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.

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
  • Print

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.

Buttermilk Cinnamon Rolls

Cinnamon rolls are almost unversally loved, but also subject to strong personal preferences. The most controversial aspect is the dough: some prefer a rich, brioche-like bread while others like to contrast of a leaner dough with the sweet filling. My family falls somewhere in the middle. After trying a range of options, our current favorite is a simple buttermilk dough. The dough recipe here makes enough for 3 batches of 8 rolls. This fits nicely in an 8 inch round cake pan, and the remaining dough batches can be used for rolls or loaves (one batch makes enough for a standard loaf pan). The filling and icing are enough for one batch of 8 rolls.

Dough:
1050 g bread flour
2 tsp salt
64 g sugar
1 tablespoon yeast
2 eggs
6 tablespoons melted butter
600 g buttermilk

Filling:
100 g brown sugar
5 teaspoons cinnamon
pinch of salt

Icing:
35 g cream cheese
70 g powdered sugar
1-2 tablespoons milk

Directions:

  1. Mix all the dough ingredients together in a stand mixer with a dough hook
  2. Once all the flour is absorbed, kneed with dough hook for about 8 minutes
  3. Divide dough into 3 batches and let rise for 1-2 hours until doubled. If baking the same day, take out the cream cheese at this point.
  4. Take one batch of dough and roll out on floured surface to a 1 foot square. The remaining batches can be refrigerated at this point for later use.
  5. Brush melted butter across surface of dough, leaving a half-inch border at the top
  6. Cover the buttered surface with the filling mixture, pressing down with your palms as needed
  7. Roll the dough in a tight cylinder, starting with the edge closest to you and sealing it shut at the edge
  8. Cut the cylinder into 8 pieces, and place a greased and parchment-lined 8 inch cake pan, cut side down, with the two smallest rolls in the center. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for a 1-2 hours. The dough should be puffy and the rolls touching or nearly touching.
  9. At least 30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  10. Take off plastic wrap and bake for 15-20 minutes until internal temperature reaches abou 190 degrees F. Cinnamon buns are easily compromised by overlooking, so check frequently.
  11. While buns are cooking, mix cream cheese and powdered sugar, then add milk as needed for desired texture. The icing should be at least pourable to spreadable, depending on your preference.
  12. When buns are done, invert the pan onto a baking rack, then invert again onto another baking rack to let them cool for a few minutes. Once cook enough to handle, separate the buns and drizzle or spread icing.

Baron Bagels

The New York Times recently had a piece about baking bagels with lye. Given my predilection for homemade bagels (and strong support of the use of lye) I took a look at their recipe for Baron bagels. While I’ve had good success with Peter Reinhart’s recipe (modifying my cooking time to 20 minutes at 425 F for a crispier crust), I decided it was time to branch out.

The original recipe that’s still posted on the Times’ website hasn’t been updated for the use of lye, but reading between the lines, the major differences appear to be the use of a starter and a lye bath instead of baking soda. The 0.15% solution was quite a bit lower than the 0.5% solution I usually use, but that was derived from vague descriptions on scattered websites (whereas this was from a legitimate bagel bakery). The original recipe calls for 600 g of flour and 365 mL of water (for a 61% hydration, slightly more than Reinhart’s 57%), but I replaced 50 g of flour and 50 mL of water with 100 g of a 50% sourdough starter. This kept the hydration the same. I cut the yeast slightly to compensate for the sourdough. The Baron recipe also uses diastatic instead of non-diastatic malt (the former contains enzymes that break down starch, the latter is basically a mild sweetener). 

The dough was definitely wetter and more difficult to work with. Unlike Reinart’s recipe, there was no resting time before loading the bagels into the fridge for an overnight rest, and it showed when I loaded them into the water bath. They sank like a rock, and didn’t float until nearly the end of their 2 minutes. However, despite getting a bit misshapen as i tried to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pot, the end-product was reasonable. They were a bit dense, but had a good flavor and crust. I’ll try merging some of the elements from each recipe for my next attempt, adding some more rising time, but keeping the diastatic malt and mid-cooking flip from the Baron recipe.

Summer Blueberry Pie

Summer is a bountiful time for fruit, but there’s only so much plain fruit I can eat. Jam is a great way to store fruit for year-round use, but there are times when I need more immediate satisfaction. Pie is the obvious solution. For summer, I’ve typically resorted to a fruit tart, which can leverage a range of whatever happens to be in season. This year, I was inspired to go for a more traditional fruit pie with Serious Eats’ blueberry pie.

The original recipe calls for two different types of blueberries, but I didn’t bother, instead opting to use the large tub of blueberries I’d purchased from Costco (which turns out to have surprisingly good quality fruits and vegetables, albeit with a limited selection). I also used Minute tapioca instead of the prescribed tapioca starch. The pie holds up pretty well, though it’s not quite as reslient as some others I’ve made. This was also the first pie I’ve made with the Old Fashioned Flaky Pie Dough Serious Eats has been peddling recently (my usual go-to pie crust is Cooks’ Illustrated vodka-based pie dough). True to its description, it was easy to handle and flaky, though came out a bit thinner than I’m used to (the total amount of dough is less than most other recipies). This was also my first venture into a lattice crust. It was surprisingly simple. As you can see in the picture, some of my artwork was buried in the bubbling blueberry filling.

One twist I found interesting in this recipe: the use of corriander to boost the blueberry flavor. I didn’t do a blinded test, but the filling certainly was tasty.

I used a Pyrex glass pie plate for this ventured, which I had recently been eschewing in favor of fancier stoneware alternatives. I’m curious to test SE’s claims that aluminum pie plates deliver the best results. This model from King Arthur Flour looks like a winner.

You should have a butter bell

I’m not as huge an advocate of butter as some are, but butter has its place. One of those places should be at the table, ready to spread onto whatever baked good needs a bit more fat and flavor. Butter can transform a plain slice of bread into a flavorful treat. The challenge is that butter is typically stored in the refrigerator, and trying to spread cold butter onto soft bread is bound to ruin both. Butter can only be kept out for a short time before it spoils, and attempts to speed softening with the microwave often results in a mixture of melted and solid forms.

The solution is simple: a butter bell. This ingenioius contraption is a small bowl that is packed with butter then inverted into another container filled with a bit of water. The water creates a seal that keeps the butter fresh when not in use. When opened, soft, spreadible butter is at your disposal. The butter can often keep fresh for weeks at a time. An inexpensive butter bell can be had for under $10.

Control your temper

It would be fantastic if one could just melt chocolate wihtout much attention and mold it into whatever use came to mind, but that’s not the case. Chocolate that has been simply heated without regard to temperature can form a streaky mess with off flavors. The right way to reshape a solid mass of chocolae is with “tempering”: a controlled melting that eases the choclate into the narrow temperature window (around 90° F) where it is rendered malleable by the warmth, but not damaged by the heat.

I did this recently via the traditional stovetop method using a double boiler (a bowl set over a pot of steaming water), with close monitoring of the temperature using an instant read thermometer (I use a Thermoworks Thermapen).

I used the instructions from about.com, which essentially say to first heat up the chocolate to a relatively high temperature (110 °F for white or milk, 115 °F for dark), then cool to a working temperature (87 °F for white/milk, 90° F for dark). While it seems a bit finicky in the descriptions online, I found it reasonably easy so long as you are patient.

I used this approach to make a peanut chocolate cluster and a red quinoa “Crunch” bar. The sous-vide approach to tempering described at Serious Eats seems like an even easier way to go. The same process is followed as above, but allows you to perform it all via a sous vide machine. The chocolate sits in a vacuum-sealed bag and only requires occasional agitation.

Barring Bars

After diving into a taste test of a wide array of protein bars, I’ve decided it’s time for a detox. The body can only take so many concoctions of whey protein and fiber additives before crying for mercy. My wife has taken to not so affectionately referring to my collection as “frankenfood”. The background is that I’m working to shift to a more vegetarian, or at least pescatarian, diet and have had the associated (and likely misguided) anxiety about protein intake that many carnivores have in this situation. 

If anything, this experimentation has opened my eyes to the potential for replacing many foods in my life with more healthful alternatives. After trying (and being impressed) with a few granola bar recipies (more to come), I’ve decided to take on what seems to be a more rarely pursued feat: homemade breakfast cereals. 

If I am to take on reproduction of cereal, I might as well do so by starting with the greatest cereal of all time. I am, of course, referring to Cracklin’ Oat Bran. The healthy-sounding name belies its true identity as sweet, flavorful, crunchy cereal that is more like a crunchy cousin of a oatmeal cookie than any sort of nutritious food. My online search came across this recipe, which seems to be the most popular reproduction. I found it far too buttery and sweet, even more so than the original version. Despite this, it clearly had some of the elements correct, and came across as a cousin of the original rather than just a member of the same species.

Armed with a nutrition analyzer and an ingredients list, I sought to modify this version to achieve two goals: bring the ingredients more in line with the original version and improve its nutritiona profile by reducing the fat and sugar while maintaining fiber and protein.

Here’s the ingredient list from Kellogg’s version, along with my comments about each:

  • Oats – a must have
  • sugar – brown sugar seemed to be the best for the flavor profile here
  • wheat bran – to simplify the recipe, I just stuck with oat bran (below)
  • vegetable oil – I used coconut oil 
  • oat bran – of course, it’s two of the three words in the name!
  • corn syrup – it may be irrational, but everyone is scared of this ingredient, so I left it out
  • wheat starch – didn’t have any of this on hand, but I figured some whole wheat flour could replace this along with the wheat bran
  • coconut – yes, the linked web version didn’t have enough of this
  • molasses – sure, why not
  • malt flavor – I have plenty of barley malt syrup for bagels, so let’s toss some in
  • cinnamon – and lots of it
  • salt – just a little bit
  • baking soda – sure
  • soy lecithin – Amazon has not yet delivered my shipment, and it has that artificial sounding name; I hoped that flax meal could substitute for binding and added fiber
  • flavoring – so mysterious
  • nutmeg – a little bit goes a long way

I reduced the total amount of ingredients so I could experiment with modifications without wasting too much (or pushing this on every friend and relative in sight). Here is what I ended up with:

  • 80 g oats
  • 30 g oat bran
  • 25 g brown sugar
  • 25 g unsweetened coconut
  • 30 g whole wheat flour
  • 15 g flax meal
  • 1.5 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • 14 g coconut oil
  • 10 g barley malt
  • 10 g molasses
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla

This proved to be too dry and was missing some sweetness, so I added

  • 30 g water
  • 10 g honey

I spread this onto a small sheet pan into a layer about 1/4 inch thick and baked at 325 °F for 25 minutes. I let it cool and then  cut it into squares. In the picture at the top of the post, the old version is on the left and the new version is on the right. 

The taste? I think my version is closer to the original but less sweet. It has a bit more of a grainy texture, perhaps due to the flax seeds, which may also bring out a touch of bitterness. Overall, though, I think it’s pretty good. It still needs a bit of work. Right now the texture is a bit too crumbly, so I could imagine it turning into cereal dust if a large batch is knocked around a box. Some more moisture would probably help, or some natural binder to help it stick together (this may be where the soy lecithin comes in). More experimenting to come.

Review: Combat Crunch Cookies and Cream bar

Cookies and Cream has become a mainstream protein bar flavor, and is usually a successful one. Who doesn’t like Oreos (other than, say, Donald Trump). I’ve posted before how Clmbat Crunch bars are generally one of the better ones on the market. Unfortunately, their Cookies and Cream flavor is not one of the better options. 

The flavor is reasonable, but the problem is the texture. While the trademark crispy top layer is still there, the interior is a bit too tough and chewy. The whole appeal of cookies and cream is the crunch of the cookie, which is wholly lacking here. It’s not a terrible bar, but the other Combat Crunch flavors (with a few exceptions, like Birthday Cake and Chocolate Brownie) are much better. 

Review: Fit Crunch Cookies and Cream

Like the Pure Protein bars, the Fit Crunch bars are small relative to their competition. In contrast, however, they have a more interesting layered construction with different texture. There’s a cookie-like layer, a soft filling layer, and a bit of chew. The bars are sweet and candy-like, but don’t have the artificial chemical sweetener aftertaste that many competitors have. As long as you don’t mind the sweetness and small size, these are one of the better tasting bars on the market.