During the German carnival season, I’ve shown you how to make German doughnuts. But if you’re a catholic, you shouldn’t dare to touch them until the Easter holidays. That’s the time when the post-carnival fasting period ends. Bagels are a traditional bread consumed during this time of the year. They’re more a snack food rather than a breakfast bread roll but they are super crispy and delicious.
The bagel is one of the few bread types which can be considered unique to North America. It has its origin in Europe but the version eaten in America today has little to do with the original. Bagels are said to have been invented by Polish Jews in Krakow even though their origin is unclear.
There are countless other legends on the origin of the bagel. A famous one states that it was invented in Vienna in the year 1683 to honor the Polish king Johann III. Sobieskis. The king was a big fan of horses so that the name bagel (‘Beugel’) comes from the German word for stirrup (‘Bügel’).
Another legend says that the bagel was invented in Prussia. The Christian population had forbidden the Jews to bake bread. Everything that was baked was considered bread, therefore the Jews boiled bread dough instead of baking it. Afterward, they toasted it on the fire before eating.
The Turkis Sesame rolls (‘Simit’) are very similar to bagels. They are also par-boiled before baking and have the same shape. Therefore, it could also be that the Turks brought the bagel to Central and Eastern Europe. The Turkish people are the inventors of bread in general and the Austrian and German empire learned a lot from them when it comes to baking bread and pastries.
With so many options, you can pick the story you like the most. The mystery of the bagel origin will probably never be solved.
There’s not just the fasting bagel
Bagels can nowadays be found in the Southern German states and Austria. However, in Swabia, they’re only the second most popular fasting bread. I think you might know that Swabia is famous for its pretzels which are, without a doubt, better than the Bavarian ones. The Bavarian pretzels are more similar to the American ones: Big, fluffy, tender, even in thickness, and doused with tons of coarse salt. The Swabian ones, on the other hand, have smaller arms and are therefore crispy and have a fluffy belly. They also only have few coarse salt grains on them.
In Swabia, there is a special kind of pretzel called fasting pretzel. It’s not soaked in lye before baking and the dough is fat-free. Traditionally, lard is used to give Swabian pretzels a good flavor and texture. These fasting pretzels are much thicker than traditional ones and only eaten during the fasting season. I embedded you a video in German below if you have any interest in them (I will, of course, make sure to publish a Swabian pretzel recipe on this blog in the future).
The baker shown in the video states that fasting pretzels were an accidental invention. A young baker apprentice had forgotten to produce the lye needed to soak the pretzels. He didn’t want to throw the batch out – just like any other true Swabian. So instead of soaking them in lye, he boiled the pretzels briefly in water and baked them anyways – the fasting pretzel was born.
If you watch the video carefully you will notice that the baker doesn’t boil his pretzels before baking. That way they come out fluffier and have a nicer looking crust. However, as the baker correctly states, the original recipe was made from par-boiled dough.
How to eat German bagels
A bagel should always be shared between two people. The traditional way to eat it is to tear it apart from both sides as can be seen in the video below. Whoever ends up with the bigger part will have a lot of luck in the upcoming year. The bagels taste delicious plain but you can also top them with some butter or jam if you like.
Bagels go stale very quickly so you should immediately freeze any leftovers. However, stale bagels don’t need to be wasted. They are the key ingredient to a local specialty called bagel soup (‘Beugelsuppe’). It’s super simple to prepare. You tear the stale bagels into small pieces and pour hot beef broth over them. After they have soaked for a few minutes in the broth you can top the soup with shredded cheese and fried onions. That’s a typical meal of the fasting season for many Catholics.
How to bake German bagels
The dough for German bagels is a mixture of rye and wheat flour. It’s a very straightforward dough that is best kneaded by machine as rye flour is very sticky. The amount of caraway seeds you put into the batter depends on your taste preference. If you only like a hint of caraway flavor, add only about half a teaspoon of ground caraway seeds to the batter. You can’t take them out anymore if you overdo it.
At first, the dough might appear too sticky for you. But it is no problem to handle if you generously flour your working surface before shaping the bagels. It’s important that you pinch the ends together tightly so that they won’t open up when blanched.
Traditionally, these bagels are not left to proof overnight. However, I like the comfort of proofing them in the fridge overnight so that I can bake them the next morning. If you’re in a hurry, you can proof them at room temperature for about 30-45 minutes and afterward boil and bake them directly.
Don’t cover the bagels while proofing. They are supposed to dry out on the surface. This process is called ‘Absteifen’ in German. It’s an important step in bagel and pretzel making. If they are dry on the surface, the blanching liquid won’t penetrate them, they will hold their shape better, and you get a nicer crust.
I add some baking soda to my blanching water so that the bagels get a shinier crust. Baking soda isn’t as strong as the real pretzel lye but it works wonders in giving you an attractive golden-brown crust. I don’t sprinkle my bagels with extra caraway seeds or coarse salt after blanching but you could do so if you desire.
The bagels are baked in a 390 °F (200 °C) oven until golden brown. They have a lot of crust in relation to their interior which makes them very crispy and prevents them from being too rubbery. One of the reasons why American-style bagels aren’t really popular in Germany is that, for many Germans, the interior of a thick bagel is too dense and chewy. German bagels are much more a snack food rather than a bread roll that you would top with meat or cheese.
Don’t worry if your bagels aren’t all perfectly even in thickness or burst open in some spots. That’s completely normal and a sign of quality. Every bagel should be unique. Even at the bakery, every bagel will look a little different. That’s how you know they are handmade.