On Bagels

Friday night I had dinner at Brown’s in Boothbay Harbor with my friend Becky.

Brown's (but we were there at night)

Our waitress was Holly, another of Becky’s friends, who lives up Dover Road from Willow Brook Farm.

“The bagels are here!” Holly crowed when we sat down in her section.

Not me.  The bagels.

I have become, over the past couple of years, the queen of bagels.  Thanks to a Scotsman who goes by the nom of Southpaw on the Qi message board (a forum for devotees of the British panel show “Qi” hosted by Stephen Fry), a couple of years ago I got hold of the world’s best–and easiest–bagel recipe, and I have been a highly successful, and highly sought-after, bagel maker ever since.  The first time I brought them to a Simply Not Done writing retreat at the farm, everyone asked variations of the same question: Did you buy these at _____________? (Fill in the name of your favorite bakery here.)  “No,” I said.  “I made them.This elicited gasps of wonder, as thought I had done something miraculous, such as walking on water.

Of course, we are talking about me.  The person who has such great plans for dinner, but gets distracted by a book or a CD or a Red Sox game, and forgets about the stove until the potato water boils away and the spuds meld themselves to the bottom of the pan, or the chicken dries out and shrivels to something black and unrecognizable.  I fog up windows by letting things boil to desiccation; I set off smoke alarms by burning things to cinders.  My house frequently smells like something combusted.  Perhaps the bagels are a miracle.  Perhaps I am walking on water.  All I know for certain is that I owe every shred of my culinary fame to a left-handed Scotsman I have never met.  Southpaw, to you I am ever grateful.

Many people are freaked out by the idea of bagels.  You make the dough, you let it rise, you form the bagels, you boil them, you bake them.  Too many steps, maybe?  And yet the results are well worth the effort.  There’s a body to a homemade bagel that one from the grocery store simply doesn’t have.  The taste is universes beyond one from the store.  Since I started making bagels, I simply cannot bring myself to eat one that is mass-produced.  Even looking at a store-bought bagel brings on feelings of revulsion:  they’re too perfectly round and smooth. A real bagel is an odd thing, trying desperately to be round, but somehow always mildly misshapen.  The outer crust is rumpled and dimpled from its hand-kneading and forming.  None of them are ever the same size, the same shape, the same color.  A real bagel is an individual.


The joy of Southpaw’s recipe is that it can be used to make any kind of bagel imaginable:  knead onion into the dough, and there you go.  Top with sesame seeds, or poppy seeds.  Make the dough base with an egg yolk in the liquid.  Blueberries?  Raisins?  I’ve made I don’t know how many varieties of bagels with this recipe.  I even take requests.  When I bring the bagels down to Willow Brook Farm, I always have to remember:  no sesame seeds for Brenda.  No poppy seeds for Holly.  As for me–I want mine with everything.  And slathered in cream cheese.  (The onion bagels, by the way, make rocking bagel pizzas.)

In any case, I’ve been bringing the bagels to our Simply Not Done gatherings for a while now.  Somehow my fame as the bagel queen has traveled the length of Dover Road.  According to Becky, people cheer when they hear I’m coming.  No, I’ll rephrase that:  people cheer when they hear the bagels are coming.  They drop in at the farm in the mornings

to collect.  Becky saves out bagels for her husband John, who always arranges to be away when the bunch of us show up for the weekend.  For someone who spent years being uncool, these bagels are my ticket to popularity.  And I’m willing to share.

This is Southpaw’s post from the Qi boards, after I submitted an application to become a bagel-maker:

489399.  Mon Jan 26, 2009 10:34 am

Well, I’ve had a very formal application, so here goes:


Makes 15 large bagels – divides fairly logically to make less. This recipe gives lovely chewy bagels. They are best warm from the oven; you don’t need to toast them. The recipe is also kosher, if that concerns you. They will keep for a couple of days in an airtight tub.


6-8 cups bread flour

4 tbsp dry yeast (i use fast action stuff, it’s just so much easier)

6 tbsp white sugar

2 tsp salt

3 cups hot water

To boil (all will become clear)

A large saucepan of water

3-5 tbsp sugar


1. Proof the yeast by adding it to the hot water and sugar in a mixing bowl and stirring. Leave to froth for a few minutes.

2. Add a couple of cups of the flour to the yeasty water, along with the salt. Mix with your hands or a wooden spoon. Gradually add more flour, adding less each time, until you can knead the dough.

3. Transfer the dough to a floured surface and knead for a few minutes. The dough should be nice and stiff, and heavier than normal bread dough. Do not make it too dry. It should stretch easily without tearing.

4. Set the dough in an oiled bowl to rise until doubled in volume.

5. Once the dough has risen, take it out, punch it down, and divide into 15 pieces. Now to form the bagel shape. I find the best way is to roll the piece into a sausage shape, then loop it and squeeze the ends together. You can also make a rondel and poke a hole through. [I actually use a doughnut cutter.]  Whatever floats your boat. Don’t bother trying to make them perfect. There’s much to be said for rusticity!

Once all the pieces have been shaped, let them sit for 10 minutes.

6. While they are sitting, preheat your oven to 200°C (400°F), and put a large pan of water on to boil. When it starts to simmer, turn the heat down so that the surface barely moves. Add the sugar and stir to dissolve.

7. Now place the bagels in the water, a couple at a time. They will swell in size in the heat. They should float at the surface. Simmer for 3 minutes, then flip them over and simmer for another 3. This stage is what gives the bagels their trademark glossy finish.

Extract the bagels and place on a greased (or cornmealed, if you can get it) tray. Repeat for all the bagels, then place in the oven for about 35 minutes, or until golden. If you like, you can bake them for 25 minutes, then turn them over so they aren’t flat on one side.

That’s it. Enjoy!

And there it is:  the secret to my success.  Though the recipe involves both baking and boiling, neither one of which is my strong suit, I have yet to ruin a batch of these bagels.  Again, Southpaw, thanks.


In previous years I have hosted a bagel breakfast at school as a fund-raiser for the MS Society.  This year, rather than having bagels from the grocery store, I featured my own home-made varieties…and managed to raise more money than I ever have before.  I gather from this empirical evidence that other people feel the same about real bagels.


  1. Jenny D

    Thanks for the recipe! And thanks for the link to the QI forums 🙂


  2. Jenny D

    By the way – can these be made with wholewheat flour?


    • I have never tried, but I don’t see why not. You’d have to make whatever adjustments you usually make to yeast/sugar/liquid to account for the heavier flour.

      I might just have to try this weekend. I’ll let you know how it works out.



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