Bagels worthy of memory

Malt bath before cooking helps set the crust, keep classic treats from getting too big

Special to The Washington PostMay 14, 2014 

Afamiliar scent wafted in the air as I observed a pastry class. I followed it, like a hunting dog, to the kitchen classroom next door.

At Stratford University’s Woodbridge, Virginia, campus last summer, chef instructor Charleen Huebner was demonstrating how bagels are made. Mesh spider in hand, she stood over a wide, shallow pan in which 4-inch rings of ruddy, almond-colored dough bobbed like Halloween apples on the surface of simmering, malt-flavored water.

The malt. The bagels in the oven. They mingled to produce the aroma that had drawn me in.

While turning the rings over, Huebner explained that malt imparts extra flavor and gives bagels a nice, shiny golden color. Kettling, or poaching, them briefly in hot water before baking gelatinizes the starch on the surface of the dough and sets the crust. That keeps the bagels from rising too much in the oven, which would make them too soft inside.

“What you want a bagel to be,” she said, “is chewy, not too big, and dome-shaped all around. It should have a pronounced hole in the center — not a pucker — and a beautiful shine on the outside. The inside should be dense, with a fine crumb.”

Her final product was all of that. The one I sampled, encrusted with sesame seeds, was still warm when I schmeared on cream cheese speckled with bright vegetable bits.

Bagels, like pizza, are one of those hot-button foodstuffs that evoke strong feelings. My memories of bygone pleasure are so visceral that latter-day specimens are hard-pressed to live up to them, let alone surpass them. But that day, Huebner’s bagels made the grade.

Huebner calls her bagel recipe “a fusion of trial and error, research and knowledge from well-known breadmakers Peter Reinhart, Jeffrey Hamelman and Dan Leader.”

When I entered Huebner’s pristine, organized kitchen for a lesson, dough ingredients were lined up waiting to be assembled. As all professional bakers do, Huebner insists that for precision and consistency, ingredients must be weighed rather than measured by volume.

Into the bowl of a stand mixer went bread flour, salt, dry active yeast proofed in water, some light brown sugar and a wad of preferment starter known as poolish, a combination of flour, water and yeast that had been left out on the counter for several hours to bubble, indicating that fermentation was taking place.

“Using a starter cuts down on the total proofing time of a dough and improves its flavor and texture by jump-starting the fermentation,” Huebner says.

As the flour mixture came together around the hook, the motor of the stand mixer seemed as if it was straining. Huebner noticed my concern.

“Bagels are low in hydration,” she explained. “About 52 percent. So it will be a stiff dough. You can add water if it is too dry. If there is too much water, you won’t get the nice roundness. You will get more of a ‘bagel flat’ — which still tastes good.”

Her bagel dough was much firmer than a sandwich bread dough, so it took a little resolve to tear off pieces of it, which Huebner weighed to make sure each one was four ounces. She rolled them into balls on the countertop, using the palm of her hand. After they had rested for 15 minutes, she made a hole in the center with the index and middle fingers of one hand, lifting the ball off the counter and widening the hole to make it large enough to insert two fingers from her other hand as well. She used all four fingers to widen the center hole to about 1.5 inches across.

After all of the formed rings of dough were arranged on a cornmeal-dusted baking sheet, she enclosed the sheet in a plastic bag.

“Overnight proofing slows down the yeast, which mellows the flavor and yields a nicer product,” Huebner said as she extracted a sheet of proofed bagels from the reach-in refridgerator. “You have to let them come to room temperature before kettling them; otherwise they will sink.”

We poached the proofed rounds briefly, then pressed their tops into poppy seeds, sesame seeds or an “everything” mix that included little bits of Litehouse freeze-dried red onions and garlic. (The last two are wonderful products I had never seen before. Huebner finds them at her local supermarket.) Then we baked them for roughly 18 minutes in a 450-degree oven.

Next stop: A bagel-baking frenzy at home, including recipes for cream cheese bagel toppers, or “smishes.” Homemade Bagels

Makes 7 bagels

For the poolish:

1 cup (5 1/2 ounces or 156 grams) unbleached bread flour

3/4 cup (6 ounces or 170 grams) water, at room temperature

1/8 teaspoon active dry yeast

For the bagels:

A few tablespoons semolina or cornmeal, for the 2 baking sheets

1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast

3/4 cup water, at room temperature, plus more as needed

3 cups minus 1 tablespoon unbleached bread flour (1 pound or 454 grams)

1 tablespoon kosher salt (1/2 ounce or 14 grams)

2 tablespoons (1 ounce or 22 grams) packed light brown sugar or honey

2 tablespoons barley malt syrup, such as Eden brand, or 2 tablespoons diastatic malt powder, such as King Arthur brand (see note)

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

Toppings of preference, such as poppy seeds, sesame seeds or caraway seeds, sea salt, minced garlic or onion or an “everything” mix (optional; see note below)

Note: Diastatic malt powder, such as King Arthur brand, is available online at www.kingarthurflour.com. Barley malt syrup is available at better grocery stores.

Note about poolish: The starter, or poolish, needs 3 to 4 hours’ resting time. There will be leftover poolish, which can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days. The poolish can be refreshed by feeding it once a week; discard half of it, then replace with equal parts (by weight) flour and water.

Bring poolish to room temperature before using. The leftovers can be added to pancake mix or bread dough or used as the base of a starter.

To make the poolish: Use a spoon to combine the flour, water and yeast in a mixing bowl, stirring to form a soft, sticky dough. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it stand at room temperature for 3 to 4 hours or until the sponge becomes bubbly and foamy. The yield should be about 11 ounces.

For the bagels: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, then dust it lightly with cornmeal.

Stir the yeast into the water in a small bowl until dissolved; let it sit for 3 minutes. (Check after a minute or so for bubbles, to make sure the yeast is alive.)

Combine 1 cup (8 ounces) of the poolish, the flour, salt and brown sugar or honey in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough-hook attachment. Add the yeast mixture and stir until the flour is hydrated and a dough begins to form. (This ensures that no dry bits of flour will be stranded in the bottom of the bowl.) Beat on medium speed for 10 to 12 minutes. The dough should be dense and fairly dry to the touch, but smooth and stretchable. You might need to add a tablespoon or two of water to achieve the desired texture.

Cut the dough into 7 equal portions, about 4 1/2 ounces each. (Weigh the dough and divide by 7 to get the exact figure.) Use the open palm of your hand to roll each piece into a ball on the countertop. Cover the balls of dough loosely with plastic wrap and let them rest on the counter for 15 minutes.

To form the bagels, bring your index and middle finger together and poke a hole straight down into the center of a ball of dough and through it. Lift the dough off the table and spread your two fingers apart to create a hole large enough to work the index and middle fingers of your other hand through the hole in the opposite direction. Using a motion similar to pedaling a bicycle, rotate both sets of fingers over and over to expand the hole and the dough circle; the gluten will be quite strong and elastic. Make each bagel 4 inches across and the center hole about 1 1/2 inches wide.

Place the shaped pieces 2 inches apart on the dusted baking sheet. Enclose the sheet in a plastic bag or wrap it loosely in plastic wrap. Let the bagels rise until they look slightly puffy, about 1 hour. (They will not double in bulk.)

Transfer the covered baking sheet to the refrigerator for at least 6 hours or, preferably, overnight.

Thirty minutes before you plan to bake the bagels, remove them from the refrigerator.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment and lightly dust it with semolina or cornmeal. Line a second baking sheet with a dish towel. Pour preferred bagel toppings onto small plates.

To kettle the bagels, fill a large, wide pot with 3 inches of water; bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium so the water is barely bubbling. Stir in the malt syrup or powder and the tablespoon of sugar.

Reshape the bagels if necessary to make sure the center holes are still 1 1/2 inches wide and the bagels are 4 inches across. (The holes will shrink during baking.)

Working in batches of two or three, gently drop the dough into the water. Be careful not to crowd the pan; the pieces need enough room to float without touching. They should sink, then bob to the surface within 15 seconds. After a minute, flip the bagels over with a slotted spoon and poach them on the other side for 1 minute.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the poached bagels to the towel-lined sheet to drain, flatter side down. If you choose to top the bagels, invert each one onto a plate of topping mix, press it down and then shake off the excess. Transfer the topped bagels to the dusted baking sheet, topped sides up, spaced 2 inches apart.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly browned. Rotate the baking sheet from front to back halfway through so the bagels brown evenly.

Transfer the bagels to a wire rack to cool for at least 30 minutes before serving.

To freeze the bagels right away, cool them completely and seal tightly in a freezer-safe zip-top bag.

For an “everything” bagel topping: Combine 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon caraway seed, 1/2 teaspoon cumin seed, 1 teaspoon poppy seeds, 1 teaspoon white sesame seeds, 1 teaspoon black sesame seeds, 1/2 teaspoon Korean or crushed red pepper flakes, 1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 3 teaspoons freeze-dried minced onion (such as Litehouse brand) and 2 teaspoons Japanese rice seasoning (nori fumi furikake) in a small bowl. This will make enough for 5 bagels. The mixture can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 month.

Nutrition Per bagel (based on 7, without toppings): 310 calories, 10 g protein, 63 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 810 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

Source: Adapted from Charleen Heubner, chef and culinary instructor at Stratford University in Woodbridge, Va.

Fire Smish

Yield: 11/2 cups

1 medium poblano chili pepper

1 medium serrano chili pepper, stemmed, and coarsely chopped

1 small jalapeno pepper, stemmed and coarsely chopped

1 habanero chili pepper, stemmed and coarsely chopped

1 canned chipotle in adobo, such as La Morena brand

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton)

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

8 ounces regular or low-fat cream cheese, at room temperature (do not use nonfat)

Char the poblano pepper over an open flame on the stove (or under the broiler), turning it frequently, until the skin is blackened on every side, about 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer the pepper to a zip-top bag. Seal the bag and let the pepper steam for 10 minutes. Peel off/discard the skin, along with the seeds and stem.

Transfer the poblano to a mini food processor, along with the serrano, jalapeno and habanero peppers, the chipotle in adobo, tomato paste, smoked paprika and salt. Puree until smooth.

Place the cream cheese in a mixing bowl. Use a flexible spatula to fold in the puree until well incorporated. Serve right away, or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Source: From food writer and cookbook author David Hagedorn.

Nutrition Per tablespoon (using low-fat cream cheese): 25 calories, 1 g protein, 1 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 85 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

BLT Smish

Yield: 1 1/4 cups

1/4 cup sun-dried tomato paste, such as Mantova brand

1/4 cup real bacon bits, such as Hormel brand

1 ounce kale chips, such as Brad’s brand, crushed to small pieces (6 tablespoons)

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

8 ounces regular or low-fat cream cheese (do not use nonfat), at room temperature

Steps

Combine the tomato paste, bacon bits, kale, pepper and cream cheese in a mixing bowl. Use a flexible spatula to blend until well incorporated. Serve right away, or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Source: From food writer and cookbook author David Hagedorn.

Nutrition Per tablespoon (using low-fat cream cheese): 45 calories, 2 g protein, 3 g carbohydrates, 3 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

Curry Cauliflower Smish

Makes 1 1/2 cups

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/4 head cauliflower, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (1 1/2 cups)

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon curry powder

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

8 ounces regular or low-fat cream cheese, at room temperature (do not use nonfat)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill

2 tablespoons chopped golden raisins

Melt the butter in a medium saute pan over medium-high heat. Once the butter is bubbling, add the cauliflower and immediately reduce the heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the bits are golden brown, about 10 minutes.

Add the salt, curry powder and pepper, and cook for 1 minute. Cool completely.

Place the cream cheese in a mixing bowl. Add the cooled cauliflower mixture, dill and raisins. Use a flexible spatula to blend until well incorporated. Serve right away, or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Source: From food writer and cookbook author David Hagedorn.

Nutrition Per tablespoon (using low-fat cream cheese): 30 calories, 1 g protein, 2 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 70 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

Editor’s Note: Hagedorn, a frequent Washington Post Food section contributor, is the co-author, most recently, of “My Irish Table: Recipes From the Homeland and Restaurant Eve,” with Cathal Armstrong (Ten Speed Press, 2014).

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