You would think that a breakfast staple so common that it can be found in every bakery, grocery store, and even gas station that can boast a minimum of competency, would be as simple to make as rousing yourself from bed in order to chow down on it. In the case of the deceptively humble bagel, you would be sadly mistaken. Meant to be firm, chewy, and just a touch toasty on the outside while remaining soft inside, even the professional bakers don’t always get it right. Authentic bagels are kneaded by hand, followed by a leisurely rise that can last for as long as 12 hours, after which they are cooked first by boiling, and then finally by a trip through a scorching-hot oven. Bread baking is truly an art when done correctly, and being so artist myself, I would be quite reluctant to attempt such an undertaking. Sure, it’s easy enough to have bagels at home thanks to those convenient hockey pucks of bread-like material found in the freezer section, requiring nothing more than a quick defrosting before consumption… But the quality takes a serious plunge as soon as each icy brick enters into industrial blast freezers at the factories.
There are few feasible solutions to this dilemma, the most palatable usually being to give in and buy them fresh from a bakery as needed, shelling out more money in comparison to the bulk bagels at a grocery store. Not convenient, and not for the budget-minded.
However, it has been brought to my attention that there is in fact an alternative: Meeting the manufacturer half way on the labor. It may sound funny, but Bake’Mmm bagels hopes to prove that this particular compromise can be worth the work. They are still frozen, but they differ from the other brands out there in one big way – They’re boiled, but then left unbaked.
Removing the packages of frozen bagels from my freezer on a laid-back sunny weekend morning, I was ready to see what these partly factory made, partly homemade lumps of dough could do. Frozen together quite solidly, it took quite a struggle to separate a single one from its unbaked family, although I must admit that my desire to break out a chainsaw to dislodge them is more an indication of my weakness than a flaw in the product. Pale and icy, it was hard to imagine that these would be ready to go in no time.
Once they finally decided that individuality was worth a try and yielded to my pathetic beating, I lay them out on a baking sheet and checked out the helpful hints printed on the wrapper. Suggesting a heat of 425 – 450 degrees, I balked at powering up my oven so hot just to cook those wee little blobs. I know that bread baking does require higher heat than your typical cake or cookie, but I still can’t help but be reluctant to venture that far up the thermometer, so I opted for the lower setting of 425 degrees to start. Waiting for the oven to heat up took longer than the actual baking time, and after 10 minutes a golden brown tint began to creep across the surface, as though they were blushing in their unfinished state. Still pressing on for the full amount of time suggested, the bagels were out and steaming after another 5 minutes.
Opening the oven to release a pungent cloud of the yeasted scent indicative of fresh bread, the once rock-solid lumps had transformed into perfectly browned, authentic-looking bagels, and I could hardly wait to dig in. Slicing the first one I could get my hands around in half, I discovered a disappointing surprise inside. Although the exterior was gorgeous and clearly fully baked, the innards still appeared mushy and moist, almost to the point of being raw. Not prepared to discard this specimen with such high potential, I threw it into the toaster in hopes of finishing up the undercooked insides. Proving to be a satisfactory solution for the time being, the bagels emerged looking much more ready to eat before long.
On a second occasion, I did try setting the oven higher at 450 degrees for the full 15 minutes again, but alas, the same results awaited me lurking within the center of each bagel. A frustrating flaw to be sure, but not a deal breaker; They still come out perfectly after a quick cycle in the toaster, no matter what which setting you choose for your oven.
First up in the toaster was the Whole Wheat variety, sporting a lovely tan coloring through and through. Teasing my nostrils with a faint nutty smell indicative of the whole grains baked within, my taste buds couldn’t wait to get in on some of the action. Even unadorned, this bagel speaks volumes of deliciousness; Crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, and chewy all over, the purely tactile sensation of masticating made me wonder if I had ever eaten a truly fresh bagel in all of my life. This must be what those bagel-fanatics always talk about, as my only experiences thus far have been with bagels that were nothing more than round pieces of toast with extra crust and a hole in the center! Hearty, satisfying, and dense, this is an excellent vehicle with which to deliver whole grains into finicky eaters. Just a tiny smear of margarine kicks up the savory, salty side of things quite nicely, but nothing is really required to make this one fantastic breakfast.
I’m a real sucker for anything cinnamon, so the Cinnamon Raisin bagels were calling my name from the moment they took up residence in the freezer. Smelling fantastic as soon as they emerged from the heat, one mere whiff was enough to start my mouth watering. Lightly speckled with raisins throughout, it was just the right amount – Raisins aren’t my favorite in applications such as this, but there were few enough that they simply provided an occasional burst of tart, fruity sweetness without covering up the more subtle cinnamon flavor. Hoping for a cinnamon bonanza, I will admit that my first bite was a bit of a letdown. Wondering if there was some mistake here, I could have sworn that it just tasted like a regular, generic bagel. Where was the cinnamon? Slowly but surely, bite after bite, a gentle hint of spice crept up on the tip of my tongue, creating a quiet background flavor that permeates the whole dough. Nice for a mild, spicy treat that would be an excellent match with cinnamon peanut butter or cinnamon “cream cheese,” it was slightly underwhelming by itself. However, it was very pleasant nonetheless, and I’m sure it would be a great way for someone accustomed to fairly plain breakfasts to spice things up a bit.
Speaking of plain breakfasts, the last bagel on my hit list was the classic, Plain. Expecting a bland mass of dough like the typical frozen bagels I’m accustomed to, the difference from baking these fresh really struck me again. This was pure, no-nonsense, yeast-raised bread, simple but perfect as is. Sure, it wasn’t flavorful in the traditional sense of intense or overwhelming tastes that can be described by individual components, but this was the most delicious plain bagel I can recall tasting, and whether you can define a specific “flavoring” that would explain why it leaves all the other similar types in the dust or not, it definitely has spoke loud and clear to my taste buds.
Being such an excellent blank canvas, these would go with anything you fancy – Sweet or savory, seed- or herb- toppings, jam, margarine, or even marmite, these bagels are the epitome of versatility. Even on by itself, the soft, chewy texture makes for a breakfast that the most refined palates could crave without shame. I had only planned to eat half of this one after downing such great quantities of carbs, but I was powerless to stop myself from devouring the whole thing!
With all of the hard work done for you, I think that the requested baking time isn’t asking too much of the average eater. Easily defined as a convenience food all the same, it doesn’t take a skilled baker to produce a fantastic, fresh bagel any more. I must warn you though: After trying this new breed of frozen bagel, it may be near impossible to return to the regular old rings that pale in comparison.
[Written for Go Dairy Free]