A familiar scent wafted in the air as I observed a pastry class at Stratford University’s Woodbridge campus last summer. I followed it, like a hunting dog, to the kitchen classroom next door.
Chef instructor Charleen Huebner was demonstrating how bagels are made. Mesh spider in hand, she stood over a wide, shallow pan in which four-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.
For years, I joined the chorus of can’t-find-a-decent-bagel-in-Washington naysayers. But in the past year I’ve changed my tune. At Union Market near Gallaudet University, two merchants — Buffalo & Bergen and Neopol Savory Smokery — offer noteworthy renditions. At the former, owner Gina Chersevani bakes off oven-ready, flash-frozen dough rings she brings in from New York. Neopol buys baked bagels from Bagels ’n Grinds in Hanover, Md., whose owner installed a $50,000 water treatment system to mimic the minerality of the natural spring water found in New York.
(New Yorkers will tell you their bagels are superior because of the soft water they’re made with, which comes from the Catskill Mountains. Via reservoirs, aqueducts and tunnels, the water makes its way to the five boroughs. The minerals it collects along the way, according to the theory, give New York bagels their unique flavor.)
In Cleveland Park, chef Peter Pastan at 2 Amys bakes weekend bagels in wood-burning ovens, as did Frank Ruta at Palena, until that restaurant closed last week. At the soon-to-open Bread Furst in Van Ness, baker Mark Furstenberg will turn out bagels from an $85,000 deck oven. Could it be that bagels are becoming a D.C. darling?
The experience in Huebner’s kitchen transported me back to Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, where as a child I would accompany my stepfather on Sunday morning runs to Iz Cohen’s delicatessen. After acquiring provisions there for our family’s weekly brunch, we would cross Murray Avenue and head to Bagel Land.
In that store’s close, narrow space hung the fusing smells of freshly baked, yeasty bagels and the near-burnt bits of onion and garlic that topped some of them. The place sweltered even in winter, its windows fogged from the steam rising off the water bath of dough rounds. A baker’s assistant flipped them with a long paddle before lining them up to be baked in the deck oven.
A few weeks ago, I decided to get in on the action by returning to Woodbridge for a bagel-making lesson. Many of the students at Stratford are adults seeking to change careers. (An associate of applied science degree in culinary arts there costs just over $30,000.) Huebner, 47, earned culinary arts and baking and pastry degrees in 1993 from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and then worked in the restaurant and catering industries. She joined Stratford’s staff as a full-time instructor in 2003.
Artisan Baking — 13 days spread over five weeks — is a required course for the school’s baking and pastry students. They learn how to make French, sourdough and rye breads, Danish pastries, croissants, brioche, non-leavened and leavened flatbreads, pretzels and bialys.
Huebner added bagels to the list eight years ago. She calls her 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 my 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 pre-ferment 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 11 / 2 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. “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 Giant stores, next to the jarred chopped garlic.) Then we baked them for roughly 18 minutes in a 450-degree oven. These bagels tasted just like the ones I’d had at Stratford in July.
Next stop: A bagel-baking frenzy at home. I had to add extra water to my dough, which was stiffer than the one from the lesson.
I devised two toppings for my bagels: one fiery with jalapeño, chipotle and Korean dried pepper I had on hand, plus zesty Spanish smoked paprika and crushed pink and black peppercorns; the other an everything mix made with sundry seeds and Japanese rice seasoning. My cream cheese-based spreads included one made with pan-seared cauliflower, curry and golden raisins and another with every hot pepper I could get my hands on. My favorite, though, was a BLT spread made with bacon bits, sun-dried tomato paste and crushed kale chips.
As my first-ever batch of homemade bagels baked, their familiar fragrance told me I was on the right track. When I sliced my first one open, its proper shape, golden brown crust, pleasing shine and fine crumb were all as they should be. I yanked off a bite with my teeth and noted the chewiness, savoring the heady mix of malt, yeast, salt, pepper, toasted seeds, onion and garlic.
I tried to remember what Bagel Land’s bagels had tasted like, but I couldn’t. My memory, it seems, had developed some holes.
Hagedorn, a frequent 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). He will join today’s chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.