Sunday, May 9, 2010

Birthday Pretzels! And I'm baaack!

I know that it's been a while since I (Lily) last posted.  Sar's really been holding down the fort.  Work took over my life for a few months there (not that I'm complaining - hard work pays off), but now I'm back in action. I hope you didn't miss me too much.

For my first post since forever ago, I'd like to tell you a love story.  This love story is about a boy and his pretzels.  Once upon a time...

...Dennis Paul Kramer was born on May 6, 1987.  From there he grew into a small boy that loved soft pretzels.  I've heard many stories recounting this love - particularly for the huge soft pretzels sold on the street in New York.  He also dabbled in the frozen make-at-home soft pretzels, but later decided those weren't as delicious as their fresh counterparts.  (I agree completely).

Somewhere down the line Dennis grew into a not-so-small boy and met me.  As luck would have it, he stuck around long enough to watch this blog grow.  Since day one he's requested that we make soft pretzels.  Winter just didn't seem like the right time to bake such a Summertime staple, so we made him wait.  It's been 5 long months of waiting, but finally May 6th rolled around and I couldn't think of a better present than some homemade soft pretzels with his name on them.  Literally.

I had planned to surprise him with the pretzels, but anyone that knows Dennis knows that he loves to guess anything and everything that may be a secret or a surprise until he's eventually figured it out.  Naturally, he guessed that I was going to make him pretzels.  Rather than lying and saying "Nooooo" like I usually would, I gave up and admitted that that was the plan.  I did have a few tricks up my sleeve, though.  He didn't just get pretzels - he got pretzels spelling out his name with homemade honey mustard sauce.  Take a look!

Making soft pretzels is a bit of a process, but they are completely worth it.  It was a labor of love - and I think that made them taste even better.  I came up with this recipe after doing some extensive online research to determine some general guidelines for baking pretzels.  While it incorporates parts of probably 10 or so other recipes, I'm proud to say this one is all mine.

Homemade Soft Pretzels
Makes 8 medium sized pretzels
Printable recipe here

You'll need:
2 cups warm water
3 tablespoons sugar
1 packet yeast
3 cups bread flour
2 cups white whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons melted butter
1/2 cup baking soda
1 egg
Large crystal salt (or Pretzel Salt if you're feeling fancy)
Sesame seeds 

What to do:
Combine water, 1 tablespoon of the sugar, and the yeast in a bowl.  Mix until the sugar and yeast are both pretty well dissolved.  Let that sit for about 10 minutes until the yeast have really sprung to life and you've got some good foam forming on the water.

In a large bowl, mix the flours and the salt together.  Pour in the yeast/water mixture along with the melted butter. Stir to combine and then get in there with your hands.  Since the water should still be warm, this is fun dough to play around with - warm and soothing.  Once all of the flour is incorporated, you can turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead it for about 10 minutes.  I'm sure Sar and I have mentioned this before, but kneading dough is a fantastic stress reliever.  You can really work it all out.

Once you've kneaded the dough, let it sit on the counter while you clean out the bowl and then oil it with about 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil.  Place the dough in the oiled bowl and roll it around in there to cover it completely.  Let dough rise on the counter until doubled - about an hour.  I didn't cover the dough since it was pretty hot and humid in the apartment that night, but on a cooler or dryer day I would have thrown some plastic wrap over the bowl.  It's up to you...I don't think it makes too much of a difference in this recipe, honestly.

Once the dough has risen, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and bring about 8-10 cups water to a boil in a large pot.  Dissolve the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar in the water.  Once the water's boiling, turn it down to a simmer and add the baking powder.  This is really fun since it bubbles and causes a real scientific reaction.  The baking soda in the water is what gives the pretzels that yummy pretzel taste on the outside.  Traditional pretzels are boiled in a lye mixture, but since I love Dennis and want to avoid poisoning him, I think baking soda was a better choice.  I'll tell you the story of how pretzels began being dipped lye at the end of the post - we're really getting into the action now and I don't want to distract you from your pretzel making.

Let the water simmer while you turn the dough out onto the counter and very gently deflate it.  Cut the dough into 8 equal chunks and then roll those chunks into ropes about 18-20 inches long.  It's best to do this on a non-floured surface because the tackiness of the dough helps you with the rolling and stretching.  I did some pseudo-jump-rope motions with the dough to help get it to stretch out.  Pretzels are pretty forgiving, but just be wary of rips or thinner sections of the rope.  I shaped 6 chunks into letters spelling Dennis' name, but also made 2 traditionally shaped pretzels.  They were pretty cute:

After you've shaped the pretzels, put them two-at-a-time into the poaching liquid and leave them for 30 seconds on the first side and then flip them for another 30 seconds.  This was actually a lot easier than I thought it would be, so don't be frightened.  Once you take them out of the water, just put them on a cooling rack to dry off a bit while you do the others.

At this point you can beat up the egg with about 1 tablespoon of cold water and then use a pastry brush to paint the pretzels and then sprinkle a little salt and some seeds over the egg wash.  Since the pretzel dough is salted, you really don't need to add too much to the outside.  The sesame seeds are delicious, though, so add as many as you'd like.  Dennis specifically requested that these be sesame pretzels, and I think he was really on to something there.

Once the pretzels have been egged and seeded, you can place them onto sheet pans lined with parchment paper.  Make sure to space them 2 inches apart so that they don't grow into each other while baking.  Bake for 15 minutes or until they turn a deep golden-brown color and really look like pretzels.  You can wait 10 minutes to eat them, or keep them in a dry, uncovered location for a day or two.  Covering them will make them soggy, and leaving them out makes them stale, so just eat them as soon as possible, OK?

As for the honey mustard, I'm not even going to give you a recipe.  All I did was dump about 1/3 of a new container of run-of-the-mill spicy brown mustard into a tupperware and stir in enough honey until I thought it tasted right.  If I were to guess, I'd say it was about 1/2 cup mustard and maybe 1/4 cup honey.

Now that we're all done, I can tell you about how lye became a typical glaze for pretzels in Germany.  Apparently in the 1800s at some point someone was making pretzels and accidentally dumped them into the lye trough that was used to clean cooking utensils.  For some reason, the cook decided that it was totally cool to just continue on with the pretzel baking.  I don't know how costly flour and water were back then, but I'm assuming they were extremely expensive if they didn't want to pitch that batch even though they were essentially covered in a harsh cleaning solution that's pretty much straight poison.  Or maybe they were really into a "waste not, want not" phase.  Either way, the pretzels turned out beautifully browned and somehow had a distinctive and yummy taste.  Lye has been used in pretzel making ever since.  I think baking soda gave the exact same "pretzely" taste, so you wont need to fear any pretzels that come out of our oven.  If you're in Germany, though, that may not be the case.


PS sorry for the lack of pictures - I was in a rush and not on my A-Game for blog posting.  I promise to step it up for the next one.

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