The starter, or poolish, needs 3 to 4 hours’ resting time. Bring to room temperature before using.
For the poolish: Use a spoon to combine the flour, water and yeast in a mixing bowl, stirring to form a soft, sticky dough. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it stand at room temperature for 3 to 4 hours or until the sponge becomes bubbly and foamy. The yield should be about 11 ounces.
For the bagels: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, then dust it lightly with cornmeal.
Stir the yeast into the water in a small bowl until dissolved; let it sit for 3 minutes. (Check after a minute or so for bubbles, to make sure the yeast is alive.)
Combine 1 cup (8 ounces) of the poolish, the flour, salt and brown sugar or honey in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough-hook attachment. Photos by Dayna Smith for The Washington Post
Add the yeast mixture and stir by hand until the flour is hydrated and a dough begins to form. (This ensures that no dry bits of flour will be stranded in the bottom of the bowl.)
Beat on medium speed for 10 to 12 minutes.
The dough should be dense and fairly dry to the touch, but smooth and stretchable. You might need to add a tablespoon or two of water to achieve the desired texture.
Cut the dough into 7 equal portions, about 4 1/2 ounces each. (Weigh the dough and divide by 7 to get the exact figure.) Use the open palm of your hand to roll each piece into a ball on the countertop. Cover the balls of dough loosely with plastic wrap and let them rest on the counter for 15 minutes.
To form the bagels, bring your index and middle finger together and poke a hole straight down into the center of a ball of dough and through it.
Using a motion similar to pedaling a bicycle, rotate both sets of fingers over and over to expand the hole and the dough circle; the gluten strands will be quite strong and elastic. Make each bagel 4 inches across and the center holes about 1 1/2 inches wide. Place the shaped pieces 2 inches apart on the dusted baking sheet. Enclose the sheet in a plastic bag or wrap it loosely in plastic wrap. Let the bagels rise until they look slightly puffy, about 1 hour. (They will not double in bulk.)
Transfer the covered baking sheet to the refrigerator for at least 6 hours or, preferably, overnight. Thirty minutes before you plan to bake the bagels, remove them from the refrigerator.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment and lightly dust it with semolina or cornmeal. Line a second baking sheet with a dish towel. Pour preferred bagel toppings onto small plates.
To kettle the bagels, fill a large, wide pot with 3 inches of water; bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium so the water is barely bubbling. Stir in the malt syrup or powder and the tablespoon of sugar.
Reshape the bagels if necessary to make sure the center holes are still 1 1/2 inches wide and the bagels are 4 inches across. (The holes will shrink during baking.)
Working in batches of two or three, gently drop the dough into the water. Be careful not to crowd the pan; the pieces need enough room to float without touching. They should sink, then bob to the surface within 15 seconds. After a minute, flip the bagels over with a slotted spoon and poach them on the other side for 1 minute.
Use a slotted spoon to transfer the poached bagels to the towel-lined sheet to drain, flatter side down. If you choose to top the bagels, invert each one onto a plate of topping mix, press it down and then shake off the excess. Transfer the topped bagels to the dusted baking sheet, topped sides up, spaced 2 inches apart.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly browned. Rotate the baking sheet from front to back halfway through so the bagels brown evenly. Transfer the bagels to a wire rack to cool for at least 30 minutes before serving.