For the sponge:
1 tsp. (0.11 oz.) instant yeast
4 cups (18 oz.) unbleached bread flour
2 ½ cups (20 oz.) water, at room temperature
For the dough:
½ teaspoon (0.055 oz.) instant yeast
3 ¾ cups (17 oz.) unbleached bread flour
2 ¾ teaspoons (0.7 oz.) salt
2 teaspoons (0.33 oz.) malt powder OR 1 tablespoon (0.5 oz.) dark or light malt syrup, honey, or brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking soda
Semolina flour or cornmeal, for dusting
Desired toppings (such as cinnamon-sugar, shredded cheese, seeds, etc.)
*”Everything” topping: combine 4 tsp. each of poppy seeds, sesame seeds, dried minced garlic, dried minced onion and 2 tsp. kosher salt)
To make the sponge, stir the yeast into the flour in a medium mixing bowl. Add the water, whisking or stirring only until it forms a smooth, sticky batter (similar to pancake batter).
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for approximately 2 hours, or until the mixture becomes very foamy and bubbly. It should swell to nearly double in size and collapse when the bowl is tapped on the countertop.
To make the dough, in the same mixing bowl (or in the bowl of an electric mixer), add the additional yeast to the sponge and stir. Then add 3 cups of the flour and all of the salt and malt. Stir (or mix on low speed with the dough hook) until the ingredients form a ball, slowly working in the remaining ¾ cup flour to stiffen the dough.
Transfer the dough to the counter and knead for at least 10 minutes (or for 6 minutes with the mixer). The dough should be firm, stiffer than French bread dough, but still pliable and smooth. There should be no raw flour – all the ingredients should be hydrated. The dough should pass the windowpane test and register 77 to 81˚ F. If the dough seems dry and rips, add a few drops of water and continue kneading. If the dough seems tacky or sticky, add more flour to achieve the stiffness required. The kneaded dough should feel satiny and pliable but not be tacky.
Immediately divide the dough into 4 ½ ounce pieces for standard bagels, or smaller if desired. Form the pieces into rolls. Cover the rolls with a damp towel and allow them to rest for approximately 20 minutes.
Line two sheet pans with baking parchment and mist lightly with spray oil. Proceed with shaping the bagels by pushing a hole through the center and stretching out the hole to 2 ½ inches in diameter. Place each of the shaped pieces 2 inches apart on the pan. Mist the bagels very lightly with the spray oil and slip each pan into a food-grade plastic bag, or cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let the pans sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes.
Check to see if the bagels are ready to be retarded in the refrigerator by using the “float test”. Fill a small bowl with cool or room-temperature water. The bagels are ready to be retarded when they float within 10 seconds of being dropped into the water. Take one bagel and test it. If it floats, immediately return the tester bagel to the pan, pat it dry, cover the pan, and place it in the refrigerator overnight. (At this point, the bagels can be refrigerated for up to 2 days). If the bagel does not float, return it to the pan and continue to proof the dough at room temperature, checking back every 10 to 20 minutes or so until a tester floats. The time needed to accomplish the float will vary, depending on the ambient temperature and the stiffness of the dough.
The following day (or when you are ready to bake the bagels), preheat the oven to 500° F with the two racks set in the middle of the oven. Bring a large pot of water to a boil (the wider the pot the better), and add the baking soda. Have a slotted spoon or skimmer nearby. Have your toppings ready. (Please excuse the fingerpaint situation in the background. It’s sort of a constant part of our weekend mornings.)
Remove the bagels from the refrigerator and gently drop them into the water, boiling only as many comfortably fit (they should float within 10 seconds).
After 1 minute flip them over and boil another minute. If you like very chewy bagels, you can extend the boiling to 2 minutes per side.
While the bagels are boiling, sprinkle the same parchment-line sheet pans with cornmeal or semolina flour. (If you decided to replace the paper, be sure to spray the new paper lightly with spray oil to prevent the bagels from sticking to the surface.) If you want to top the bagels, do so as soon as they come out of the water.
When all the bagels have been boiled, place the pans on the 2 middle shelves in the oven. Bake for approximately 5 minutes, then rotate the pans, switching shelves and giving the pans a 180˚ rotation. (If you are baking only 1 pan, keep it on the center shelf but still rotate 180˚.) After the rotation, lower the oven setting to 450° F and continue baking for about 5 minutes, or until the bagels turn light golden brown. You may bake them darker if you prefer.
Remove the pans from the oven and let the bagels cool on a rack for 15 minutes or longer before serving.