Homemade bagels: You'd think making the holes would be easy

Have you ever eaten a homemade bagel? I hadn't, nor had I even seen one.

This revelation set me to wondering why. Is there some deep, dark secret, known only to commercial bakers, that makes baking a bagel in your own kitchen an impossibility or utterly foolish?

Not at all, Dona Meilach reassured me. Ms. Meilach has written a compact paperback with the encouraging title, "The Best Bagels Are Made at Home" ($8.95), part of Bristol Publishing's Nitty Gritty cookbook series.

"Lots of people make bagels in their homes - you just haven't come across them," she explained. "Some live in the boonies, some don't want the preservatives that keep bagels fresh, and some just like to make bread."

I sometimes fall into the latter category, so I decided to give bagels a shot.

Before beginning, though, I needed to know the downside.

Basically, it's that commercial bakers have a couple things going for them that the home baker doesn't - namely high-temperature ovens that can steam-prep the dough and machines that extrude it in those wonderfully round shapes.

The homemade bagel, I learned, isn't likely to be mistaken for what the pros make, but surely it can taste as good.

So armed with "Best Bagels" and Marilyn Bagel's "The Bagel Bible" (Globe Pequot, $10.95), two excellent sources, I ventured into uncharted waters.

Both books call for using barley malt syrup, a natural sweetener that looks and smells a lot like molasses, but is quite a bit more expensive. The small jar I purchased in a health-food store cost $4.99.

Another recommended ingredient is bread flour, which contains more gluten than its all-purpose brethren and thus is more elastic, making for chewier bagels - and possibly a bigger mess.

After mixing all the ingredients in a bowl, I dumped the amorphous, gooey mass onto a floured bread board. From previous breadmaking experience I knew that kneading could be a frustratingly sticky step, and it proved to be doubly so this time.

Maybe this partly explains why "Best Bagels" highlights the words "Perfect for the bread machine" on its cover.

If you'll be kneading by hand, you probably should take the phone off the hook. Sticky hands and incoming phone calls don't mix, I discovered.

Ultimately - with aid from my son, who helped extricate me from the ooze - I got the dough into workable condition.

The next tricky step was forming the individual bagels.

There are different ways to do this. First we tried sticking a spoon handle through the dough and whirling it around.

Next we rolled the dough and pinched the ends together.

Neither produced anything near picture-perfect bagels, but home bakers can't be too choosy.

Finally, the bagels were covered and left to rise about half an hour before being dropped, two at a time, into a pot of boiling water that was flavored with more malt syrup.

This was the unfamiliar "chemistry lab" step, the one unique to bagelmaking, which essentially precooks the raw dough into its lovably plump shape.

After bobbing in the boiling water for four minutes, my bagels grew into soggy, almost unmanageably large blobs. Plucked out with a slotted spoon, they drained and then were gently placed on a baking sheet and dusted with cornmeal.

Some of the blobs, however, broke apart in the pot and sank like hulking shipwrecks.

As this process continued, the froth became so thick that it shielded even the bobbing bagels from view. Things were careening out of control, and I was only too pleased to throw the first batch in the oven, which struggled to reach 450 degrees.

Even then, the egg-and-milk glaze brushed on top browned before the bagels were fully baked. Rather than let them bake and burn, I pulled them from the oven, some still in a gooey state.

But guess what? Within minutes my wife and son were slathering cream cheese onto these still-warm oddities - and enjoying them.

As for me, I nibbled enough to know they were better than they looked. But frankly, the cleanup operation took about another hour, during which time my bagel appetite subsided.

Would I do it again? Maybe, but not until reading Dona Meilach's troubleshooting tips very carefully.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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