Bagels! Fresh, fragrant and scorching hot. Plain or pumpernickel, poppy seed or garlic-and-onion. And they're everywhere, with outstanding bagel shops popping up all over.

So why make your own? Because homemade bagels are incredibly fun, cheap and easy, and come out looking so extremely professional in such a relatively short time that it's frightening. And at home, bagels are guaranteed fresh -- we're talking impressive weekend brunch material here.

Bagels can boast a popularity increase of 37 percent in the last two years, according to recent surveys in bakery trade magazines. What's remarkable, in the face of the current trend, is that bagels are considered a low-tech, though high-labor bit of bakery. It's far more difficult to perfect French baguettes or one's sourdough savvy, than it is to make bagels. This is because bagel fermentation, or rising time, is short and carefree.

Ultimately, what you are after in a bagel is a hefty, dense ring of somewhat bland-tasting bread. More sophisticated breads, such as French pain au levain, are "mature doughs" that enjoy several long, luxurious rising periods, which help the dough develop "character" and taste. These doughs are also far more slack and wet and a challenge to work with. Bagel dough is stiff and easily handled -- a real bumpkin.

Frankly, if one were to judge bagels by the standards of other breads, they would fall flat. Fortunately, most of us have allotted bagels special status -- a breed of bread apart -- and tend to be forgiving of their less-than-airy texture and alarming premature staling ability. (Bagels stale for two reasons: the short fermentation period and the fact that bagels are made of a "lean" formula -- lean on fat and sugar and other enrichments such as eggs. So eat bagels fresh or freeze them pronto. There is no in-between treatment.)

Finally, French breads and other breads with crackly crusts require special ovens with steam injection. But bagels can go onto a cookie sheet, or onto a baking stone, and no steam is required. No, you can't exactly re-create a wood-burning oven in your General Electric built-in, but the bagels come out terrific all the same.

The name of the game in the bagel business is "kettling," a vintage bagel-baker's-union term that refers to boiling the bagels, as opposed to steam-proofing them. A steam proof is more or less a wet sauna for bagels and something commercial bagel bakeries are resorting to more and more of late to economize on time and cost and, honestly, just to keep up with production demands.

Technically speaking, even the bagel experts agree than steam-proofing should have the same effect as kettling, but somehow it doesn't. The whole point to boiling the bagels is to gelatinize the starches on the bagel's outer surface. In plain English, the boiling makes for that nice, shiny, deep amber, chewy crust. Among professional bagel mavens, only "kettled" bagels are the real McCoy. Happily, in the home kitchen, kettling is a cinch.

If you make your own bagels, you can also make bagels a more modest size. Even though they're low in fat, commercial bagels can range in weight from six to seven ounces, enough to feed a spa's guest list for a week. At your own bagelry, you can skim off an ounce or two of dough and make lovely but lighter bagels.

Face it, bagels are only fun when served whole. Who routinely eats only half a bagel to save calories? So make them smaller, serve them whole and don't fret.

Some Bagel Tips

If you're kneading by hand, you may want to use an unbleached all-purpose flour, which is easier to work. It takes much longer for the gluten in real bread flour to develop.

Keep the dough firm and stiff, and don't give it much chance to rest between steps because this allows it to get slack and soft. The final -- really the only -- rise the dough gets is known as a "half proof." Half of the rise is achieved on the kitchen counter. The final boost happens the instant the bagel hits the boiling water. One quick swell and surge and then poof! -- the yeast is killed off for good, and you can say goodbye to any more expansion.

One Caveat

There is something about certain food items -- french fries, pizza, cheesecake -- that make people adamant about what is a "good" or authentic version. Bagels fall into this category as well. These recipes do not promise to reproduce food memories or compete with the bagel bakery down the street. But they are good -- really great, in fact -- and may be the beginning of a new tradition.

WATER BAGELS

(NEW YORK-STYLE BAGELS)

(10 bagels)

New York bagel aficionados always maintain that the secret to New York bagels is the New York water. However, even minus the Hudson River, these bagels are a pretty close runner-up to what many Americans consider the definitive model.

1 1/2 cups slightly warm water

3 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast, or 1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast

1 tablespoon oil

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons plus 1 tablespoon malt syrup (brown sugar can be substituted)

2 3/8 teaspoons salt

4 1/2 to 5 1/2 cups bread flour, preferably unbleached

Cornmeal for sprinkling baking sheet

Sesame seeds, poppy seeds, dry garlic granules, onion flakes, caraway seeds or coarse salt for topping the bagels (garnishes optional)

To prepare by hand or electric mixer, whisk together the water, yeast, oil, sugar, 2 teaspoons of the malt syrup and 1 3/8 teaspoons of the salt, stirring to dissolve the yeast, sugar and salt, and thoroughly blend everything before adding the flour.

Stir in most of the flour until the dough can no longer be stirred. If using an electric mixer, switch to a dough hook. If kneading by hand, turn out onto a lightly floured board. Knead the dough, adding more flour as necessary, for 8 to 10 minutes by hand, or 8 minutes by machine. Dough will be stiff.

Let the dough rest on a board about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, line two large baking sheets with baking parchment and sprinkle generously with cornmeal.

Fill a large soup pot or Dutch oven three-quarters full with water. To this add the remaining 1 tablespoon of malt syrup and remaining 1 teaspoon salt.

Bring water to a boil. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Divide dough into 10 pieces. Form into strips about 8 to 10 inches long, and then form these into bagel rings and place on prepared parchment-covered, cornmeal-dusted baking sheet. Let rest 15 to 20 minutes. Bagels should have a "half proof," meaning they should rise halfway or appear puffed.

Reduce water to a simmer and add bagels a few at a time. Allow them to come to surface and simmer 30 seconds. Turn over and cook other side about 45 seconds more (total of 1 1/2 minutes). Place back on cornmeal-lined sheet.

Leave dough plain or use one of the toppings listed.

Place in oven, reduce heat to 425 degrees and bake until done, about 15 to 20 minutes. If you have a baking stone, move the bagels off the cookie sheet and onto the stone for the final 2 minutes of baking.

Per bagel without optional garnish: 281 calories, 9 gm protein, 54 gm carbohydrates, 3 gm fat, trace saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 525 mg sodium

PUMPERNICKEL BAGELS

(10 bagels)

Chewy and dark, this bagel shines with nothing on it. You don't have to boil these, but you can. Some bakeries simply glaze the bagels with egg white, then add on the toppings and bake as rolls. Outstanding.

1 1/2 cups slightly warm water

1 tablespoon dry onion flakes or minced onion

4 teaspoons active dry yeast, or 2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast

5 tablespoons brown sugar

2 teaspoons malt syrup (optional)

1 teaspoon baker's caramel, or more, to taste

1/2 teaspoon ground caraway seeds, or 1 teaspoon whole caraway seeds

2 3/4 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons cornmeal plus extra for sprinkling baking sheet

1/2 cup dark or coarse rye flour

3 1/2 to 4 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour

1 cup finely diced, lightly sauteed onions, or rehydrated dry onion flakes (optional garnish)

Caraway seeds, coarse sea salt or poppy seeds (optional garnishes)

To prepare by hand or electric mixer, whisk together the water, onion flakes, yeast, 3 tablespoons of the brown sugar, the malt syrup, baker's caramel, caraway seeds, 1 3/4 teaspoons of the salt and 2 tablespoons cornmeal, stirring to dissolve the yeast, sugar and salt, and thoroughly blend everything before adding the flour.

Stir in the rye flour and most of bread flour until the dough can no longer be stirred. If using an electric mixer, switch to a dough hook. If kneading by hand turn out onto a lightly floured board. Knead the dough, adding more flour as necessary, for 8 to 10 minutes by hand, or 8 minutes by machine. Dough will be stiff.

Let dough rest on a board about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, line two large baking sheets with baking parchment and sprinkle generously with cornmeal.

Fill a large soup pot or Dutch oven three-quarters full with water. To this add the remaining 2 tablespoons of brown sugar and remaining 1 teaspoon salt.

Bring water to a boil. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Divide dough into 10 pieces. Form into strips 8 to 10 inches long, and then form these into bagel rings and place on prepared baking sheet. Let rest 15 to 20 minutes. Bagels should have a half proof, meaning they should rise halfway or appear puffed.

Reduce water to a simmer and add bagels a few at a time. Allow them to come to surface and simmer 30 seconds. Turn over and cook other side about 30 seconds more (total 1 minute). Place on the cornmeal-sprinkled baking sheet.

Sprinkle on optional garnishes.

Place in oven and bake until done, about 18 to 22 minutes. If you have a baking stone, move the bagels off the cookie sheet and onto the stone for the final 2 minutes of baking.

Per bagel without optional garnish: 263 calories, 8 gm protein, 54 gm carbohydrates, 1 gm fat, trace saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 591 mg sodium

CINNAMON RAISIN WHOLE-WHEAT BAGELS

(10 bagels)

If you are using a bread machine to mix this dough, do not add the raisins until the machine is in the middle of the kneading cycle.

1 1/2 cups slightly warm water

4 teaspoons active dry yeast, or 2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast

2 tablespoons oil

2 tablespoons honey

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons light brown sugar

2 1/4 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 cup whole-wheat flour, preferably stone-ground

3 to 4 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour

1 cup raisins, plumped in hot water about 10 minutes (or use raisins and currants mixed)

1 egg white, beaten

To prepare by hand or electric mixer, whisk together the water, yeast, oil, honey, 1/4 cup of the sugar, 1 1/4 teaspoons of the salt, and the cinnamon, stirring to dissolve the yeast, sugar and salt, and thoroughly blend everything before adding the flour.

Stir in the whole-wheat flour and most of the bread flour until the dough can no longer be stirred. If using an electric mixer, switch to a dough hook. If kneading by hand, turn out onto a lightly floured board. Knead the dough, adding more flour as necessary, for 8 to 10 minutes by hand or 8 minutes by machine. Add the raisins about halfway through the kneading (you can also press the raisins into the dough when you are done kneading). Dough will be stiff.

Let dough rest on a board about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, line two large baking sheets with baking parchment.

Fill a large soup pot or Dutch oven three-quarters full with water. To this add the remaining 2 tablespoons of brown sugar and remaining 1 teaspoon salt.

Bring water to a boil. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Divide dough into 10 pieces. Form into strips 8 to 10 inches long, and then form these into bagel rings and place on a prepared cookie sheet. Let rest 15 to 20 minutes. Bagels should have a half proof, meaning they should rise halfway or appear puffed.

Reduce water to a simmer and add bagels a few at a time. Allow them to come to surface and simmer 30 seconds. Turn over and cook other side about 1 minute more (total 1 1/2 minutes). Remove to a baking sheet and let dry, then brush with beaten egg white.

Place in oven, reduce heat to 425 degrees and bake until done, about 18 to 22 minutes. If you have a baking stone, move the bagels off the cookie sheet and onto the stone for the final 2 minutes of baking.

Per bagel: 357 calories, 9 gm protein, 72 gm carbohydrates, 4 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 486 mg sodium

ONION BIALY

(Makes 15 bialys)

Inspired by, and adapted from, "Secrets of a Jewish Baker," by George Greenstein (see box below left).

FOR THE BIALY DOUGH:

1 1/2 cups warm water

4 teaspoons active dry yeast, or 2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast

5 teaspoons sugar

2 1/2 teaspoons salt

5 to 5 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour

Cornmeal for the baking sheet

FOR THE TOPPING:

1/2 cup dehydrated minced onions

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 egg beaten in 1 tablespoon water

1 tablespoon coarse sea salt

3 tablespoons poppy seeds

For the dough: To prepare by hand or electric mixer, whisk together the water, yeast, sugar and salt, stirring to dissolve and thoroughly blend everything before adding the flour.

Stir in most of the flour until dough can no longer be stirred. If using an electric mixer, switch to a dough hook. If kneading by hand, turn out onto a lightly floured board. Knead dough, adding flour as necessary, 8 to 10 minutes by hand, or 8 minutes by machine (it will be a very stiff).

Cover dough with a tea towel and let rise for 30 minutes.

Deflate dough. Divide into three sections, then divide each section into four to six portions and allow to rest 10 minutes. Roll each section into an oval 3 to 4 inches long. If dough gets too springy, move on to another section. Stretch each oval slightly to make a 4-to-5-inch piece. Make an indentation in the center of each. Cover with a floured tea towel and allow to rise 30 to 40 minutes.

Prepare topping by rehydrating the dehydrated onions in hot water; soak them for 5 minutes. Drain, toss with oil. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Line baking sheets with parchment paper and sprinkle with cornmeal. Place dough ovals on sheets. Glaze outer edges with egg wash. Spoon onion topping into center and a little over top surface. Sprinkle on a little coarse salt and poppy seeds.

Bake until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. If you have a baking stone, move the bagels off the cookie sheet and onto the stone for the final 2 minutes of baking.

Eat immediately or freeze. Thicker bialys will rise and bake higher, and can be split for sandwiches.

Per bialy with topping: 199 calories, 6 gm protein, 35 gm carbohydrates, 3 gm fat, trace saturated fat, 0 g cholesterol, 428 mg sodium

Marcy Goldman is a professional baker and food writer based in Montreal.

The First Cousin

According to Washington food writer Joan Nathan, in her "Jewish Cooking in America" (Alfred A. Knopf, $30), the bialy is a flat round of dimpled dough topped with diced onions and poppy seeds and finished with a brisk bake in a hot oven. The result is a chewy flatbread, which takes well to a copious smear of cream cheese. Bialys can be modest -- three to four inches across -- or as large as a dinner plate. When thin, they are a good munch. A thicker, more risen bialy can be split and filled as a sandwich.

Unlike the bagel, which has come to enjoy absolute mainstream food acceptance, the bialy has remained more of a New York specialty. Most bialy makers rely on bagel dough for the foundation but permit the dough to rise, and usually, although some bialy mavens differ, the dough is baked, not boiled.

-- Marcy Goldman

Getting Started: The Right Ingredients

Most bagel ingredients, as well as the baking stone, can be found in a regular supermarket. Malt syrup is available where home beer-brewing supplies are sold. All the items are available through King Arthur Flour Baker's Catalogue, a one-stop, serves-all-baking-needs mail-order company (call 800- 827-6836).

Bread flour is best for bagels; it has sufficient gluten (the flour's protein) to give a bagel its chewiness and crust. If you can find unbleached bread flour in your supermarket, grab it.

On the other hand, bread flour is difficult to knead by hand. Definitely use it if you have a bread machine or an electric mixer with a dough hook. If you don't, you may want to settle for unbleached all-purpose flour, which is easier for hand-kneading.

Rye flour: Dark rye, pumpernickel, light rye and coarse rye are all descriptions of rye-flour granulations.

If you can, get stone-ground rye as this has the most flavor.

Yeast: These recipes have all been tested with active dry yeast as well as instant or fast-rising yeast, and amounts are given for both. (For general information: In a recipe calling for active dry, use about 25 percent less instant yeast, since this variety is much more potent.) Regardless of which yeast you use, if you prefer very dense bagels, reduce yeast by 1/2-teaspoon increments. If you prefer spongy, less dense bagels, increase by 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon.

Malt syrup: This is the "je ne sais quoi" that gives bagels their appeal, and it is an ingredient that has usually eluded home bakers. Malt assists with browning, feeds the yeast and adds authentic bagel flavor. You can find malt syrup -- look for an unhopped, light variety -- in any store selling home beer-brewing supplies. You can also use malt powder in amounts comparable to the liquid malt. Both malt syrup and powder are available through King Arthur's Catalogue. If you want to get started right away, use brown sugar instead. It's not malt, but sometimes it's better to substitute than to get stopped before you start.

Baker's caramel: This is a natural coloring agent that gives dark breads their hearty hue. It is essentially burnt, or caramelized, sugar and resembles dark-brewed coffee in appearance. Second choice to real baker's caramel would be Kitchen Bouquet -- a gravy-coloring agent available in the soup and bouillon section of the supermarket. This will do the trick, but it does contain little extras like salt. Use baker's caramel, a k a blackjack, in gravies, whole-wheat breads and dark ryes as well as bagels.

Baking stone: Most bagels are hearth baked, that is, baked directly on an oven hearth. You can come close at home by baking the bagels on a cookie sheet and then turning them over once onto a preheated baking stone, sometimes sold as a pizza stone. This multipurpose stone surface gives a nice crisp finish to the bagel bottoms and is also great for other breads, pizza and pies.

-- Marcy Goldman

Bagel Lore, and More

If bagels, bialys ands other Jewish-style baked goods appeal to you, seek out the terrific recipe collection in "Secrets of a Jewish Baker," by George Greenstein (The Crossing Press, 1993, approximately $20). It's available from the King Arthur's Flour Baker's Catalogue and was the winner of the James Beard Award for Best Baking and Dessert Cookbook for 1994.

This incredibly generous assembly of recipes, treasures actually, from a former professional New York baker are all in an easy-to-follow format, and include numerous helpful tips, tricks and bakers' secrets. The book is worth its price for the authentic Jewish Rye Bread recipe alone, and the insider's look at a professional baker's experience. Primarily dedicated to yeast bakery, the book also has some fine coffeecakes, cookies, muffins and ethnic specialties.

-- Marcy Goldman

Using the Bread Machine For Bagels

Place the ingredients in the machine in the order given in the recipes on these pages, except for the yeast, which should be added after the flour. Process on the "dough mode" or "program." Allow dough to be kneaded but do not allow to rise in the machine. In other words, do not wait for the entire cycle to finish. (Dough gets slack if allowed to rise; bagel dough must be firm.) Remove from machine and proceed with shaping, kettling and baking.

For Bialys Follow the technique for bagels, but allow the dough to rise in the bread machine for 30 minutes. Bialy dough takes a short proof, or rise, which makes it easier to handle.

-- Marcy Goldman