Kvellin’ Like A Felon

It’s funny how sometimes we randomly reach the critical mass needed to push us headlong into a new endeavor. Recently I was talking to some friends about their homemade bagels, and then I saw this post on a reader’s blog and it suddenly hit me that making bagels is just making rolls with some toroidal geometry and boiling thrown in. And the presence in the fridge of homemade lox and cream cheese provided all the impetus I could possibly have asked for to shove me face-first into the wonderful world of bagel making.

Since I have learned that my One True Dough can be all things–bread, pizza, pita, rolls–based solely on the shaping and cooking thereof, I figured that I would take the batch of dough rising proudly in the laundry room and make bagels out of it. What could possibly go wrong? It was the standard live-starter mixture of 00 white (ground with the germ intact) and rye (about 2/3-1/3) made from locally grown and milled organic grain. Once it was risen, I gave the dough a quick punch-down and then cut it into smallish pieces, rolling each one out into a snake and then joining the ends, Ouroboros-style. I got 9 from my standard (roughly) 1 Kg batch of dough. Given the variations in size, I think dividing that into 8 even balls before shaping would be the way to go, but obviously mini- and/or maxi-bagels might have their uses depending on the situations in which they are deployed.

After a second rise under a damp towel (while the oven preheated and I got a pot of water boiling) I dropped them in batches into the water for about a minute per side.

This gives them that lusciously chewy, shiny crust, and makes whatever topping you choose to sprinkle upon them stick as if with glue to their surface. I dredged around the fridge and cupboards to come up with sesame and flax seeds, Maldon salt, and togarashi for toppings. The seeds and salt are pretty standard fare, but shichimi togarashi? Is the BEST BAGEL TOPPING EVER. Seriously. Salty, tangy, citrusy, spicy, umami-y: it’s pure genius on a bagel. (Google it if you don’t know the name. It’s a Japanese 7-spice blend).

And when that bagel is topped with homemade cream cheese and homemade lox, well, it’s safe to say that you’ve reached Noyvana. The lox is that wild Alaskan salmon I cured with spruce and then smoked in my bootleg cold-smoker. The beauty of such a thing, apart from the flavor and affordability compared to store-bought, is of course that it is preserved; I made this before my trip out West and it was still perfect and tender this morning when I sliced the last of it onto my fresh, hot bagel.

Cream cheese is a frightfully easy cheese to make. It doesn’t even require curdling; all you’re doing is culturing cream at around 86˚ F, letting it ripen overnight, and then hanging it in cheesecloth to help it thicken to that texture we all know and love. It uses the same mesophilic culture that feta and cheddar require, so if you order one packet of freeze-dried bacteria, make it mesophilic. There are other methods for making cream cheese that involve rennet, and you can find them all online. But this one works very well. Next time I’ll flavor it with the mixture of chive and sage flowers (they’re both purple, duh) that I’m drying now as another one of my homemade spices, but this version worked famously between bagel and lox. I ran outside and picked some chervil for a garnish; more than just delicately pretty foliage, that gentle anise flavor was just what this combination needed to put it right over the top.

There’s a certain smug pride that can come with these from-scratch versions of things we’re all used to paying other people to make, but I am totally serious when I tell you that DIY is about flavor, flavor, and flavor. This was hands down one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time. With no tinkering at all, my regular old bread dough made rich, chewy bagels that made my jaw hurt just the way they’re supposed to. Not too dense, not too fluffy, and with a strong sourdough character and the togarashi topping, if I never made them differently for the rest of my life I’d die a happy man. The cream cheese had exactly the same kind of bolder, more pronounced flavor as the homemade yogurt does when compared with store-bought versions, and the spruce-cured, cherry-smoked salmon was freaking awesome. When you make your own food from scratch you become aware of how much is lost in industrial processes and transportation. It’s just like cutting your salad 10 minutes before you eat it: there is simply no way to get that same experience when somebody else does it for you. It’s all about the pleasure. And, in the case of the bagels, of course, the guilt.

8 comments to Kvellin’ Like A Felon

  • God, this is torture. When my throat finally heals I am going to hunt you down and force you to cook for me, dammit.

    How does a so-so home cook ever hope to aspire to your level? I ask this in all seriousness. “I ran outside and picked some chervil for garnish.” Motherfucker.

  • Janet

    Bagels are something I’ve wanted to try for the longest time. Your post might just be the push I needed. Thanks.

  • El

    I really enjoyed this post, mainly because you’ve made something that is a benchmark for most of us, one of those “well I can always buy a dozen, why would I bother DIY?” I am an inveterate bagel-maker mainly because the local alternative is crap, but also because it’s a long way you’d have to travel to find Maldon salt at a bageltique. And thanks for the togarashi tip.

    The schmear recipe I have requires a lot of rennet. Could be because goat’s milk is not as fatty as cow’s milk cream, but maybe I can source out some local stuff and give your recipe a try.

  • Peter

    IB: It’s funny because you’re mad.

    Janet: Give them a try- just use whatever bread dough you’re used to.

    El: I am very far from an expert on cream cheese. But this worked pretty well. It’s essentially making Greek yogurt with cream.

  • Amazing how easy they are. I got it in my head to make bialys and just loved them. The secret to the bagels I made was barley malt syrup which is a very interesting sweetener you might enjoy. Now I am dreaming of homemade cream cheese since the store variety just seems wrong somehow. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • The real difference between bagels and bread is that bagels should use a dryer dough and that helps give them their distinctive texture. The dryer the dough, the quicker they get stale, so hurry up and eat them all.
    Love the topping idea and the salmon Peter.
    I’ve been making bagels at home for some time and you can flavor them in some really interesting ways. My wife’s favorite is lime/coconut (not a traditional Jewish flavor me thinks). Add dried shredded coconut (unsweetened) and the zest and juice of three limes.

  • Peter

    Deana: Easy as croissants. right?

    David: It was our conversation that made for 1/2 of this inspiration. Thanks for reading.

  • I made homemade pretzels for the first time a few weeks ago and was absolutely FLOORED with how much better they were than any of the bland, half-heartedly chewy versions I’ve eaten before. Homemade is absolutely about peak freshness and flavor – I pointed out to my husband this morning that everything on our table was fresh and homemade. Homegrown eggs, strawberries for our jam, homemade bread, home-roasted coffee, home-smoked bacon. On our homemade plates. :) It’s a very satisfying feeling.

Yours Truly



I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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