This might be too bold a statement, but here it goes:
If you’ve never had a Montreal bagel, then you haven’t lived.
Growing up, I think I took Montreal bagels for granted. We have a lot of family in the area, so we visited a few times a year. Most times, we’d return home with several bags of the skinny, dense bagels. Whenever I felt like one, I fished a bagel out of a Ziploc bag in the freezer, popped it in the toaster, and enjoyed the goodness.
When I moved out West, I left behind many things – including the magical bottomless bagel bag in the freezer. Truth be told, I kind of forgot about them.
That changed a few years ago. We were in Ontario, staying at my parents house, and Cedric wasn’t feeling great. He spent most of the day in bed and didn’t have much of an appetite. My mom mentioned that there were bagels in the freezer (of course), so I offered to make him one, and he accepted.
I think it’s fair to say that his life changed in that moment. It was his first Montreal bagel – but not his last, as he decimated my parents’ stash in no time. It appears that the bagels cured him of his sickness. He still talks about Montreal bagels.
There’s my bagel anecdote for you. Unfortunately, the Bread Illustrated cookbook doesn’t include a recipe for Montreal bagels – I’m pretty sure you need a fancy brick wood-fired oven to make those. It doesn’t matter, because I know mine would never be as good as the real thing.
However, the book does include a New York-style bagel recipe. I have never had a New York bagel. From what I gather, they don’t look like Montreal bagels, but they have their own cult following. The distinguishing factor of a New York bagel – so I’m told – is the chewiness, which comes from giving the bagels a bath in boiling water before baking them in the oven.
My first bagel baking challenge began with the ingredients. There were two I had never heard of: vital wheat gluten and malt syrup. The former proved easy to find at Nesters (who knew!?); the latter, I could not locate in Squamish. Luckily, the America’s Test Kitchen people anticipated my predicament: “If you cannot find malt syrup, substitute 4 teaspoons of molasses”. This is exactly what I did. I can’t really tell how it influenced the final outcome, since I haven’t had it with malt syrup, but I feel like they turned out fine – though the molasses might have slightly affected the colour, because my bagels look a little more golden/yellowish than the ones in the cookbook pictures.
Over the course of two days, I followed the recipe to a T. My water was ice cold, I processed the dry ingredients for exactly 5 pulses, and I waited patiently as my ingredients combined for form a “shaggy dough” in the food processor. A bread recipe that doesn’t use the stand mixer – now that’s a first!
Next, the dough had to be formed into a ball and split into eight equal baby balls. Then it’s time to shape.
The internet tells me there is a shortcut for making bagels: take the little ball, use your thumbs to tear a hole in the middle, and voila. But the internet also tells me that bagel purists frown upon this bagel hack. The real way to shape a bagel is as is outlined in the recipe: flatten the ball into a disc, roll the disk into a cylinder, and spiral the cylinder before joining the two ends together into a ring. I contemplated taking the easy route, but then ultimately decided to stick with the recipe for the sake of authenticity.
Shaping proved to be a little harder than anticipated. The recipe says, “coat 1 dough ball with flour and place on lightly floured counter”. I did this with my first ball, but I found there was way too much flour – when it came time to joining the ends, they wouldn’t stick to one another. For future balls, I skipped the extra flour and had better luck.
The bagels are placed on a baking sheet dusted with cornmeal, then rest in the fridge for 16 to 24 hours. I left mine in for a full day – I’m learning that the longer they hang out in the fridge, the better the flavour (as long as you stay within the recommended time frame).
The next day, I created an assembly line of sorts for the boiling and baking process. One: preheat the oven and put in a baking stone (which, for me, is a cookie sheet). Two: bring a big pot of water, spiked with sugar and baking soda (essential for colour), to a boil. Three, set up a dipping bowl for the toppings. I opted to make these everything bagels – Cedric and I ate everything bagels every day for lunch on Cape Cod, and I picked up some “Everything but the Bagel” seasoning from my beloved Trader Joe’s. Four, set out a wire rack to receive the boiled and seasoned bagels.
I deviated from the recipe in two minor ways. It says to use a dutch oven to boil the bagels, but I used a regular pot because my dutch oven was busy holding leftover chili and I couldn’t be bothered to clean it. It also says to boil four bagels at a time, but I went two by two instead to avoid overcrowding.
As instructed, I only seasoned one side of the bagels (the non-cornmeal side). They looked kind of like donuts. I added a little extra seasoning at the end – I should have held off doing this, as I didn’t realize the TJ’s mix is heavy on the salt.
After a tantalizing 22 minutes in the oven and 15 minute rest, I dove in. I tried to take a crumb shot, but I couldn’t tear the bagel cleanly – the spiral of the dough made it tear apart awkwardly. Though it wasn’t much to look it, it tasted very good.
The chew is definitely there. (Cedric, not knowing that they’re NY style bagels, told me he thought they might be too chewy. Bagel amateur status right there, folks.) I really like them and they’re better than the any bagel I’ve had in recent memory…
… but they’re not as good as Montreal bagels.
*I remade a second batch of this because the polished off the first batch rather hastily. I reduced the boiling time to 5 seconds per side (down from 10 seconds per side) because the first batch was REALLY chewy. This helped – they were still delicious, but less strenuous on the jaw.