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The Legendary Bagel

Culturally Rich and Simply Satisfying

By Mary Abitanto | Photos courtesy of Mary Abitanto

The bagel is renowned, especially in America, as a breakfast treat often served with a “schmear” of cream cheese and topped with lox, or butter. It can also be jazzed up with toppings like tomatoes, avocados, tuna fish, peanut butter, or a fried egg.

A traditional bagel is a round bread with a hole in the middle. The hole allows the bagel to evenly bake. It is made with high-protein flour known as bread flour and it is crunchy on the outside and chewy, yet soft on the inside. It should be eaten soon after baking, ideally on the same day, and toasting it isn’t necessary if it’s well made and fresh. Classic bagels are plain, onion, garlic, poppy seed, sesame, salt, and egg.

The Migration of Germans into Poland

The bagel is a popular American breakfast, but the history of the bagel is anything but American. Some legends suggest that the dough treats were developed by Germans who emigrated to Poland in the 14th century. They brought the art of pretzel making with them, a similar process involving boiling and baking at high temperatures. In German monasteries, the pretzels had evolved into a circle shape, usually twisted, with a hole in the center, that became known as an obwarzanek. They exploded in popularity after the queen of Poland switched from heavy sweets and fat-laden pastries to obwarzanek during Lent. It was a modest bread, and soon it became a staple food among the Polish people of the 16th and 17th centuries, where it took on the classic characteristic of the modern-day bagel. The Polish call them bajgiel, which comes from the Yiddish word beygal. Beygal comes from the German word beugel, which means bracelet or ring.

During the 19th century, an influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants came through Ellis Island. Jewish Polish immigrants brought with them their own culture, language, and food traditions, bagel making being one specialty. The Lower East Side of New York City (NYC) was a bustling hub for Jewish immigrant culture. It was also an intersection of other European cultures such as Irish, German, and Italian. Street vendors would often sell bagels stacked on long sticks or strung on a long rope on pushcarts.

By 1915, there were so many established bagel makers in NYC that the Local 338 Bagels Makers Trade Union was created to negotiate fair wages, benefits, and better working conditions for their members who made bagels strictly by hand. Bagels were made in rapid-fire succession with an average speed of 832 bagels per hour. These workers wanted to protect their trade and tradition. Joining the union required that one had speed and a family connection. All members were of Jewish descent, and meetings were conducted in Yiddish by the elders.

Bagels became “Americanized” as the popular food spread across the U.S., where they took on different characteristics based on regions. The first bagel making facility was established in New Haven, Conn., in 1927 by Harry Lender, a Jewish baker originally from Chelm, Poland.

Other bagel varieties such as cinnamon raisin and blueberry later started appearing. Bagels also became super-sized and started being mass produced by machines sometime after the 1960s.

Quick-Rise, High-Protein Bagel — A Spin on a Classic

Everyone knows that NYC bagels are some of the best bagels in the world. And although we might consider bagels bread, they are truly in a class all their own and are unmatched in taste. Some say it’s the water that creates that extra-special taste, but it’s also the quality of the ingredients that creates a perfect-tasting bagel.

My bagel recipe is simple, with a few twists and turns, but requires a little patience. If there is one lesson I’ve personally learned from baking anything, especially breads or bagels, it’s patience. You can’t rush the process. But we are going to nudge it and churn out one of the best bagels, and no NYC water is necessary.

Having raised three high school athletes (one now a D1 pole vaulter), I know what it takes to fuel them. I also know that every morning or during lunchtime our new drivers head out for bagels — a fun rite of passage. But daily bagel splurges (albeit delicious!) can become pricey and are not so healthy. This bagel was created to be higher in protein than a classic bagel, with some added health benefits. So, on those mornings when the kids want a healthy, homemade bagel, try this recipe.

The Bagel Making Process and My Adaptations

Many bagel recipes require resting the dough overnight, what they call cold fermentation. According to King Arthur Baking, “Perhaps the most important reason for a long, cold ferment — especially in a commercial setting — is convenience and maximum freshness. Shaped bagels under cold fermentation have a wide window of readiness.”

It’s a little tedious in my opinion for the home baker, but necessary in a commercial kitchen producing mass quantities of bagels.

I simply toss together the ingredients in my stand mixer bowl (no yeast proofing necessary) and within an hour I am ready to roll these beauties, dip in hot water, and pop them into a hot, and I mean hot, oven — my little trick for speeding up the process.

These are done in less than 1 1/2 hours, which includes mixing the dough, resting the dough, shaping the bagels, dipping the bagels, rolling them in the coating, and then baking them to perfection. With that said, I tested this recipe by preparing the dough the night before, allowing it to rise, shaping the bagels, and resting the dough in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning, you will only have to dip in water and bake. Either way is delicious!

Bread flour is the key to the chewiest bagel. I use King Arthur Baking Company 12.7 percent Protein Bread Flour, which produces a very chewy and delicious bagel. You can find it at McCaffrey’s Market or Whole Foods. With that said, in my cookbook, Food From My Heart & Home,

I have a lovely NYC Easy Bagel recipe using all-purpose flour which is a good substitute. An adaption I made to make these higher in protein was adding nonfat Greek yogurt. Yes! It is completely undetectable and will add even more protein to this bagel as will the milk added in lieu of water. I used Lactaid milk, which is very creamy. Even the nonfat one in the purple container, or any low-fat milk, will do.

Boiling the bagels in hot water with a drizzle of honey (some say molasses or barley malt syrup) will ensure a chewier bagel and produce a crunchy and golden exterior. Instead of boiling, I cut corners and just filled a bowl with hot water — no honey — and soak the bagel on one side for 5 seconds, then flip it and let it soak an additional 5 seconds. If you haven’t properly merged the ends of the rope together, the bagel will sometimes unravel, but the texture is like wet play dough and it can be pinched back together. This adaptation of a quick water bath saves a lot of time.

The outside coating on this bagel makes it very healthy, increasing the fiber content. For this, combine rolled oats, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, flax meal, and everything but the bagel seasonings on a plate. Then dip the drained bagel and cover it completely with a heavy coating. An egg wash is typically used before a coating is added, but I skip this step.

I normally bake my bagels at 425 degrees for about 30 minutes, these however are cooked at 475 degrees, for 16 minutes. One day I made these bagels and didn’t have my reading glasses on, relatable I’m sure, and I accidentally cranked up the temperature to 475 degrees instead of 425 degrees. The bagels cooked super-fast (don’t open the oven though) and the outside was so crunchy, and the inside had a beautiful delicate, airy interior.

Pulling these bagels from the oven, tearing off a piece, and taking a bite will have you coming back for more. Call the kids, breakfast is served!

Making bagels by hand is truly an art form. Today most bagels are rolled by machinery, but there are still some specialty bagel stores that roll by hand. I believe that making dough by hand —whether it be pasta, bread, bagels, or pretzels — is a rhythmic process that is relaxing. I hope you enjoy this recipe.

All my cookbooks can be found on Amazon. My newest cookbook NOURISH — Celebrating Nature’s Harvest & A Healthy Lifestyle will be published in spring 2024. Follow me on Instagram @marioochcooks where I share daily cooking stories, and my blog is marioochskitchen.com where you can learn more about me and my cooking journey.

Quick-Rise, Protein-Rich Bagels

Makes 6 medium-sized bagels

3 cups bread flour spooned and leveled
(I use King Arthur Baking Company Bread Flour, 12.7%)
2 ¼ teaspoons quick rise or rapid rise instant yeast
(or 1 packet)
1 cup nonfat Greek yogurt (I like Fage)
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup nonfat or low-fat milk (I used nonfat Lactaid)
Stand mixer with hook attachment, or mix by hand
Clean dish towel
Wood pastry board
Medium-sized wide-mouthed bowl for water bath

Oat Seed Coating:
½ cup rolled oats
½ cup combination pumpkin and sunflower seeds
(roasted or raw)
1 tablespoon everything bagel seasoning
2 tablespoons flax meal

  1. In the stand mixer bowl, add the flour, yeast, yogurt, sugar, salt, and mix. Drizzle in milk until the dough forms and it’s no longer sticky. Mix for 5 minutes in the stand mixer on low speed or by hand for 10 minutes, to properly incorporate the ingredients.
    Note: You may substitute active dry yeast for the rapid rise instant yeast, but the rise time will be longer. Rapid rise yeast is fast-acting yeast and easy to use but formulated to operate on an accelerated timetable.
  2. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Add a tiny drizzle of olive oil to the stand mixer bowl (so the dough doesn’t stick), add the dough ball inside, and cover with a clean dish towel. Place the covered dough on the stove top to rise for at least 1 hour. The dough should double in size.
    Baker’s tip: Preheat the oven to 300 degrees so you can rest the covered dough on the stove top and the dough has a warm place to rise. After 15-20 minutes you can turn off the oven. I do this for all my bread recipes.
  3. After roughly 1 hour, dump the dough onto a lightly floured work surface (I use a lightly floured wood pastry board) and cut the dough ball into six equal pieces.
  4. Raise the oven temperature to 475 degrees.
  5. Roll each dough piece into a long rope, about 11-12 inches long. Twist the ends together to form a circle. This is known as the rope and loop method. Place your palm inside the circle where the ends meet and gently roll it over the two ends (twice should be sufficient) until it forms one cohesive circle where the ends become undetectable. Cover the bagels and set these aside.
    Note: If you wish to prepare the dough the night before, you may place the bagels tightly covered in the fridge overnight. Sometimes the refrigerator will produce some condensation in the container — simply dry the bagels with a paper towel. Then proceed with the remaining steps to dip in water, coat, and bake the bagels.
  6. Add half the oats, seeds, bagel seasoning, and flax meal to a plate. Reserve the rest so you don’t overcrowd the plate.
  7. Fill the bowl with hot water. Place one bagel at a time in the water bath, turn over once. It just needs a quick soak, about 5 minutes a side, 10 seconds in total.
  8. Dip three bagels in the coating on both sides and place onto a lined baking sheet. Add additional coating and do the same with the three remaining bagels. The oat-seed mixture gets wet, so doing it in stages is helpful. Feel free to sprinkle on more coating once you add them to a baking sheet. Also, you can adapt the topping to your liking.
  9. Bake the bagels on a lined baking sheet for roughly 16-17 minutes. Do not open the oven.
  10. At 16 minutes, open the oven and turn bagels so they are evenly browned. Oven temperatures vary, so to be as accurate as  possible — use an oven thermometer to properly calibrate the oven.
  11. Enjoy!

Homemade Vegetable Cream Cheese

Serves 8

1 (8-ounce) package block-style cream cheese, room temperature
3 tablespoons finely diced red bell pepper
1 tablespoon chopped sweet onion
2 tablespoons finely diced carrots
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
¼ teaspoon onion powder
Salt to taste
Garlic powder (optional)
High-speed blender with agitator stick

You are going to absolutely love this cream cheese. It should stay fresh for up to six days in the fridge. Add it to bagels, toast, or stuffed inside bell peppers or jalapeno peppers from your garden. It’s going to be a big hit!

Leave the block of cream cheese at room temperature for about 1 hour prior to making this. You want it soft enough to mix all the ingredients by hand.

In a bowl, combine the above ingredients with the softened cream cheese and mix by hand until well combined. Adjust seasonings according to your liking. Add the mixture to the blender and use the agitator stick to make it creamy. Don’t overmix.

Classic Bagel Toppings Include:

• Cream cheese topped with smoked salmon (lox),
known as the classic “schmear” (Yiddish for spread)
• Butter
• Vegetable, scallion, or walnut raisin cream cheese
• Lox cream cheese is a must-try: Mix chopped smoked salmon, fresh chopped herbs like dill, lemon juice, and finely chopped scallions with plain cream cheese (great for tea sandwiches too.)

Other Bagel Toppings:

• Cream cheese, avocado, and fried egg
• Cream cheese, smoked salmon, and capers
• Peanut butter and jelly (or almond butter or sun nut butter)
• Tuna fish or whitefish
• Cranberry jalapeno cream cheese
• Pumpkin cream cheese
• A Jersey classic: Pork roll, egg, and cheese
• Cream cheese with cucumbers and pickled onions

There is a myriad of possibilities with bagel toppings. You can adapt them to your liking and get creative.

Fun Fact: Cream cheese was invented in the 1930s, and in the 1950s Family Circle Magazine first suggested serving a bagel with cream cheese and lox as an appetizer at cocktail parties.

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