Although I was totally excited to try this recipe out, I’ll admit that I didn’t have high hopes for this third week of the BBA Challenge. Three reasons primarily come to mind. First, the bagel procedure involves a few atypical steps that I haven’t done before (boiling). Since it takes at least a few trials to get the hang of understanding how a new baking procedure works, I didn’t have high hopes for attempt number one. Second, I’m a New Yorker, and that means that I’m a horrible snob when it comes to bagel quality. As Reinhart himself says, New York City is the center of the bagel producing universe. It’s true – I grew up with the freshest bagels baked every morning from a whole host of mom and pop bakery joints (there were three with a four block radius of my childhood home). So there was no way I was going to match my own memories of fresh authentic bagels right off the bat. Third, and on a related note, I know that in New York City the bagel making industry is (or at least used to be) ridiculously secretive. Apparently the bagel-making union (yes, you read that right) in NYC used to only accept as new members the sons of the present members. Clearly the “mystery” of how to make a great NY bagel was closely guarded and protected — kept literally “in the family”. Some schlep stranded out in the Midwest ain’t going to miraculously reproduce that kind of mystery in his kitchen oven. Sigh.
In the end, surprising, it actually turned out pretty good! Some BBA folks have posts up already, such as Adam, Nancy, Sue, Joanne, Lisa, Jim, Paul, DJ and Sharlene. So please click in and see what they’ve done. As soon as the other BBA folks check in, I’ll link to their bagel experiments here, so check back for links or go to the BBA Challenge page where their blogs are posted.)
With those totally low expectations, I forged ahead, more curious to see just how far from the ideal bagel my product would actually come out. In the end, I’ll say that I was surprised – they came out far better than I thought they would. Actually – they were pretty good! Not quite up to Local 338 standards, but that’s okay. It was my first batch, so I’ll cut myself a little slack. After all, I’ve got the rest of my life to approximate the perfection of the New York Bagel. That said, I definitely ran into some technical problems with Reinhart’s formula that caused me to shoot from the hip late in the game.
Admittedly, I wasn’t exactly sure how to rate bagel making. I had to think this one over.
What was the problem? Well, I was stuck going back and forth between novice and intermediate. In the end I chose novice, but only because the actual process itself really isn’t that hard. In fact, I’d say that the process is as easy or easier than it is for making the Greek Celebration Bread in last week’s challenge. However, bagel making has more steps, and the shaping part does require a bit of skill (not much, though). So I wouldn’t rate it as a beginner recipe – the simply process is novice.
At the same time, making bagels right clearly involves experience. Aristotle called this phronesis — he said that experienced people develop a kind of “practical wisdom” that allowed them to adapt rules on the fly to match the needs of particular situations. Of course, he was talking about being virtuous, not about making bagels. But the point remains: to make bagels right does seem to require a type of phronesis that a first-timer just ain’t going to have. So that made me think “intermediate”. But then I swung back to novice: after all, the recipe isn’t called “amazing bagels” it’s just called “bagels.” So it seemed unfair to rate the difficulty of the process by measuring it up to some Platonic Ideal of the perfect bagel (heh, two philosophy references in one paragraph!) — the “Form of the New York Bagel” — that is etched into my memory. So with that in mind, the recipe drops back down to novice.
In fact, if you didn’t grow up in New York City or Philadelphia, or perhaps Toronto, then you’ve never been acquainted with the Platonic Ideal for bagels. That’s bad, because they are amazing. However, that’s good, because that means the bar for making these bagels drops!
Comments on the Process
Reinhart’s recipe has four steps. Sponge, dough/shape/retard, boil and bake.
Step One – Sponge
The sponge is simple.
The sponge is simple – a high-water percentage preferment. I was a little taken back by his suggestion that by the time the sponge was ready, it would have doubled in size. I’ve made a lot of bigas before – and a few sponges — and they’ve never increased their volume like that. So I was curious to see it happen with this one because Reinhart said that it would double but then collapse if the bowl was lightly tapped. I was kinda itching to do that tap.
I don’t think the doubling ever happened, so I never got to do the tap. I was robbed!
I’m not sure why. Either the sponge really didn’t double, or I forgot exactly where the level was when I mixed it (I wasn’t absolutely sure). In all honesty, it could have been either. But just to see what would happen, I let it sit one more hour. It didn’t rise any further. So it either didn’t rise at all, or it rose the first time, I forgot to note the level, and then it didn’t rise any further in the third hour. I’m going with “it didn’t double”.
Normally I would have been a bit worried that I’d made some mistake this early in the process, but the sponge was pretty darn bubbly, so there was clearly a lot of yeast action going on. So I was reasonably sure it would be fine.
If it didn’t double, though – I have no idea why. It’s not like making a sponge is rocket science.
Step Two – Dough and Shape, Retard
The dough stage is pretty easy and straightforward. Reinhart does point out in the book that the dough should wind up to be tough and satiny when you are done, and he was right on target with that one. That’s exactly how it turned out.
<— Here it is
Look at that thing. You can almost see that it is tough and satiny in the shot. And it really was. In fact, I think this was probably the toughest dough I’ve ever made. It barely even stuck to the counter (if it even did at all).
After making the dough, you need to divide the dough into 12 pieces. At this point I’ll admit that I was a bit taken back by Reinhart’s instructions that each of the 12 pieces be 4 1/2 oz. Immediately I thought: “how the hell am I supposed to know if it is 4 1/2 oz?” Of course, I have a scale, and I could just keep adding and subtracting dough from each piece until each was 4 1/2 oz – but in my experience it’s really not easy to get a dough to come together at this stage as a solid chunk when you are adding new chunks of dough to it. So I sight-divided (after rolling the dough into a roughly sized oval) and wound up with pieces ranging from 3 1/2 – 5 1/2 oz. I figured that this meant that my average piece was around 4 1/2 oz. Good enough. (In the end, I noticed that I wound up with thirteen balls – not twelve. Not sure how that happened, but that clearly screwed up the individual weights of some of my balls!)
One you’ve got the 4 1/2 average sized pieces cut, the next step is to shape them into balls. The process to do this is simple, but a bit of a pain. All you need to do is to press the dough against the counter with your palm and then turn your hand so that you roll the dough into a ball.
The problem I had here was that it was really hard for me to roll the dough in this manner against my counter. I’m not sure if the granite counter was the problem, but there was zero friction – and friction is what you need.
Reinhart does recommend wetting the counter a bit for added friction, and he was right, but I was surprised at just how often I had to wet the counter. Basically, every piece of dough required a new patting down with a wet rag. Without that, I’m not sure I would have been able to roll the balls.
Next is shaping.
Reinhart says to poke a hole in each and shape out a 2 inch diameter hole in the middle to form the bagel shape.
That seems easy enough.
Note that my hole is close enough (I’m OCD, I measured) – about 2 inches. By the way, you’ll have to excuse the beat-up “D” that I used. I call it a “D” because my father in law – who is 82 and whose name is “D” (yes, “D” – long story apparently) – is so often fixing and building things that my now 5 year old starting calling tape-measures (which at some point he seemed to always have on him) “D”s.
This particular “D” has clearly had a rough life, torn up as it is. It still seems to be doing the job, though, even if the “2″ is missing.
Back to the dough.
Once you’ve got this shaping technique down, repeat 12 more times (in my case), move on to the next step.
Next up: float test.
How hard can that be?
What’s the float test? Well, toss one of your bagels in a bowl of cold water and see if it floats within 10 seconds. If not, let it sit out on the counter and warm-proof until it passes the test. I was curious how many seconds mine would take.
It took my dough….
It never sunk below the water for a second. That baby was packed with gas! I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not, but I’m going to assume it’s a good thing and stick to that story.
Now you can go and “retard” your dough.
Step Three: Boil and Bake
I had no problems with the boiling part, so I’ll just add a picture and then move on to the last stage, baking. (I will add that I boiled for the time Reinhart advises for half, and for the other half I doubled the boiling time to see if it made a difference in chewiness. I didn’t detect any difference, for the record).
Okay, now we get to the area where I had problems. Reinhart says to bake the bagels for 10 min total at two different temperatures. I’ll be honest, that just seemed to me like a really short amount of time, but I figured he knows what he’s doing – he’s the bread man, not me!
I broke the baking into two batches, (half each). The first batch I baked for 12 minutes, because they didn’t seem right after 10. The second batch I went for 14 minutes, because the first batch (after finished) didn’t seem done to me.
As they cooled, my wife took a bite of the 14 minute ones, and said that the bottoms were amazing, but the tops were completely not done, and were still gooey. Okay, that’s pretty nasty. But how could they not be done after 14 minutes, when it called for 10? That’s 40% more baking time!
So I transferred the bagels to the top half of my oven. I have a large bottom oven, and then a smaller half sized top second oven. In the top oven, the coils are closer to the product. Perhaps in the long run I should have baked them up there? In any case, I re-baked the bagels – each batch of 6 – for an additional ten minutes in the top oven. That means that I wound up baking them for a total of 24 minutes, when the recipe called for 10.
At that point, they were clearly ready, though I’m sure they could have stayed in for a few more minutes.
I’m very curious to hear from everyone else how the baking stage went. Was it just my bagels? Increasing a 10 minute time to 24 minutes is not a tweaking. That’s a massive readjustment. Did anyone else have this problem?
Comments on the Final Product
Once I baked them for the right amount of time, they were really awesome bagels. It’s a great recipe. Did these bagels approximate the Platonic Form of the New York Bagel? (I’d put a “TM” up there after saying that but I can’t figure out how to do superscripts in this medium). No, they didn’t. But I would have fallen over with a coronary if they had. But still, they were really damn good. I would have served them to others without any worry at all. I even reproduced the nice crunch that I like in a bagel crust, and they were nice and chewy on the inside. Here’s a group shot:
1. Poppy (the top one)
2. Sesame (on the left)
3. Asiago (right top)
4. Plain (bottom)
5. Sesame and Salt (hard to see, bottom left)
Kid and Family Test
My wife loved them. She ate three.
My 5 year old is still boycotting my baking/cooking (remember from last week – she says that I spend “too much time in the cookbook”).
The 2 year old walked around the house with the plain bagel. I’m not sure if she ate it. Every once in a while she’d walk by still gripping it. I think she wasn’t sure exactly what she was supposed to do with it (I don’t think she’s ever seen a bagel). She may have thought it was a toy. I’m not sure.
So all in all, I’d say that with the exception of my wife, who was positive, the kid-family test is inconclusive at this point. Still, I’m pretty sure they’d love these things if they ate them.
Other Photography Shots
I got a lot of good shots of these bagels. Here’s a sampling:
The whole platter -
A close up of the sesame one -
The sandwich I made out of one -
NEXT WEEK (Challenge #4): Brioche!
Making a brioche means I need to eat a few salads this week. Brioche has a lot of calories. I also need to order on Amazon some brioche tins, as I don’t have any. In any event, it looks appetizing! See you next week!