A New York State of Mind: Bagels

23 Jan

A lot comes to mind when I think of New York City. Growing up it was this mysterious place that people talked about as the center of the universe. It wasn’t until my seventeenth birthday that my first trip there was even planned. My parents, knowing my grand lifelong obsession with Billy Joel, decided to take me to New York during the opening weekend of the musical based on his songs called “Movin’ Out.” I was star struck from the minute we arrived: Times Square was a mob scene, impossible for tour buses to navigate due to the crowd’s determination to catch a glimpse of Eminem waving out the window at Total Request Live. When I sat down in the theatre to see “Movin’ Out,” I realized that James Gandolfini was directly in front of me. Less than 24 hours after that I was taking a picture with Billy Zane (who, aside from Hugh Jackman was the most gracious, kind celebrity I have ever met).

Inevitably at some point in my blogging career I was going to use Billy Joel’s most famous song as a post title. One does not see him in concert 6 times in three different cities without having that song permanently embedded into a part of the brain. Trips to New York always remind me of going to his concerts because he sings so much about NYC and the surrounding areas.

There are a lot of iconic things about New York: The Empire State Building, The Statue of Liberty, vast amounts of museums, enormous flagship stores, the Yankees, Broadway, and probably the best people-watching around. And the food scene? Pretty much everything imaginable. The little neighborhoods throughout all seem to have little clumps of ethnic groups that have brought their dishes to the States throughout the country’s history. And if I learned one thing in New York it is that they are serious about bagels. Polish-Jew immigrants brought the bagel to America, and sadly by the 1960s their delicious, handmade creations had been industrialized by Harry Lender, who engineered the automatic production and…pre-slicing of them (face, meet desk). I mourn for these bagels.

But New York has a host of bakeries that still make them from scratch. Even if you feel most sure of it, do NOT insist to a New Yorker that you can buy a decent bagel anywhere but there. This is an argument that you will not win. The theory is that it’s all about the water (much like the lime content of Kentucky water giving bourbon its distinctive characteristics).

Oh, but I am defiant and stubborn. And skeptical of anyone who tells me that I can’t do something. Maybe I didn’t ask my brother to ship me some of his water, nor did I bring a bucket on Amtrak during my recent trip to NYC, but I did my research. I wanted to know what makes bagel baking different from other bread baking and how I could achieve the closest possible analog to the breakfast king of the Big Apple.

New Yorkers, I believe that I have done you proud. Perhaps they are not made with the “right” water, but I guarantee you that they are dense, slightly spongy, and chewy. They are not “doughnut bagels” or bread shaped like a bagel. They are truly, wholeheartedly bagels.

These ones are of the cinnamon-raisin variety, but they aren’t sweet. I really wanted to shy away from making these resemble pastry or sweet bread in any way. The process takes two days, so make sure you give yourself adequate time before beginning.

Cinnamon Raisin Bagels

adapted from Peter Reinhardt, recipes from Jewish friends, and the great city of New York.


  • 4 cups bread flour (or high-gluten flour)
  • 2 1/2 cups room temperature water
  • 1 tsp. rapid-rise yeast


  • 3 ½ cups bread flour (or high-gluten flour)
  • 4 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tbsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tbsp. malt syrup or honey
  • 1 tbsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. rapid-rise yeast
  • 2 cups raisins, rinsed under warm water and patted dry
  • 1 tbsp. baking soda for water bath
  • Cornmeal for baking pans

To make the sponge, mix the flour and yeast together and then stir in the water until you have a thick batter. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it in a non-drafty, warm place for 2-3 hours or until it has doubled in size and is very foamy on top. It should deflate slightly when the bowl is tapped on a hard surface.

1 - sponge

Add the second teaspoon of yeast and mix it thoroughly into the sponge. Mix in 3 cups of the flour, sugar, cinnamon, malt syrup, and salt. Add the remaining flour only as needed to form a stiff bread dough. Mix in the raisins.

2 - sponge with yeast and flour

3 - adding the dry ingredients

4 - mixing

5 - raisins addedTransfer the dough to a counter and knead for ten minutes or until it is smooth and pliable. The dough should not be tacky, but should be hydrated enough that it does not rip while being kneaded. At this point, check the temperature with an instant read thermometer. It should be somewhere in the mid 70s F.

6 - kneaded dough

Immediately divide the dough into 24 equal pieces and shape into rolls. These were 3 oz. each. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow them to rest for a half hour.

7 - formed rolls

Line two sheet pans with parchment paper and form the bagels. The easiest way to do this by hand is to poke the hole in the center using your thumb and then rotate the bagel around it until the hole is about one inch in diameter. Make them as even as possible to avoid timing problems during the baking process. Place the bagels on the prepared sheet pans and cover loosely with plastic wrap and let them rest at room temperature for 20 minutes. This room temperature rest is crucial before moving them to the refrigerator for final retarding as it provides some time for the gasses to build up that will make the bagels float during the pre-bake boil.

8 - shaped bagels

After the 20 minute rest do a test by dropping a bagel into a bowl of room temperature water. If it floats within 10 seconds, the bagels are ready for final retarding. Pat the test bagel dry and return it to the sheet pan. If the tester doesn’t float, leave the pans at room temperature and re-test every 10 minutes until it floats. Once this is achieved, move the bagels to the refrigerator and allow them to retard for 12 hours. They can stay like this for up to 2 days.

9 - float test

The following day, preheat the oven to 500 degrees F.

Bring a large pot of water to boil on the stove and then add the baking soda.

Line two sheet pans with parchment paper, lightly oil the paper, and sprinkle a layer of cornmeal on it.

Remove the bagels from the refrigerator and gently drop them into the boiling water a few at a time. They should float within 10 seconds. Boil for 1 minute, flip them over, and then boil for 1 more minute.

10 - boil bagels

Place the boiled bagels on the prepared sheet pan about 2 inches apart. Once you’ve finished boiling all of them, move the pans to the oven and bake for 5 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 450 degrees, rotate the pans, and bake for 5 more minutes or until lightly golden brown. As with most bread, you can generally tell that they are cooked through once they reach an internal temperature of 190 degrees.

Cool the bagels on a wire rack for at least 20 minutes prior to cutting them. You wouldn’t want to smoosh all of the chewy goodness you worked to achieve, so be patient! I actually found that the texture improved greatly after several hours.

11 - boiled bagels12 - finished bagels 113 - finished bagels 2

But now you might be thinking “What do I do with two dozen bagels and only one stomach?” Well, I suppose you could share, but the good news is that these hold up well in the freezer as long as they’re tightly wrapped. Revive for a few minutes in a 350 degree oven or just toast them. Not as good as fresh, but infinitely better than store-bought.

Although I may never convince a New Yorker that these are the real deal, I have had many a bagel in my time and this is honestly the closest I’ve ever come to that distinct bagel-ness. Have fun, be patient, and enjoy. Other flavors? Omit the cinnamon and raisins and top your bagels with coarse salt, poppy seeds, or sesame seeds prior to baking. Purists might get mad at you, but dried blueberries are really tasty in place of the raisins. And besides, who cares what anyone thinks of you if you’re happy with them.

For now I think I’ll just enjoy my bagel and think about “taking a Greyhound on the Hudson River line…”

Ciao for now,


One Response to “A New York State of Mind: Bagels”

  1. mom January 24, 2013 at 10:07 pm #

    hmmm…… what a sweet memory of NY with you my dear!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: