Four Years and Counting

The rest of you celebrate October 31st as Halloween.  For me, it is the anniversary of my move to Krungthep.  Hard as it is to believe, it has been four years since I moved here.  Every time I think that four years is a long time, I meet someone who has been here ten, fifteen, twenty years or more.  That puts it into perspective.

Another interesting date passed about two months ago: we reached the point where my time in Thailand exceeds Tawn’s time spent in the United States.  I like to joke that I’ve repaid the debt and am now earning credits.

Browsing back in my blog to the entries leading up to my move, I was startled at how rushed and panicky things were in the final weeks.  A lot of that has faded from my memory, but I was busily tying up loose ends, sorting through possessions, wrapping up work and closing fourteen months of living in Kansas City, my interim stop between San Francisco and Krungthep.

Just for fun, I thought I’d share the entry I wrote on my final night in the US, spent appropriately enough in New York City.  Back in those days, few people read my blog and so that original entry has had just fifteen views.  Here is is for posterity’s sake.  Sorry there were no pictures.

Sunday October 30, 2005

Daylight Saving Time has ended – yeah, an extra hour this morning before departing to the airport. Holly and I are sitting around her living room watching New York 1 for local news, drinking coffee, and I’m thinking about walking down to the corner bagel shop for one last taste of New York. Thai Airways’ website is showing an on-time departure (hours and hours before departure) for my flight.

Saturday night it was a pleasure hanging out with Keith and Aaron for about ninety minutes. Keith had his “Boyfriend-aholic” t-shirt on, which seems appropriate. Had a good conversation with Aaron about a little puppy that has been following him around!

I walked down Seventh Avenue to Blue Hill and thankfully allowed myself enough extra time because I overshot the restaurant by six blocks. It is in that section known as Greenwhich Village – the point where the grid of streets ends – that I got confused. Holly was just starting on a glass of Pinot Noir at the bar when I arrived, spot-on at 9:00. We had a fantastic dinner, that only could have been improved with the presence of Tawn and you, of course!

Holly and I chose the tasting menu, paired with a wine tasting menu. It was fantastic:

Amuse bouche

  • Celeriac soup
  • Butternut squash sorbet

First plates

  • Grilled wild striped bass with salsify puree and tomato-pepper vinaigrette
  • Wine: Lieb Family Cellars Rose, North Fork Long Island (New York) 2004
  • Chatham Cod with razor clams, lobster, crab and sucrine lettuces
  • Wine: Channing Daughter’s Vino Bianco, South Fork Long Island (New York) 2004

Main plate

  • Loin of Vermont baby lamp with wild mushrooms, chestnuts, banana squash, Stone Barns brussel sprout leaves
  • Wine: Joseph Phelps Le Mistral, Monterey County (California) 2002


  • Buttermilk Panna Cotta with plum marmalade and plum sorbet
  • Cheesecake with bitter chocolate sauce
  • Wine: “MR” Mountain Wine, Malaga (Spain) 2004

Last taste

  • Miniature chocolate muffin top

The celeriac soup, served in a tall, thin shot glass, was very tasty and quite hot. It had a infused foam on top that was really a nice textural contrast to the rich soup. The butternut squash sorbet, served on a demitasse spoon, was richly flavored and subtly sweet. Very interesting and buttery but the flavors are better as a soup.

The bass and the rose wine were the best pairing. The bass had a seared crust with a tomato-pepper vinaigrette that absolutely melted in your mouth. The rose, which was enjoyable on its own, just jumped to life following the bass and the flavors continued to evolve for the next several moments.

The cod was very lightly cooked, tender and flaky. The broth was a high point full of great crustacean flavors that I sopped up with one of the fresh soft breadsticks.

The lamb, an unusual choice to serve a generous portion of loin, was lightly breaded on one side, tremendously tender and flavorful, and also a bit too salty. The banana squash slice was delectable and wild mushrooms and chestnuts captured the season beautifully.

Of the desserts, we suggested to the server afterwards that the order should have been reversed. The cheesecake was served in individual small preserve jars and had a small dollop of bitter chocolate on top. The cake increased in richness the deeper you dug and the chocolate had an interesting counter-note of saltiness. It was very enjoyable, but had been completely overshadowed by the amazing buttermilk panna cotta. Like a fresh yogurt, the tangy creamy base had a layer of plum marmalade that was bursting with ripe fruitiness. A wedge of plum sorbet added a coolness to the whole thing.

It was an absolutely fantastic meal and I can’t wait to return to Blue Hill again.


French Fries – Cold Oil Method

There are certain cooking techniques with which I am not very familiar.  Deep frying is one of them.  Part of this is because all I have is a small condo kitchen.  There is not a nice outdoor kitchen for “heavy duty” cooking, the type that imparts a lingering smell in your furniture, carpets and draperies.  Lack of familiarity doesn’t quiet my curiosity, though.  In fact, it heightens it.

That is why, when Cook’s Illustrated published a recipe for “Easier French Fries” using a cold oil method in the July/August 2009 issue, I was intrigued and eager to try it.

Conventional wisdom holds that to make good french fries you need to rinse the cut potatoes to remove excesses starch and then fry them twice, once at a lower temperature to cook the potatoes and a second, more brief dousing in the oil to form a crisp crust.

That is a lot of work.  Frankly, I’ll just walk down to McDonald’s instead of going through that much work.  As the author of the CI article explained it, they broke with conventional wisdom and achieved exceptional results along with a few added benefits.

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Their first break with tradition was to abandon the Russet potato, which they found to be too dry and starchy for this single-fry method.  They chose instead the Yukon Gold, which is waxier in texture.  Our local markets don’t identify the different potato types by name but I picked up some that looked like Yukons.  Squaring the sides, I cut them into batons about 3/8″ wide.  No peeling beforehand and no rinsing after.

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Next, place the potatoes in a Dutch oven or other heavy, deep pan along with the oil.  Peanut oil was recommended but as that wasn’t readily available here, I used canola oil.  I also added a few tablespoons of duck fat left over from a previous cooking project.  A little duck fat or bacon fat will add more flavor to the fries.  How do I know this?  Because they add flavor to anything!

This cold oil method is attributed to a recipe from Jeffrey Steingarten, a food write whose approach to food (and life) and style of writing appeals to me.  It was attributed to the method of Michelin-starred chef Joel Robuchon.

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This is where the process really breaks all the rules.  You put the pan on the stove top and turn the heat to high until the oil is boiling.  During this time you do not stir the fries at all.  After the boiling starts you continue to cook for about fifteen minutes or until the potatoes are limp but the exteriors are starting to firm up.

It is only at this point that you start to stir the fries, gently unsticking any that have caught on the bottom of the pan or each other.  After the fries are golden and crisp you can pull them out and drain them on paper towels, paper bags, newspapers, or whatever else is handy.

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The resulting fries were very tasty, if just a little overcooked.  But who is going to complain when you have freshly made french fries sitting in front of you?

I mentioned that the author of this method discovered a few unexpected benefits.  Not only does this cold oil method result in a lot less splatter and, subsequently, a lot less “fried food” smell inundating your house, it also results in fries that absorb a lot less fat.  Based on some scientific analysis, the CI lab found that fries cooked by the cold oil method contained about one-third less fat than the conventional twice-fried method: 13% versus 20%.  When I went to pour the oil back into the bottle, I was surprised to discover that it refilled the bottle nearly to the top.  Only a few tablespoons had been lost in the entire process!

Now, I don’t know that I’ll be making french fries again anytime soon.  But I’m glad I gave them a try.


Stroll Along Mai Khao Beach

The final chapter about Phuket…


Jason was busy tanning, Kahlua on the Rocks in hand, and Tawn was napping after his yoga, so Stuart, Piyawat and I decided to go for a stroll on the beach.  The condo we rented is on Mai Khao Beach.  “Mai Khao” means “white trees”, a reference to the strands of birch trees located in this area.  North of the airport by less than a kilometer in a straight line, this section of the island has little development in comparison to the busier cities on the south and west sides.

Our guard dogs, Sing and Yuri, ran under the fence to join us.  I was initially concerned that they would run away and get lost but they were very well behaved, never straying too far and always racing back when we called.

Here’s a two-minute video highlighting the stroll:


It took about ten minutes to walk the kilometer or so south towards the airport.  The runway ends just next to the beach and you can get quite a view of departing airplanes.  Being an aviation enthusiast, I had to stop and watch a few THAI Airways Boeing 777s depart.


The airport is unique because it is located in an isthmus-like stretch of the north end of the island, wedged between two hills.  You can see the control tower (white) on the hill to the left of the runway.  The back entrance to the airport is by the narrow road that runs to the left of the taxiway.  I can’t exaggerate how close this road is to the taxiway.  When the jumbo jets taxi by, you feel like you need to duck lest their wingtips slice off the roof of your car.  The terminal and ramp area are parallel to the beach at the far end of the picture.


Also at the end of the runway is a small creek which runs into the sea.  It is fed by runoff from the airport grounds.  Here we have a father and son fishing for dinner in this creek.  I can only imagine what sort of petroleum residue there is in that water.


We encountered another fisherman on the way back.  This man was fishing in the sea and landed an interesting fish as we walked up.  It was long with a needlelike nose and small teeth.  The color was translucent green on top and he was wriggling around like crazy.


Sunday afternoon there was no rush to leave as our flight wasn’t until after 7 pm.  We all piled into the car and drove ten minutes up the road to the Sala Resort, one of the high-end resorts located on the north end of the island.  I think I’ve figured out the best was to enjoy resorts: just go visit them and have a drink.  You get all the attentive service and ambience without having to pay the exorbitant nightly rates.


The design of the resort is, I understand, by the same person who designed Alila Cha-Am.  (See this entry from September 2008 about our stay at that beautiful resort on the Gulf of Thailand.)  This means that it is largely modern in design, although Sala has more contemporary touches such as this vaguely Chinoiserie style screen at the entrance.  Notice that some of the octagons rotate.  Neat touch.


Guest registration, which looks more like an open-air bar.


The path from registration towards the beach.  Notice the “white trees” – birches.  All the guest rooms are individual pavilions (that’s where the name “sala” comes from, “pavilion” in Thai) hidden behind walls and gates on both sides of this path.


Heading through a wall of mist on our way to the spa to check our their offerings and prices.


Tawn chilling out in the lounge outside the spa.  There’s just a little bit of water circulating amongst the stones and another quiet waterfall trickling down the black wall in the back.


The pool area near the beach.  Surrounded on two sides by outdoor dining patios, we positioned ourselves on the large white sofa at the far end of the pool for some drinks and snacks.  I didn’t realize it at first, but there is actually a seating area on top of the roof with reflecting pools, benches and tables.


Here’s the view of the pools taken from the top of the roof, directly above the white sofa at the far end of the previous picture.  The wide lawn was very different from most beach resorts and with the pine trees, it reminded me more of a mountain retreat rather than a beach side resort.


Kobfa and Tawn in one of the many love seat swings on the property.

Okay, that’s it for Phuket for this trip.  Hope you enjoyed!


Really Lost in Translation

A good 70% of the residents of our condo are Thai.  Nonetheless, the company that serves as our building management, a division of Plus Property, usually does an effective job trying to accommodate those of us who are not native Thai speakers.  Within a day or two after notices are posted, an English translation will be taped up alongside.

Tawn and I are still scratching our heads about this one.  Unfortunately, the Thai version didn’t make much sense, either.



Stringing Power Lines

Tawn and I were eating lunch at S&P Restaurant up on the north end of Thong Lor a few Saturdays ago when we noticed a commotion in the trees across the street.  Who should emerge from the branches, crawling along the power lines, than a person?  Yes, this is how we string new power lines here in Thailand.


The worker actually pulled the cable along as it was being fed by two of his coworkers on the ground.  This is just one of those things that makes me roll my eyes, shake my head a bit, and say “Well, this is Thailand.”

Want to see a video showing some of the high-wire daredevil act set to the music of 1980s band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark?  If so, please click below.

Have a nice Sunday. 

The Truth About Flu Shots

Fear.jpgI generally don’t trust the media.  Not because of some conspiracy theory or out of fear that ever-fewer corporations own an ever-increasing share of the media outlets.  My distrust comes simply from the lack of knowledge that reporters and anchors have about the subjects they are covering.

My first realization of this came when I was in university.  While studying, I worked as a manager of a movie cinema.  There was a reporter who came to visit a new cinema that was under construction and subsequently wrote an article about the dynamics of cinema ownership and the distribution of films in a given market.  Reading the article, I was amazed at the number of inaccuracies it contained.  He simply didn’t have a good understanding of what he was writing about and, as a result, the article was flawed.

It occurred to me that if the reporter got something as trivial as an article about the distribution of films wrong, what were he and his peers doing with more important information?

We’re seeing that kind of “getting it wrong” reporting these days about the H1N1 flu shot.  From claims that receiving a flu shot will give you the flu to reports linking flu vaccines to autism to hysteria about mercury in vaccines to, most recently, the claim that a woman developed the rare neurological disorder dystonia from a flu shot, news reporting seems more interested in sensationalism than science, stories over statistics.

At the root of this shoddy reporting seems to be a misunderstanding of correlation and causation.  Just because something happens at or around the same time that something else happens, doesn’t mean one thing caused the other.  If I get a flu shot and a few days later get struck by lightning, the flu shot didn’t necessarily cause me to get struck.  Me standing in the middle of a field during a thunderstorm flying a kite with a key tied on the string may have been the more likely cause.

Why is this important?  Vaccines have played an important role in decreasing illness and death worldwide.  When fears and misinformation about vaccines are encouraged, even ones as simple as the scientifically untrue belief that you can catch the flu from a flu shot, they lead people to make very dangerous choices.

Amy Wallace has written a very interesting article about this in the October 19th issue of Wired magazine.  The article, titled An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All, is well worth a read.

Some people are visual learners.  For those of us who learn best by seeing pictures and graphs, a special thanks to Sion, who pointed me towards an interesting graphic that shows the relative risks assoiated with HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) vaccine, another vaccine about which all sorts of pseudoscience is being bantered about.  Original appears here.


Finally, if you are curious about the difference between correlation and causation, the informative website Science-Based Medicine has an entry containing two videos that explains these statistical terms, and debunks other myths about vaccines, very clearly with hard and fast scientific data.  Worth a watch.

Thanks for letting me rant.

La Gaetana Phuket

The first night in Phuket we drove 30 km to Phuket Town, located on the south end of the island, to enjoy a fantastic dinner with Stuart and Piyawat.  The venue was this hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant called La Gaetana.  And let me tell you, it was without question the best dining experience I have had in Thailand.

That may sound like hyperbole, but Polermo native Gianni and his Thai wife Chonchita run the most charming of restaurants with the most attentive service I’ve ever received in the Land of Smiles.  The restaurant, located in a charmingly decorated 80-year old building, seats just 32 so reservations are a must.

The food is great, atmosphere is cute, etc. but what really makes the experience worthwhile is the passion with which Gianni and his staff, many of whom have worked there for years, attend to your needs.  His tableside bottle-opening and decanting is a show in and of itself, and illustrates just how much care is given to each detail of the dining experience.

Here’s a video that shows it all.

Lest you don’t want to watch the video, here it is in pictures:

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Italian antipasto platter.  Yummy!

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Grilled veggies in the back and a variety of bruschetta in the front.

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Minestrone soup with fresh ground pepper.

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Palate cleanser of passionfruit sorbetto.

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Homemade spaghetti with pancetta and sundried tomatoes.

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Grilled salmon with lemongrass sauce and spinach.

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Homemade fettuccine with mixed seafood and tomato sauce.

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Grilled bistecca (angus) served with veggies.  Very lovely cut with lots of flavor.

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For dessert, Gianni displayed the same attention to detail as he did when opening the wine bottles, garnishing each dish before it was served.

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The desserts had a very French feel to them.  Here, a tarte tartin.

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Classic crème brûlée

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Baba au ruhm with more sorbetto.

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Finally, an Italian dessert!  A tiramisu “island” with cinnamon and basil “palm tree”.

This is exactly what I could imagine myself doing in the future.  Running my own small restaurant in some idyllic town, spending my days making my guests happy and ensuring they enjoy excellent food, wine and service.

Trip to the Black Pearl Phuket

A weekend on the beach in Phuket.  What a nice way to get away.  Our good fortune was that Tawn’s cousin Fon won a voucher for a free three-day, two-night stay at the Black Pearl, a three-unit condo on Mai Khao Beach in Phuket.  Since the condo is not particularly young child friendly – unsafe edges everywhere – Fon generously gave the voucher to us.

After a few scheduling hiccups, we coordinated with Ben, Jason and Kobfa to join us for a weekend getaway at this beautiful property.

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This is only the second time I’ve been to Phuket.  Previously, I didn’t hold the highest opinion of the island because on our first visit we stayed in Patong, the heavily touristy area that, despite its pretty beach, reflects all the excesses and undesirable aspects of tourism.


The Black Pearl is located on Mai Khao (“white tree” – i.e. birch) Beach on the north tip of the island, at least a forty minute drive away from the tourist resorts of Patong and the main town of Phuket.  In fact, Black Pearl is on an isolated stretch of beach with no other development immediately around it. 


There are three owners, friends with each other, of this three-unit condo complex.  Two units are on the main floor with master bedrooms on the back side of the top floor.  The third unit is entirely on the front part of the top floor.  Above is a picture of the outdoors dining area for our unit.  This place is gorgeous and was a lot more enjoyable than some five-star resort because it felt like home and was many times more private.


The infinity-edge pool on the main floor, overlooking the beach.

We arrived on Friday night about 7:00 and drove down to Phuket town to meet up with Stuart and Piyawat, who moved to Phuket a half year ago.  We had an amazing dinner at an Italian restaurant.  This meal deserves its own entry which I’ll add soon.


Saturday we lounged around the house all day.  Biscuits, bacon and eggs in the morning with lots of coffee.  Sunning, swimming, walks on the beach, listening to music and enjoying the perfect weather and cooling breezes.


There is a caretaker family that lives on the ground floor.  They are very friendly and helpful.  You can send the maid to the market with some money and she’ll buy food and prepare all sorts of Thai food.  We went with her, selecting the food ourselves for a grand seafood feast.  Above, the maid, Tawn and Kobfa select veggies.


Fresh (and huge) prawns.  These were ridiculously inexpensive.


Fresh fish anyone?  We ended up buying a few red snappers from another vendor and stuffing them with herbs and grilling them in a coat of coarse salt.   


In the kitchen, Tawn puts the finishing touches on the Tom Yum Goong (spicy shrimp soup).  The maid did most of the work and then left him to adjust the seasoning.  It was really tasty.

While the cooking was going on, we enjoyed a most amazing sunset, shown here in three pictures each taken about ten minutes apart.


In the final picture, you can just make out the lights of shrimp boats on the horizon.


The maid’s husband did the grilling, including these gorgeous shrimp, a few large squid, and the salt-crusted fish.  The homemade nam chim chili dipping sauce was fantastic!


Sitting around the table before digging in to our seafood feast: Jason and Ben, Kobfa, Chris and Tawn, Piyawat and Stuart, and Noi, one of the owners of our unit.  Noi and his partner Pat came down for the weekend and stayed in the upstairs unit which is owned by a friend of theirs.  Very nice couple and they joined us for dinner and then for Sunday brunch, too.


Noi and Pat playing with their “guard” dog Sing.  Their two dogs were former strays and both look and act very vicious when you first see them.  About ten seconds later they are your new best friends, very friendly and well-behaved.


Sunday morning we awoke to the sound of rain.  It was overcast and drizzly until about 9:00 after which the sun broke through and we had another beautiful day.


Jason looks on as Tawn does some yoga.  Tawn thinks he resembles an embryo in this pose.  He has one of the most flexible bodies and is able to do poses I would never be able to do no matter how much I practiced.


Harking back to the attempt at Parmesan Biscuits a few weeks ago, I made a modified recipe that turned out much better.  I’m going to make one more attempt at it and once I’ve perfected the recipe, will share it in a sperate entry.  They biscuits had smoked salmon and arugula again.  Very tasty.

I’ll do a few more entries about some of the other things we did while in Phuket.  Needless to say, it was a relaxing weekend.  If you are planning a trip to Thailand, especially in a group of 4-6 people, I’d strongly recommend that you consider staying at the Black Pearl.  If you do contact them, please let them know that you heard about it from Tawn and Chris.  


Quick Quick Danger

New Singapore band Quick Quick Danger describe themselves as “powerpop laced with phaaaaat electronic beats, 80’s inspired synthesizers and witty dueling vocals.” 

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Their first four tracks, two of which are downloadable for free, are catchy, including this cover of Jay Sean’s “Down”.  Now, this might now appeal to all of you, but if you like powerpop laced with phaaaat electronic beats and 80’s inspired synths, then you might enjoy checking it out.

They are on MySpace and Facebook, too.  Thanks to Angry Asian Man Phil Yu for writing about QQD first.


Bagels – Attemps 1 and 2

bagel1.gif My desire to understand different foods and dishes by learning how to make them is an unquenchable thirst.  Not a week goes by without the thought of, “Oh, I wonder how you make that?”  In the back of my mind right now, I’m wondering how to make French fries, homemade corned beef (for Reuben sandwiches, of course) and fork-and-knife baby back ribs.  Last week the question was about bagels, so I set off to try and make them.

I’ve been to New York countless times and eaten a good number of tasty bagels.  Still, I wouldn’t claim to be an expert of what, exactly, makes for a good bagel.  I started out Googling “what makes a good bagel” and found this interesting NY Times article that explores good bagels in each of the boroughs.  I also searched a number of different “authentic” bagel recipes in order to see what the common ingredients and techniques are.

Once I felt like I had a good basic understanding of what a bagel should be and how to achieve that ideal, I promptly did exactly the wrong thing.  I started to improvise.  This is my failing both as a cook and as a good student.  Instead of learning (and mastering) the fundamentals, I rush into the improvisation.  The problem, of course, is that one cannot effectively improvise if you don’t know the fundamentals.  But that has never stopped me!


First Batch

“Ugh!” I thought, “I don’t want to spend a lot of time kneading the dough.  Why don’t I just ditch the bagel recipe I have and use a basic white bread recipe from the “Kneadlessly Simple” book of kneadless breads?”

Anyone else would have recognized that as the recipe for disaster that it turned out to be.  I, however, just had to try.  As such, my first batch of bagels fell flat… literally.


Everything seemed to be okay at the start.  The dough did a cold rise overnight, sitting in a bowl beneath my bedroom air conditioner.  In the morning I measured out three-ounce balls (referencing the NY Times article that suggested that bagels were probably better back in the day that three ounces were the standard serving size instead of today’s four-ounce and larger sizes).


The dough shaped into nice, bagel-looking rounds and puffed up beautifully in the second rise.  The problem is, the dough was too hydrated.  In other words, too wet.  So they stuck not only to each other but also to the oiled parchment paper.


By the time I pulled them off and put them in the pot of gently boiling water, they were mangled and deflated.  Their surfaces, instead of forming a nice smooth skin, were cragly.  Undaunted, I finished boiling them and then threw them on a tray and into the oven.


The end result was, as I mentioned before, sort of flat.  They tasted great and had a nice chewy texture.  More like a bialy, actually, but without the onion.  But they were ugly and didn’t have the qualities that one expects in a bagel.  Namely, looking like a bagel.


Second Batch

Never one to shy away from failure, I decided to try again the next day, this time – gasp! – following a recipe.  It was titled “Authentic Jewish Bagels” so I felt like it could be trusted.  Since I didn’t want to feed an army, I did cut the recipe in half.

This time, I did the kneading by hand instead of trying a kneadless method, although I think the kneadless method could still work.  The dough came out with a much lower hydration, which was good.


In case you are curious how to make the holes, I use the “hole-centric” method.  You flatten the center of the ball slightly and then work your finger through the dough to make a hole.  You then spin the dough around your finger a few times and it forms a nice bagel shape.


Despite the drier dough, I took no chances.  These babies were put on a well-floured board.  They still didn’t have quite as smooth an exterior as I wanted but over the next thirty minutes, they rose nicely.


Back to the boiling pot.  This time I didn’t have any troubles handling the bagels so when they went into the pot, they remained inflated and even puffed up some more.  After about one minute on each side, I quickly drained them on a dish towel then put them into the oven.


The end results of attempt one (on the left) and attempt two (on the right).  As you can see, the second attempt was much better.  With the humid weather here in Thailand, they crispness of the crust quickly gave way to a softer texture, but they were still very nice.


The ultimate test was to toast them and use them in a curried chicken salad and spinach sandwich.  There’s still some work to be done to get the bagels a little chewier, but I’m very happy with the way they turned out nonetheless.