Bagel and the Beast

7 Mar

I am admittedly stubborn.  Although I would deny this to all ends if pointed out by my parents or accused by my sister, I am, indeed, indisputably set in my ways.  It’s no wonder where I get this charming trait from.  Look no further than dear old dad.

I was raised to expect certain things in life to always be reliable.  This was especially applicable when it came to specific foods.  My father, born a poor Jew in Baltimore, knew certain things to be unequivocal.  ‘You can’t be certain of many things in this world,’ he would say.  A self-proclaimed Communist, he didn’t trust the government, or much of anyone besides the few friends he kept close since he was thirteen, smoking cigarettes and drinking beers in the streets of Baltimore before coming home to be reprimanded by ma, who could smell the stale stench on their breath.  Balmer, which it was called by those few natives in the know, was where he learned these irrefutable truths and became the obstinate eater he is today.

First, there is the egg cream.  ‘There is no such thing as a chocolate egg cream,’ he would declare.  ‘An egg cream includes three very simple ingredients: milk, chocolate, and soda water.  There is no chocolate egg cream because, damnit, egg creams are chocolate.’  Mention a vanilla egg cream and the man goes mad.  You don’t want to see the obvious infuriation when he sees those three blasphemous words on a diner menu.

Next up, meats.  My grandfather was a counterman at the local deli, waking up every morning to slice pounds and pounds of pastrami, corned beef, and brisket.  So my dad learned a thing or two about meat, and boy would he make sure every one knew it.  The deli drawer in our overwhelmingly lean and healthy fridge was perpetually stuffed full of salamis of every imaginable size, texture, and flavor.  Having dinner at one of our local Los Angeles delis, my mom, sister, and I would perch on the edge of our seats as Dad would take the first bite of a sandwich stacked four inches high with dark pink pastrami, always on rye bread, and always only with yellow mustard as garnish.  (There’s no such thing as pastrami on rye, pastrami only ever comes on rye).  Chewing his first bite, and washing it down with a crisp pickle and a sip of his egg cream (note, not chocolate), we would await his review.  It would have to be the perfect ratio of meat-to-fat, with just the right balance of salt.  None of the rest of us would even try our sandwiches before they received the Balmer seal of approval.  Get it wrong, and onto the next deli to try to replicate that ideal pastrami from his childhood.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the bagel.  A true bagel comes in only one variety: plain.  In fact, there is no such thing as a plain bagel, there is only a bagel.  The man is a purist, what can I say.  Just like his egg creams and his roast beef sandwiches, the truly perfect meal is simple and to the point.  A bagel, when made correctly, does not need to be toasted.  It is chewy and dense, more like a rubber tire than bread, and, when smeared with cream cheese and topped with lox, rather hard on the jaw.  He claims that this ultimate, quintessential bagel can only be found in New York City.  Something about the water.  I swear, my father claims that the city’s water, used to boil those chewy tubes of dough, lends the precise scientific makeup to produce the definitive bagel.

So you can imagine my fathers’ disgruntled response when I told him I wanted to try my hand at making bagels.  ‘Pfft,’ he scoffed.  ‘You can’t bake a damn bagel.  What do you think, they’re donuts?’  I knew not to push him too far by suggesting varieties, although my baking mind swam with visions of onion, poppy seed, and sourdough.  I assured him that the bagels would be plain, and would be boiled before I baked them, and after a few tense moments of silence, he reluctantly agreed to give them a taste.  I briefly toyed with the thought of calling my aunt to Fed-Ex some precious New York water, but dismissed the idea after considering the high cost of such a venture.

And so, with my sub par Los Angeles water and very few ingredients in tow, I set off to make as near an approximation as I could to the perfect New York bagel.

Simple Homemade Bagels


1 tbsp active dry yeast
1 tbsp sugar
1 3/4 cups water, warm (100-110F)
4 cups bread flour (not all purpose)
1 tbsp salt
1 egg, for egg wash


In a large bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer) combine the yeast, sugar, and water. Let stand for 5 minutes, then stir in flour and salt. Mix dough thoroughly until it comes together in a large ball, pulling away from the sides of the bowl. Add an additional tablespoon of flour or water, if needed.
If kneading by hand (like me), turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until very smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. If using a stand mixer, knead the dough with the dough hook until elastic, about 8 minutes on a low speed. Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until it doubles in size, about one hour.

Bring a large pot of water to a gentle boil and preheat the oven to 400F.

When dough has risen, turn it out onto a very lightly floured surface and divide into 12 equal pieces (first quarters, then thirds). Shape each piece into a tight ball, pinching the corners together at the bottom of the piece of dough. When all the balls are shaped, let the dough rest for 30 minutes covered with a clean dish towel.

Now shape the bagels. Using your fingers, poke a hole through the center of each dough ball and stretch out the dough into a ring with your fingers.  Make sure to make the hole a little larger than you want the finished bagel to have, and try not to flatten them too much (like I did).  The holes will shrink slightly during the baking process when the bagel expands. Let the bagels rest for about 10 minutes before boiling.

Drop four of the bagels carefully into the boiling water. Boil for 2 minutes on the first side, then flip and boil for an additional minute. Using a slotted spoon or strainer, transfer bagels to a clean towel to drain for a moment, then place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat process with remaining bagels.

Using a pastry brush, brush the boiled bagels with a lightly beaten egg and bake for 20-24 minutes, until golden brown.

Cool completely on a wire rack.
Slice and toast to serve (with cream cheese and all the fun extras).


7 Responses to “Bagel and the Beast”

  1. Jess@HealthyExposures March 8, 2011 at 4:29 am #

    Bagels are most certainly on my “to-make” list. Love the story of your father – my mom is definitely a traditionalist of things like bread, too!

  2. Jane Rosenberg March 8, 2011 at 8:33 am #

    Sooo funny. I was waiting for Dad’s review of your bagel — you had me on the edge of my seat. I’ll tell him to post his verdict!

  3. Bob March 8, 2011 at 11:18 am #

    At last: a bagel! Since you can’t find them at bakeries or even delis (in most cities), those who wish to eat them best bake them as you described. (Don’t try it without a good oven.)

    The father

  4. Lesley March 10, 2011 at 3:18 pm #

    I have to comment on the bagels- you and your father are extremely funny. I guess I have a little of his stubborn nature when it comes to my food as well! I agree completely about the egg creams. Great corned beef and pastrami can only be found in a few special delis. I might have to disagree about the bagels-I think the best are in Baltimore and I have actually found a real bagel store in Columbus, Ohio!! (who knew?) I love your blog and your writing is wonderful! XOXO Aunt Les

  5. Kelsey @ Snacking Squirrel March 11, 2011 at 6:54 pm #

    wow that is probably the best story ive read about someones papa! he seems like quite a man- the only thing he got wrong was that you couldnt make a bagel, cuz YES YOU CAN! and you can make a damn yummy one too!! ❤

    i love your blog. ive been so behind on replying to my comments that im not sure if i mentioned how exciting it was to get your comment awhile back mentioning that you love yoga and are interested in possibly taking yoga teacher training one day. we have a lot in common it seems!!! ❤

  6. annette March 20, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

    looove this one! keep up the good work…i feel like youre not so far away when i read these.

    next time i come up i expect a 6 course meal of baked goods

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