One of the things I remember most about living in NYC were the pretzel carts that dotted the corners throughout Greenwich Village. Sure I remember the hot dog carts, but to be honest, I’m more of a fan of Chicago dogs than New York dogs (sorry NYC!). But I loved those pretzel carts, serving up hot, soft pretzels drizzled with American style, yellow mustard, none of that dijon or whole grain stuff!!! My mouth is watering just thinking about them. But my love of pretzels goes much farther back to when I was a little kid. In fact, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love pretzels, from the rock hard sourdough pretzels of the Pennsylvania dutch to those warm, soft festival treats.
As a kid, I had even attempted to make soft pretzels a time or two. They were good, but not great, and, at the time, they seemed to be an awful lot of work. It’s amazing how perception changes as you grow older. Yesterday, I thought I’d surprise my wife with a batch of freshly baked pretzels when she arrived home from work, and I couldn’t believe how easy it was to make them. It is even a breeze to form them, something I remember as being so difficult as to be almost impossible!
Since I hadn’t made pretzels in many, many years (more than I want to remember!) I had to do a little research. While most recipes had a relatively consistent set of ingredients, I found large variances in the boiling stage (the most important stage of pretzel making) ranging from a quick dip of 5 seconds to 1 minute on each side. In the end, I did what I always do, taking what I believed to be the best ideas from many recipes and created my own. I opted not to brush the boiled pretzels with eggwash before baking, but if you want a shinier crust than I achieved you might want to add that step, brushing the pretzels before sprinkling with salt.
While you can, sometimes, find “pretzel” salt, don’t bother. Because it is a specialty salt you will pay a premium for compared to kosher salt, which works quite well.
Finally, in commercial production of pretzels, they are often boiled in a lye solution. Lye is rather caustic stuff and can easily cause severe burns if you get some on you. Stay away from the stuff. Instead most people (me included) use baking soda to raise the ph of the boiling water to give a mildly alkaline solution. Purist say they can taste the difference, but it is very minor, and believe me, it is not worth the risk of an alkaline burn.
1 tsp. yeast
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 1/2-3 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp. iodized salt
1 cup milk, warmed to 100-110°F
1/4 cup baking soda
4 cups water
Mix together the yeast and the sugar. Add the warm milk and allow the yeast to activate. Add 2 1/2 cups flour and the iodized salt and mix. Knead for 5-7 minutes, adding more flour, if necessary, to form a soft, but not sticky dough. Place dough in a greased bowl, cover with a damp towel and allow to rise until doubled, about 1 hour. Preheat oven to 425°F. Degas the dough, divide into 6 portions and roll into 6 strands.
Allow to rest for 5 minutes, then one by one stretch to 18″ and form into pretzels. To form: create a loop with the bottom closest to you and cross the ends.
Fold the ends back down over the loop, extending the ends just slightly.
For a more professional look you can give the ends a half twist before bring them back down.
Press the ends down lightly to secure but don’t mash the pretzel. Meanwhile bring the water and baking soda to a boil in large pot. The water should be 2-3″ deep. If not, add more water and baking soda, keeping the ratio of 1/4 cup baking soda for every 4 cups of water. Let the water come to a gentle, not rolling boil. One at a time, place the pretzels in the water, cook for 20 seconds, flip and cook for 20 seconds longer. Remove from water, allow to drain, then place on a greased cookie sheet. Repeat with all the pretzels. Allow each pretzel to dry for about 1 minute then sprinkle liberally with kosher salt. The pretzel should be moist and tacky, but if it is too wet the salt will just melt. Bake the pretzels for approximately 10-13 minutes or until a deep golden brown. Remove from oven, place on a cooling rack and allow to cool for a few minutes before tasting.
To rewarm pretzels, place in a brown paper bag. Sprinkle the bag generously with water and heat in a 350°F oven. Whatever you do, don’t rewarm them in the microwave, it will just make them tough and chewy!!!