Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Why the hole?


Visiting Ian's friend Charles in London a few weeks ago, we stumbled into a 24 hour bagel shop after a night of drinking. Booze soaked and sleepy, a bagel warm out of the oven topped with cream cheese, Scottish smoked salmon, and a little squeeze of lemon was nothing short of divine. We stumbled home, our mouths full, moaning and grinning with lips covered in cream cheese. And it was Charles who came up with the puzzling question: why are there no bagel shops in Edinburgh?

Such a simple little thing, the bagel. Flour, yeast, sugar and salt. And so overlooked here in Britain. The humble bagel simply does not get the attention it deserves for its quirky shape and chewy, satisfying texture.

So when Charles came back up t0 Edinburgh for the holidays, it could only mean one thing: bagel party.

We had a test run evening where Ian and I cooked competing recipes (each found by a google search). Although the recipes contained the same basic idea (mix, rise, boil, bake), they were surprisingly different. For instance, Ian's recipe said to mix the yeast and sugar with some warm water first, letting the yeast bubble and fizz into activation. My recipe called for mixing all the dry ingredients together from the get go. Ian's dough was supposed to rise for an hour, then be formed into rings and flash boiled before going into the oven. My recipe of dough was supposed to rise, then be made into rings, then rise again, then be boiled for a whopping eight minutes before going into the oven.

Until the boiling point our bagels seemed relatively the same, although I must say mine were a bit fluffier, and a bit smoother, Ian's having craggy edges all around.
I boiled half my bagels (all that would fit in the pot of water) for the whole eight minutes, flipping them gently half way through. As the second hand confirmed my eight minute deadline, I lined up the boiled bagels on a baking tray as I put the rest in the pot.

And then, in positive horror, I watched as the already boiled bagels shriveled on the tray, shrinking into wrinkly blobs coated in a thick sheen that made them look a bit like small brains.
Quickly, I took the rest of the bagels out, giving them half the time at four minutes, and slid all of them into the oven, hoping for the best.
Meanwhile, Ian boiled his bagels for one minute on each side, smirking since his was turning out to be the successful recipe.

Our two guests arrived, Charles and another friend, Sarah. They came with toppings galore: smoked salmon, cream cheese, olives, hummus, sun-dried tomatoes, slices of salami and chorizo, and balls of fresh mozzarella.
Avoiding the shrunken bagels which, unfortunately, did not rise again once in the oven, we assembled our bagel sandwiches and compared the Ian's bagels to my own.

On the outside, the raggedy look of Ian's bagels was appealing in a rustic sort of way. They were rougher, they were homelier, but in the end, the were just a bit breadier. They had the taste and texture of a bread made into a ring, and although thoroughly enjoyable, even Ian had to concede that my 4 minute boiled bagels were the best, tasting as good if not better than those London bagels we had had a few weeks ago.

Shiny and golden, chewy and soft, the bagels were a perfect bed for all the wonderful toppings Charles and Sarah had bought, and we finished them off, leaving the sad shrunken bagels for the garbage bin.

And the recipe continued to be a success two days later, when we made four batches (one whole wheat) for the bagel party, and we had ten of us feasting on the delicious little rings.


Basic Bagels
makes 12 bagels

4 1/2 cups plain flour (or 1/2 plain 1/2 whole wheat)
2 packets active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
3 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp salt

1 gallon water
1 tbsp sugar

1) Combine flour with yeast in a small bowl.

2) Combine 1 1/2 cups warm water with the sugar and salt. Add flour mixture to water mixture, mixing well with a wooden spoon.

3) Continue mixing, adding the rest of the flour in intervals. Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead till smooth and elastic, about ten minutes. Keep a reserve of flour to add in small amounts when the dough gets too sticky to handle.

4) Cover and let rest 15 minutes in a warm, draft free place.

5) Cut dough into 12 portions. Form into balls by rolling in your palm, then with your thumb punch a hole in the middle of the ball and gently pull and smooth until you have a bagel looking shape.

6) Place on a baking sheet, cover, and let rise another 20 minutes.

7) Bring the water and sugar to a boil in a large pot. Boil the bagels, two minutes on each side, then place on a baking sheet.

8) Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes.

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