The story of the bagel, with its transcendence from poor Jewish street food to America’s favorite mass-market breakfast, is the classic story of the immigrant to America – struggling, then prospering, and finally assimilating.
Once available only in the Jewish areas of a few urban centres, today bagels are sold in every single, even minor, city in the US, either in specialized bagel stores or in chain restaurants such as McDonald’s.
The bagel, in its peripatetic history, has moved from the shtetls of Eastern Europe – where it was given as a gift to women in childbirth since the early seventeenth century – to the delis of the United States and has managed to remain relatively dignified in the face of industrial production; however, the genuine, peasant, unsophisticated bagel is known only to a few nowadays.
If you ever happen to have a spare morning or two to spend wandering around in NYC and want to go on a bagel tour, here are some of my favourite addresses that might come in handy: Absolute Bagels (2788 Broadway, Upper West Side, Manhattan), Ess-a-Bagel (831 Third Avenue, Midtown East, Manhattan), Bagel Hole (400 Seventh Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn), Kossar’s Bialys (367 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan), Murray’s Bagels (500 Avenue of the Americas, Greenwich Village, Manhattan). If that is not the case, don’t worry: you can still enjoy delish bagels for breakfast, provided that you find some time to bake your own bagels with my fool-proof recipe.
For 15 bagels
6-8 cups bread flour
4 tablespoons dry baking yeast
6 tablespoons granulated white sugar or light honey
2 tsp salt
3 cups warm water
a bit of vegetable oil
1 gallon water
3-5 tbsp malt syrup or sugar
a few handfuls of cornmeal
First, pour three cups of warm water into a mixing bowl, then add the sugar or honey and stir it with your fingers.
Sprinkle the yeast over the surface of the water, and stir to dissolve, then wait about ten minutes for the yeast to foam.
Add about three cups of flour as well as the 2 tsp of salt to the water and yeast and begin mixing it in using a spoon or your hands.
When you have incorporated the first three cups of flour, the dough should begin to become thick. Add more flour, a half-cup or so at a time, and mix each addition thoroughly before adding more. Sprinkle a bowl with a handful of flour, put your dough on top, and start kneading: you should have a nice stiff dough. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, and cover with a clean kitchen towel.
Let the dough rest in a dry, warm place and allow it to rise until doubled in volume.
While the dough is rising, fill a stockpot with about a gallon of water and bring it to a boil. Add the malt syrup or sugar and reduce the heat so that the water just barely simmers.
Once the dough has risen, turn it onto your work surface, punch it down, and divide it into 15 pieces. Begin forming the bagels: shape the dough into a rough ball, then poke a hole through the middle with a finger and then pull the dough around the hole to make the bagel.
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Once the bagels are formed, let them sit for about 10 minutes, then drop them into the simmering water one by one, two or three at a time.
The bagels should sink first, then float to the top of the simmering water. Let the bagel simmer for about three minutes, then turn them over with a slotted spoon and simmer another three minutes. Lift the bagels out of the water and set them on a clean kitchen towel that has been spread on the countertop for this purpose.
Once all the bagels have been boiled, prepare your baking sheets by sprinkling them with cornmeal, then arrange the bagels on the prepared baking sheets and put them in the oven.
Let the bagels bake for about 25 minutes, then remove from the oven, turn them over and put them back in the oven to finish baking for about ten minutes. Remove the baked bagels from the oven and cool on wire racks.