, roll into a sausage shape about 6 inches long. Wet the ends and press them together to make a ring. Let proof, covered, on a lightly oiled plastic board or metal baking sheet (not floured cloths or boards).
• Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a couple of baking sheets. In a wide pan, bring about 4 inches of water to a boil.
• When the bagels have roughly doubled in size, they are ready for poaching. You will need to do this in batches. Turn down the pan of water to a simmer, then slip as many bagels as will fit comfortably into the water (allow room for them to puff up). Cook for 1 minute on each side, then remove and drain on a clean tea towel (not a paper towel, as it will stick).
• When they are all poached, lay the bagels on the prepared baking sheets, gently sticking any that uncurled in the water back together again. Brush all over with beaten egg, then sprinkle with seeds if you like. Bake for 15 minutes, until the bagels are a uniform, glossy golden brown. Let cool on a wire rack.

KNEADING (the important parts)
Tip and scrape your dough out of the bowl and onto your work surface. Clean and dry your hands – rub them together with a little flour to get the worst of the dough off, then wash them. By now, your dough is probably well glued to the work surface. Good … you want it to stick.

Flour your hands a little. Now with your left hand if you’re right-handed, right hand if you’re left-handed, press down on the dough with your fingertips, about a third of the way up. With the heel of your other hand, in one smooth, quick motion, press into the dough just above your first hand and push down and away, a full arm’s length if you have room. Now cup the fingers of this hand and scrape or roll the torn, ripped-up dough back on top of itself. Turn the dough around roughly 90 degrees. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Have a look at the dough as you stretch it. You will see long, thin strands developing – this is gluten.

From time to time, stop and clean your hands with more flour. … With each stretch, the dough will become a little less sticky. After a good 5 minutes, it probably won’t be sticking much to anything. The dough will have tightened considerably; it will no longer be breaking into pieces, and you will find it more resistant to your stretching. Adapt your kneading action as the dough changes. Start to use shorter and shorter strokes, until you are only stretching it to around double its length. From time to time, spend half a minute or so shaping your dough into a nice tight round, following the method below.

SHAPING THE DOUGH INTO A ROUND (the important parts)
Lay your dough, smoothest side facing down, on the work surface and prod a little with all your fingers to flatten it. Now, with one or two fingers and a thumb, lift an edge, fold it into the middle and press down. Make about an eighth turn of the dough, pick up the edge at the side of the fold you just made, and press into the middle. Repeat until you get back to where you started. Now flip it over. You should have a nice, smooth, round dough. Put your hands flat on the work surface, palms up, on either side of the dough, one forward, one back. Now, in a fluid motion, bring your hands together under the dough, at the same time sliding the forward hand back and the back hand forward. This both spins the dough and stretches the upper surface down and under. Repeat this spinning action two or three times.

Reprinted with permission from Ten Speed Press

What’s your favorite way to enjoy a bagel? Tell us about it in the comments section below for a chance to win a copy of The River Cottage Bread Handbook by Daniel Stevens. We’ll announce the winner in next week’s By the Book column. 

And now we’d like to congratulate Colleen whose comment on last week’s By the Book column has won him/her a copy of Nick Malgieri’s Bread. Colleen, keep an eye out for an email from the Sauce crew. 

By Stacy Schultz

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6 Responses to “By the Book: Daniel Stevens’ Bagels”

  1. Rachael P Says:
    November 13th, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    W/ a cup of coffee! …or an ice latte!

  2. Hugh Anderson Says:
    November 13th, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    Toasted with cream cheese and a cup of coffee is how I like my bagels.

    And if you want to try your hand at bagels again, I’ve had really good results using Peter Reinhart’s recipe from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. I think you can find it online. I usually shape them into rolls & punch a hole through the middle with my thumb, which would solve your problem with the unhinging.

  3. Karin Says:
    November 13th, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    Question: how does the dough rise to double without either yeast or baking powder? Is there an ingredient missing?

    I love my bagels toasted with butter. I prefer sesame, poppy seed, salt or everything bagels. Must be eaten with a cup of coffee.

  4. Jane Says:
    November 13th, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    I like my bagels with a schmear of cream cheese, along with a cup of tea. Perfection!

  5. Lisa Says:
    November 13th, 2012 at 6:25 pm

    I like my bagels toasted with cream cheese and lox!

  6. Hao Says:
    November 14th, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    I love a plain or savory bagel with cream cheese and lox. I had it for the first time during bagel brunch at the jewish center in college. it blew my mind. toasted bagels, chive or green onion cream cheese, flavorful lox that were sweet and perfectly smoked. there were bagel brunches once every couple months and it would be the highlight of my week. sometimes i planned my life around them. :)

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