Mighty mite

Usually, my family escapes to warmer climates during the February school vacation week, but this year was different. We embraced the winter by heading to Utah’s Park City for a bit of skiing and relaxation.

We all enjoy a good breakfast. While Park City wasn’t fantastic for breakfast options, we were able to scrounge together a collection of coffee shops and brunch stops to suffice. Toast and eggs are often my go-to options. Toast is often accompanied by butter, or perhaps a nice jam (homemade if you are lucky). Several spots in Park City offered an unusual option: Vegemite. Like many in the US, my familiarity with Vegemite does not extend far beyond the Men at Work song “Down Under” from the 1980s, with the memorable line “he just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.”

Vegemite is a flavored yeast extract that originates in Australia. The black, tarry spread is commonly spread on toast, and I’m sure has many other applications. I decided to take the plunge. Some freshly toasted sourdough arrived accompanied by some strawberry preserves on the left and a ramakin of the thick black paste on the right.

It is said that Vegemite is an acquired taste, but I quickly saw the appeal of the earthy, salty, and slightly bitter condiment. The taste is not easily described, but is most similar to a pungent aged cheese. It pairs naturally with toast. The truth is I am not a total stranger to this type of flavor: my grandmother was a dedicated follower of Marmite, Vegemite’s British cousin.

The events that followed on my return home were predictable to anyone who knows me well. My shelf is now stocked with two jars of Vegemite (in my defense, Amazon Prime only offered a two-pack) and a jar of Marmite. Taste tests to follow.

Crusty alkaline bagels

While I prefer alkali-boiled bagels, I have this lingering feeling that their crust is a bit softer than the ones I boil in neutral water. In an attempt to (excuse the term) neutralize this effect, I cooked my latest batch of baking soda boiled bagels for 30 minutes instead of the usual 25. The crust was thicker and tougher, and the bagels required some jaw muscle effort to tackle the enhanced chew. I liked them quite a bit, but perhaps an intermediate cooking time is more appropriate.

pH Balanced Bagels

Bagels must be boiled in lye! No, baking soda is fine! Use honey water instead! While it is widely accepted that bagels should be boiled before being baked, regional variations have produced a range of dogmas regarding the optimal poaching solution. My favorite recipe from Serious Eats’s Stella Parks recommends only a malt-sweetened water bath, while many others use some form of arlkalinization (baking soda, or for the hardcore, lye).

Many recipes never really explain what the purpose of the alkaline solution is, but the claims include improved texture (e.g., chewiness) and browning. I’ve tried my basic recipe with both baking soda and lye, and had a sense that it also improved the flavor, but perhaps at the cost of some crispness in the crust. As far as I can tell, no one written about bagels boiled in an acidic solution.

I decided to finally do some formal testing. I prepped 8 bagels from a single batch of dough.

I prepared two pots of water with the same concentration of malt syrup (1% by weight). I added lye for a 0.5% solution (5 g per liter) to one pot and brought both to a boil. Interestingly, the alkaline solution ended up much darker.

I boiled two bagels in the malted plain water, then added 2% by volume of plain white vinegar to acidify it before boiling three more bagels. I then boiled the final three bagels in the alkaline solution. Each bagel was boiled for about 30 seconds per side. After boiling, the water and acid bagels looked pretty much indistinguishable, while the alkaline bagels were clearly darker.

The bagels went into a 425 °F oven for 25 minutes, with a rotation after 15 minutes to ensure even cooking. When they came out, the water and acid bagels again looked quite similar. I wondered if the acid bagels slightly paler, but any difference was subtle at best. The difference from the alkaline bagels, however, was markedly enhanced by baking: they were considerably darker.

I decided to sample half an acid bagel and half an alkaline bagel. When sliced, the alkaline bagel appears a bit denser, and looks smaller. I suspect the alkaline water gelatinized the proteins more quickly, and limited the rise in the oven.

The acid bagel may have been slightly crisper, but the difference was not great. I did like the more complex flavor of the alkaline bagel better. To me, it tasted more “bagely”, and less like just bread. They did indeed seem chewier.

Overall, I was surprised that the acidification little to know effect, while the difference in the alkaline bagels (compared with neutral water) was marked. It may be that I used too little vinegar to really make a difference. Regardless, I’m not sure it’s worth pursuing further since the alkaline bagels were my favorite. In addition to color and flavor, I also have the impression that alkaline-boiled bagels bind toppings better than neutral water bagels, but that’s an experiment for another day.

Buttermilk Banana Bread Revisted

Instead of throwing out leftover bananas, they are best used up in banana bread. If you don’t have 3 large ones sufficient for this recipe, freeze them until your stock is adequate. This is a tweaked version of a recipe that I enjoy ever time. It has a great fluffy texture and a crunchy sweet crust.

Ingredients

  • 112 g butter (8 tablespoons)
  • 300 g sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 240 g mashed bananas 
  • 60 g buttermilk
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 g salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 250 g flour

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350• F. The butter, eggs, and buttermilk should all be close to room temperature. Butter and buttermilk can be warmed with a brief pulse in the microwave (start with 15 seconds for each). Eggs can be soaked in room temperature water for a few minutes to accelerate the process.
  2. Using a hand mixer, beat the butter until smooth.
  3. Add in the sugar and beat until well blended and fluffy.
  4. Add the eggs one at a time, blending each until evenly incorporated.
  5. Add the bananas, buttermilk, vanilla and blend until smooth.
  6. Add the baking powder, salt, and baking soda and mix until well combined (alternatively, add these to the flour and mix well).
  7. Add in the flour and fold in with a rubber spatula.
  8. Transfer to a loaf pan (I use a standard 4×8 pan sprayed with cooking spray and lightly dusted with flour) and bake for 50-70 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean and the internal temperature is 200-210ª F.
  9. Cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a rack and let cool completely before slicing.

Montreal Bagels

I’ve been focused on perfecting homemade New York style bagels, but my attention recently turned to Montreal-style bagels, which I have had only a few times. It is considerably harder to find information on how to make these bagels at home. Most efforts point to or are derived from a New York Times recipe, but I combined this information with various other recipies and my own experiences to come up with the following, which worked surprisingly well. The result is a slightly sweet, slightly richer bagel that is less like a lump of chewy bread than a somewhat crusty dinner roll (both types of bagels are more appealing than their description makes them sound). This recipe will likely require some tweaking over time, but it’s a good start.

Montreal Style Bagels

  • Servings: 15
  • Difficulty: intermediate
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Bagels that are sweeter, denser, and crispier than the usual New York style fare.

These bagels sweeter than their New York counterparts, but still satisfying both fresh and toasted from a frozen state. With the high sugar content, the bottoms can burn easily, so be sure to check the bottom surface as they cook. They don’t rise nearly as much as New York bagels, and I found the “float test” unhelpful for gauging their readiness to be refrigerated.

Ingredients

Starter:

  • 100 g sourdough starter (unfed)
  • 420 g water
  • 450 g high gluten flour
  • 3 g instant yeast

Dough:

  • Starter
  • 150 g honey
  • 50 g oil
  • 1 egg
  • 20 g salt
  • 500 g high gluten flour

Directions

  1. Mix all the starter ingredients. If not using a sourdough starter, use an additional 50 g of flour and 50 g of water.
  2. Let the starter rest for about 3-4 hours, until some bubbles form.
  3. Add the dough ingredients except the flour and mix with a dough hook in a stand mixer.
  4. Slowly add in the flour until incorporated and mix at lowest speed for about 10 minutes to kneed to a smooth dough.
  5. Divide into 15 balls, about 112 g each, rolling each until smooth.
  6. Rest on the countertop for 20 minutes, covered with a damp towel.
  7. Form a bagel by poking a hole in the middle of each ball with your finger. Stretch and roll the dough, coaxing it into an even ring. Place on a baking sheet covered with parchment or a silicone mat sprayed with cooking spray. You will probably need two half sheets.
  8. Let the bagels rest until they become just slightly puffy. Mine took about 3 hours.
  9. Cover sheets with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator overnight.
  10. Fill a pot with 4.5 L of water and 150 g honey (or scale proportionally). Place on high heat until simmering. Let the bagels sit at room temperature while this is happening and set the oven racks at the middle-low and middle-high positions and preheat to 450 °F.
  11. Working with 3-4 bagels at a time (depending on the size of your pot), gently lower the bagels into the simmering honey water. They probably will not float right away, but should float within 15-30 seconds or so. They may require gentle coaxing with a skimmer or spoon.
  12. Flip the bagels after about 45 seconds, then remove to a rack.
  13. Dip each bagel into sesame or poppy seeds (or whatever topping you prefer, including none at all), then place back on the baking sheet, respraying the sheet if needed with spray oil.
  14. When all the bagels are boiled, place both sheets in the oven and cook for 18-20 minutes, swapping and rotating the sheets 180 ° halfway through.
  15. Remove the bagels to a cooling rack and enjoy. If slicing, wait until cooled.

Better New York Bagels

Homemade bagels are never perfected. They can always be tweaked and improved upon. The goal posts shift. Tastes evolve. New ingredients and techniques highlight different strengths and weaknesses.

My current recipe is based off of this recipe by Bruce Ezzell.  The main difference from my initial forays into home bagel making is that it includes honey in addition to malt for flavor, and that it doesn’t require hogging the refrigerator with two half-sheet pans overnight while the bagels are resting. Space is at a premium in my refrigerator, and the chore of clearing off most of two shelves was one that seriously cramped my bagel-baking style. 

This approach uses an overnight starter that can sit at room temperature (I give it a push by adding in some of my own sourdough starter for extra flavor). The dough is finished the next day and then baked the same morning. The resulting bagels have a great chewy texture and flavorful crust. 

Starter:

  • 100 g sourdough starter (100% hydration; if not using, add 50 g more flour and 50 g more water)
  • 450 g high gluten flour
  • 450 g water
  • 3 g instant yeast

Bagels:

  • All off the starter
  • 20 g salt
  • 20 g malt syrup
  • 20 g honey
  • 475 g high gluten flour

Directions:

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine all the starter ingredients until the mixture is homogenous then leave covered at room temperature overnight.
  2. The next morning, add the salt, malt syrup, and honey and mix with a dough hook.
  3. When combined, leave the mixer running at the lowest speed and slowly add int eh additional flour. 
  4. Keep kneeling at lowest speed for about 6-8 minutes until the dough is smooth. 
  5. Transfer to the counter and rest covered with a damp towel for 5-10 minutes. Meanwhile, combine 25 g sodium hyroxide in 5 liter of water in a large pot (or scale as desired) and bring to a simmer. Set the oven racks to the middle-low and middle-high positions and preheat to 450° F.
  6. Divide into even balls of about 112 g each (or whatever size you prefer). Roll the balls on the countertop to ensure they are smooth (you may need to spray a little water on the countertop to seal any cracks) and cover for 10 minutes. 
  7. While the dough is resting, place a silicone mat or parchment paper in two sheet pans and spray with cooking spray.
  8. Working one ball at a time, use your thumbs to push a hole through the center of the dough, then gentle rotate the dough ring in your hand until it is smooth. Place on the sheet pan. When each sheet pan is full, cover loosely with plastic wrap.
  9. Let rest for 10 minutes, then flip each bagel gently. The bagels should puff slightly in the next 5 minutes or so. To test, place one bagel in a bowl of cold water. It should float within a few seconds. If not, the bagels need more resting.
  10. Place a few bagels at a time in the simmering water. Cook for 1 minute, flip each bagel over, then cook for another minute.  
  11. Transfer to a rack, add toppings as desired. Dust the now free areas of the sheet pan with cornmeal and put the bagels back. 
  12. When all bagels have been boiled, transfer both racks to the oven and cook for 7.5 minutes. Swap and rotate the racks and then cook for another 7.5 minutes. 
  13. Transfer the bagels to a cooling rack until cool, then enjoy.

Note: You will need a powerful mixer and may need to switch to using your hands given the stiffness of the dough. This will stress your mixer. When I tried even the second speed on my KitchenAid professional model, one of the tabs holding the bowl in place snapped off.

Review: Premier Protein Fiber – Peanut Butter Caramel

These Premier Protein bars have a considerably higher sugar content than many of the competition, and this is reflected in the sweetness. I have yet to be disappointed by any of the flavors, and the Peanut Butter Caramel is no exception. Many protein bar flavors are mimicked by other companies, which can lead to some monotony in the choices available. However, Peanut Butter Caramel is not one of them. It is one of the few flavors to offer an interesting combination that does not include chocolate. If you are not a fan of sweet bars, however, you may want to steer clear of this line.

The bars themselves have a bit of a crisp texture along with a soft caramel layer. The taste is very much like that of a traditional candy bar, with only a slight chemical aftertaste.

Review: Pure Protein Chocolate Peanut Butter bar

The Pure Protein bars are dense and compact, considerably smaller than other brands. This version, like most of the others, are soft and easy to chew. The texture is similar to a Three Musketeers bar, and the popular combination of a chocolate coating with a peanut butter filling is well done. They are not excessive sweet, nor do they have a particularly dominating flavor profile. The main drawback is the texture is relatively unexciting, and at times they can have a mild chemical aftertaste. They can also seem a bit unsatisfying given the small size, even when compared with other bars with a similar calorie profile. I would not go out of my way to buy these, but they are reasonable. 

One consideration is that they eschew the trend of including massive amounts of fiber. If you are…sensitive to this issue, it’s worth a consideration.

Cinnamon Bread

Formaggio, a high end grocery store in Cambridge, has an amazing cinnamon bread. It forgoes the usual raisins and adds cinnamon sugar on all sides instead of restricting it to the “swirl”.To replicate this at home, I started a dough based on King Arthur Flour’s butterflake bread (buttery, but sub-brioche levels of richness) and added a cinnamon sugar coating inside and out.

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Roasted Cauliflower

I eat a fair amount of broccoli, but I’m also partial to it’s unmodified cousin, cauliflower. I grew up with Indian-style aloo gobi, and still enjoy this, but it’s a bit finicky to prepare at home, particularly during a busy weekday.

To solve this problem, I turned to an approach to vegetables that’s become increasingly popular in my household. It’s dead simple and basically foolproof (and works for broccoli as well). Here are the basic steps:

  1. Preheat oven to 425° F.
  2. Wash one head cauliflower (or broccoli) and cut into bit size pieces, discarding the stems.
  3. In a large bowl, toss florets with 2 tablespoons of oil, 1 teaspoon of salt, and flavorings of your choice. Some suggestions:
    • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper and 1 teaspoon lemon zest
    • 1 teaspoon whole cumin and 1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
    • sliced jalepenos and lime zest
  4. Spread the cauliflower on a foil-lined baking sheet and cook for 20 minutes, turning cauliflower about halfway through.
  5. Check at 20 minutes if it’s done to your liking and enjoy.

So easy and minimal work. The roasting really brings out the sweetness in the cauliflower.