Wednesday, October 10, 2007

How to Make Pretzels (Salzbrezeln)

When I think of German food I think of three things, sausages, sauerkraut, and pretzels. Not those small crunchy ones you find near the potato chips in the grocery store. Oh, no. I think of those yummy soft and salty creations that taste great with a bit of mustard.

Oh, yeah, baby. That's some gooood eatin'.

Especially around Oktoberfest.

To help celebrate Oktoberfest this year, I made up a batch or two of soft pretzels. I added a bit of whole wheat flour to increase the fiber content and flavor (it makes it a bit nuttier), but you can stick to just plain unbleached white flour if you prefer.

This recipe doesn't dip them in the traditional sodium solution prior to baking, but it does include a sprinkling of course salt. You don't have to sprinkle them with salt, by the way. Sesame seeds or poppy seeds make great substitutions, or you can just enjoy them plain.

Soft pretzels don't keep well, so you'll want to plan on eating them the day you make them.

Soft Pretzels

2 tsp dry yeast
1 1/4 cups water
2 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
egg glaze (made by mixing the yolk of one egg with 1 tbsp water)
sesame seeds, poppy seeds, or course kosher salt for topping

This recipe uses the "sponge" method of activating the yeast. Using a regularly sized bowl, sprinkle the yeast into 1/2 cup of the water, and let it sit for 5 minutes. Stir to dissolve. Add a bit of the white flour (1/4 to 1/2 cup) and mix to form a thin paste. Cover the bowl with a dishtowel and let it sit for about 20 minutes, until it's nice and frothy.

Pour the yeast "spong" into a large mixing bowl, and add most of the flour (about 2 1/2 cups) and the remaining water. Mix with a wooden spoon, hand mixer (if you've got dough hooks). Add the remaining flour, bit by bit, until it becomes a stiff, slightly sticky, dough that pulls away from the sides of the bowl. You can use a stand mixer for this, if you've got one.

Continue to mix the dough, or knead it by hand, until smooth and elastic. This will take about four to ten minutes. I like to knead my bread by turning, folding, and punching it in the same bowl I mixed it in, but you can transfer it to a floured work surface if you prefer.

Lightly grease a clean bowl with butter or oil (or just clean the one you used to mixed it in) and turn the dough once, to cover the dough with the oil. Cover with a dish towel and let it rise until doubled in size. This can take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours, so be patient. You can check that it's fully risen by poking it with your finger. If the indentation immediately springs back, leave it alone. If it doesn't spring back after few moments, it's ready. Punch the dough down and let it rest for about ten minutes.

Divide the dough into eight pieces. Shape each piece into an oval and then roll each oval back and forth with your palms, moving from the center out, to form long round strips, about 16 to 18 inches. Leave the center thicker than the ends. (They should be about 1 inch thick in the middle, and about 1/4 thick on the ends.)

To shape them into pretzels, pick up both ends of the strip and make an upside down “u” shape on your counter. Twist the ends over twice and then press them down over either side of the loop. The pretzel will be “upside down.” Repeat with each dough strip.

Place the pretzels on a lightly floured baking sheet, and cover with a dish towel. Let them rise until double in size again, about 45 minutes to an hour or so. (FYI, the second rise is called "proofing.")

Once fully risen, brush the pretzels with egg wash, and sprinkle with the topping of your choice. If you use course salt, be careful not to use too much, or no one will want to eat them when you're done.

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F, and bake on the center rack for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

I like tearing them apart and dipping them in a bit of good horseradish mustard. My wife and kids like slathering cream cheese on them. I've even heard of cutting them in half lengthwise and making sandwiches with them.

What’s your favorite pretzel variation?

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