Food Scoop: Soft pretzels

Soft pretzels don’t seem to belong to the realm of the home kitchen. They pop up in gas stations or malls, where they can be drizzled in cheese that strongly resembles melted plastic. But there I was, having a snack of cheese and crackers, and thinking about how the crackers really resembled the flavor of soft pretzels.

Then, I started thinking about the soft pretzels I made a couple times as a kid. My brothers and I were in a 4-H club, which was a club that focused a lot on gaining skills. For instance, I learned how to groom, ride, show and massage a horse. I also learned how to swing dance, took lessons on pencil drawing and learned how to make pretzels. I have soft-edged memories of working with dough, twisting it into pretzel shapes. I remember dunking them into a simmering pan of water and baking soda, which bubbled and shimmered and gave off that distinct baking soda scent. Then the pretzels went into the oven and came out in a beautiful shiny brown.

The flavor is difficult to forget, and difficult to describe. Some pretzels from a vendor in a mall might have the baking soda flavor and fluffy insides, but then again, a lot of pretzel recipes skip that bit.

I discovered that fact about pretzel recipes while sifting through my parents’ eight shelves of cookbooks. There were no pretzel recipes in many of my go-to books. None in bread-specific books, at least. After checking about fifteen books, some of them very dusty, I found a few recipes.
None of them include a hot water bath – which gives them that unique flavor. I kept looking until I finally found one.

Like most types of bread, pretzels begin with proofing some yeast. Then, flour is added, as well as a touch of salt. It’s all kneaded together, and then left alone in a warm, dry place to rise.

I proofed my yeast in warm water and sugar. I sifted in a couple cups of flour, and a bit of salt. I kneaded the dough, and then set it to rise in a covered bowl.
It did not rise.

I thought maybe my house was too cold. I warmed the oven, but not enough to kill the yeast, and set my bowl of dough inside. It still did not rise.

Finally, after having unleavened dough sitting in my kitchen for several hours, I tried proofing a new package of yeast. When it was happily creating bubbles in warm sugar-water, I poured it over my dough and set to work it in. This time, it rose.

I think one of the most frustrating things about working with bread dough is that most people don’t do it on a regular basis. We don’t arrange our days around the first and second rising. We don’t have to deal with yeast that isn’t proofing. Instead, we can simply buy our bread. I wasn’t certain I was doing the right thing by adding another portion of yeast, but it turned out alright.

Once the second rising was finished, I enjoyed rolling out long snakes of dough and twisting them in to pretzel shapes. I liked sliding the pretzels into the simmering baking soda water, and watching them fizz crazily. And at the end, I loved sliding those warm, soft pretzels out of the oven, with their shiny brown outsides, just waiting to be eaten.

Soft Pretzels

For pretzel dough:

1 package yeast

1 cup warm (not hot!) water

1 teaspoon sugar

3 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoon olive oil

For water bath:

1 quart water

3 tablespoon baking soda

1 tablespoon salt

Proof the yeast. I do this by first running warm water over the bowl, which should be a large ceramic one. Once the bowl is warm to touch, I add the warm water. The water should not burn your wrist. Instead, it should be lukewarm to touch.

Add the yeast and the sugar, which feeds the yeast and will produce a higher production of bubbles. When the yeast has dissolved and sat for a few minutes, the surface of the water should look like there are tiny bubbles and some puffy bits of floating yeast.

Sift in the flour. It’s important that the flour be added before the salt. Salt will kill your yeast, which produces unleavened dough – like mine. Even though I salvaged my dough, it wasn’t as good and definitely not as fast as it could have been.

Knead the dough until it springs back quickly from a finger-poke. Kneading is mostly a way of folding the dough together using the base of your palm. If your dough is sticky, put olive oil on your hands. Form a round loaf and drizzle olive oil over it.

Set it in a warm, dry place with no drafts for the first rise. It should double in size in 30-60 minutes.

Punch it down and knead again. Set it out for a second rise. This can be done by setting it in the refrigerator for 2-4 hours.

Punch it down and split into 8-12 parts. Roll each part out on a lightly floured board until long and skinny, about a foot and a half long. It should be also about three-quarters of an inch thick. To make a traditional pretzel shape, make a loop at the half-way point. Twist the two arms gently around each other, and fold back to the loop so they barely stick out. You can use a wet finger to sort of glue the arms in place, but it’s not necessary. If you prefer to roll out ropes of dough and do other things – twist them around themselves, cut straight logs every four inches – those will also bake up fine.

Once all of the pieces have been shaped, let them rise for about half an hour. In the meantime, heat up the water, baking soda and sugar until it is simmering. This should never fully reach a boil.

Set the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Slip the pretzels in the simmering water. After twenty seconds, flip it over, then wait twenty more seconds and remove it to a baking sheet. I recommend using parchment paper, as they stick to the bare baking sheet.

Sprinkle all of your pretzels with large grain salt. Slide into the oven for fifteen minutes. Remove when shiny brown and enjoy!

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