I spent my final week in the US juggling several different modes of operation:
- Holy shit, there is so much to do to be ready by flight time Mode
- Holy shit, there are about to be so many foods to try, this is going to be awesome Mode
- Holy shit, there are so many foods I won’t have access to for a year. PANIC. Mode
While the first has thankfully expired and the second is still in progress, the most emotional of these modes was the third. Because, guys? Eating really is an emotional act.
Specific foods—especially those eaten in the company of loved ones—create memories. And as those foods are consumed as the weeks, months or years pass, each bite—its taste, its texture, its smell—brings those memories back into physical form, at least for a few delicious moments.
Shakshuka tastes like Stephen’s early days on the East Coast, when we giddily tackled new recipes together to fight the cold and break in his new kitchen.
Tallgrass IPA (which the company apparently no longer makes?!) tastes like trips home to Wichita during college, when I was finally able to experience the nectar of the gods that is Kansas-brewed beer.
And diner food—diner food tastes like so many amazing, ridiculous, sober and esoteric, drunken and hilarious nights from the past five years.
In its essence, diner food is total crap; frozen fries and burger patties and chicken strips shipped in on a truck from who knows where, plus instant pancake batter and HFCS-filled table syrup—fucking gross. It’s junk that I, in every other situation, completely eschew.
But under the glow of wavy pink 60’s light fixtures at 3 a.m., alongside a chipped china mug of black coffee, served up by an impatient Greek woman who has other things to worry about than your request for no butter, please, or at least butter on the side, my resolution wavers. Because that experience is more familiar to me than a favorite university sweatshirt (which I never purchased) or post-basketball game victory drinks (because none of my college friends gave a shit about sports). Moving to New Jersey didn’t come with Alma mater-related traditions. It came with diner traditions.
And in acting under that final aforementioned mode of operation, it became imperative that some of these traditions be recreated before I shipped off. But diner food just isn’t supposed to be eaten at home, because when you eat it at home, you can make it healthier, and then it doesn’t taste like diner food anymore. So instead, we opted to home-make another tradition: bagels.
And yeah, I could have written this entire post about bagels instead of diners, which would have made more sense, but I got so nostalgic and sentimental in the writing process that I could actually hear the clink of forks and knives in my head, and feel the stickiness of syrupy formica, and picture the faces of so many different friends sitting across the table from me, so I decided what the hell, this post is going to be about diners even though the recipe is for bagels.
To throw you for another loop, these do not taste like New Jersey bagels—and I don’t care which side of the river you came from, or lived on, or moved to, they are Jersey bagels. Not New York bagels. There, I said it.
These bagels taste like the ones from Panera. They’re denser than the NJ variety—less chewy. Tearing the crust doesn’t require Herculean effort. They have a soft exterior, not a protective egg-washed one. And they’re good, they’re definitely good! But Panera and NJ just do bagels differently. Know that.
SO. Do they taste like the 2 a.m. snack of several restless 19-year-olds cruising along the turnpike? No. Do they taste like Oh-my-god-why-did-we-stay-out-so-late-after-the-show-someone-please-make-this-headache-stop? No.
But they still come out of the oven warm and comforting, and they aren’t intimidating to attempt, and I think that, regardless of which kind you prefer, a stack of six bagels sitting on your counter will still make you happy.
Adapted from Kenzi on Food 52
Makes 6 large or 8 small bagels
Note: begin this recipe the day BEFORE you intend to eat!
3 1/2 c flour (we used white whole wheat)
3 tsp coarse kosher salt, divided
3/4 tsp instant yeast
1 tbsp barley malt syrup (agave or honey—for non-vegans—will work in a pinch)
1 c + 2 tbsp slightly warm water
1 tsp baking soda
Toppings of choice—I highly recommend minced garlic, sesame seeds, poppy seeds and additional coarse salt.
Mix the flour, 2 teaspoons of the salt, the yeast, barley malt syrup and the water until everything begins to form into dough. You can use a mixer if you like, but by hand does the trick just fine. It’ll be a stiff dough, as there’s not much water, but this makes it sturdy enough to withstand a dunk in boiling water later. Let dough rest 5 minutes.
Knead on a floured surface for about 3 minutes — the dough will get smooth, a little tacky.
Now put your lovely little dough ball into an oiled boil, cover it with plastic wrap, and let it hang in the fridge for a few hours, or at least an hour.
When you’re ready to shape the bagels, line a baking sheet with lightly greased parchment paper. Remove the dough from the fridge and cut it into 6 or 8 pieces, depending on how large or small you’d like your bagels to be (in my opinion, bigger is better when it comes to bagels). Form each piece into a ball, and then each ball into a 10-inch log, with tapered ends. (Don’t use any flour on your surface! You’ll need the dough to stick just slightly in order for it to change shape).
To shape the bagels, place one end of one dough log in between your thumb and forefinger, and then wrap it around the rest of your fingers — the dough ends should overlap by an inch or two — and squeeze it slightly to bind it together. Once you do this, you can also roll the ends together on a surface to enhance the seal.
Repeat for all of the bagels, then lightly oil them and cover with plastic wrap. Put them in the fridge to proof overnight. Note: we weren’t happy with how slowly our bagels were expanding, so we took them out of the fridge in the middle of the night and let them continue to rest on the counter until morning.
About an hour an a half before you want to bake them, pull the bagels out of the fridge to come to room temperature, and fill a large pot (I use a Dutch oven) with at least 4 inches of water. Cover and bring it to a boil. When it boils, add 1 teaspoon of salt and the baking soda, then turn it down to a simmer.
Preheat the oven to 500° F.
To see whether your bagels are ready to boil, use the float test: fill a bowl with cold water and place one bagel in it. If it floats, they’re all ready to go. If not, just return it to the baking sheet and let proof another 15 to 20 minutes, then test again.
Time to boil! This is what makes a bagel a bagel, not just a plain ol’ roll. Do not skip.
Working in batches that will fit in your pot, carefully drop each bagel into the simmering water, let float for 1 minute, and flip with a slotted spoon. Simmer 30 seconds more, then return each bagel to the baking sheet.
Topping time! Sprinkle your bagels with whatever topping you want (see the ingredient list for the, ahem, tastiest choices).
Slide the tray of bagels into the oven and reduce the heat to 450° F. Bake 8 minutes, rotate the sheet, and bake 8 to 12 minutes more, until the bagels are golden brown. Feel free to check the bottom of the bagels as they cook — if they’re getting too brown, just stick another baking sheet underneath them (a baking stone works, too).
Pull them from the oven, let cool 30 minutes, and pat yourself on the back for a very tasty job well done.