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Schmear factor: Making bagels

My 11-year-old Icelandic nephew sat down at the breakfast table with a look that suggested he'd stayed up too late Wii-ing the evening before. "I'm not hungry," he muttered, ignoring the platter full of freshly baked bagels in front of him. His mother, my sister, wouldn't hear of it. "You will eat one bagel! Your aunt just baked these. They're home-baked!" Grudgingly, he reached for one of the bagels, split it open and slathered it with butter. He took a bite, a few chews, and all of a sudden his eyes opened wide. "OH, MY GOD," he said -- in English! I think he ate four more before his mother ordered him to stop so he wouldn't get a stomachache. This, really, is the reason why I make my own bagels, and do so no matter what the calendar says. If it happens to be a 100-degree day, I wait until nighttime to bake. Homemade bagels are scrumptious, everything you ever wanted a breadstuff to be.

Yes, bagel making is a little time-consuming, but you will know it is time well spent when the scent of freshly baked, golden bagels permeates the house, say nothing of when you slice one open -- sprinkled with onion flakes, sesame and poppy seeds -- to reveal the soft and chewy insides, and slather it with cream cheese or butter. You'll never go back to store-bought bagels.

Homemade bagels are also a lot cheaper than store-bought ones. I calculate them at about 15 to 25 cents per homemade bagel; a Thomas bagel from the supermarket is about 45 cents. A fresh bagel from Bruegger's costs 99 cents.

Of course, a bagel-making venture assumes that you like to cook, since baking bagels is not something you do in a couple of hours. It is not very difficult at all, but it is time-consuming, so you should plan ahead.

I like my kids out of my way when I make bagels -- it involves a large pot of boiling water on the stove -- so I often make the dough in the morning, let it proof in the refrigerator during the day, and then when they've gone to bed, I get out the dough, turn on "Law & Order" and get to work. With just me and Vincent D'Onofrio in the kitchen, things can't go wrong.

All in the accessories

What to put on your bagels? Your imagination is the limit. My 7-year-old daughter likes cinnamon sugar; my husband likes me to include a few "bald" bagels, with nothing on top. All kinds of seeds are delicious: sesame seeds, poppy seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, dried onion flakes, garlic flakes, sea salt. My favorites are "kitchen sink" bagels, which are a mixture of all of these. Be careful with the salt, though; I once ruined a whole batch because in making the "kitchen sink" mixture I accidentally mixed a tablespoon each of all the seeds, dried onion flakes and the salt! Big mistake! A quarter-teaspoon would have been plenty.

I'm constantly pushing healthier foods on my family, so naturally I had to experiment with using whole-wheat flour instead of regular flour. Well, don't do it. The bagels weren't awful or bad; they just weren't like bagels are supposed to be.

And speaking of flour, you can use regular, garden variety, all-purpose, unbleached flour to make bagels, but it is well worth your while to splurge on the slightly more expensive high-gluten bread flour. It makes your bagels chewier and less "bready." You'll notice the difference especially when you're not eating the bagels straight out of the oven.

Íris Erlingsdottir Lee is an Icelandic journalist and writer. She lives in Northfield, Minn.

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