Because sometimes ya just gotta snarf a pile of pretzels and shotgun Harry Potter movies.
When I was a kid, I used to take violin lessons about 30 minutes away from my sleepy Seattle suburb in a neighboring town. Lessons were at 11am, so there was generally a post-music stop at Auntie Anne’s for lunchtime goodness. Nine-year-old me was itching to try out making the perfect things at home. (As an aside, I really wish I had a picture of nine-year-old me to accompany this post. I was gangly, awkward, had a perm growing out; it was truly a thing of beauty. Sheer, unadulterated, pre-pubescent, awkward, beauty. You’ll have to use your imagination.)
I remember trying out pretzels with my mom. A modified basic bread dough, stretched and shaped, covered in butter and popped in the oven. Yum. Except…
The recipe we had left out a crucially important step. The step that transforms butter-coated, weird-shaped rolls into gorgeous soft pretzels. We ended up with what I have come to find out are considered “knots,” soft, twisted rolls. Not bad, mind you, but certainly not Auntie Anne. Based on this pseudo-disappointing gastronomic childhood adventure, I securely placed pretzels in the “advanced” section of cooking and never looked back.
But then there was the internet. Numerous sources told me that pretzels were fun AND attainable, so I said “Shoot, I got this.” This is definitely still a labor of love and a tad time consuming. Bread dough needs to rise at least one hour and still requires shaping into that signature pretzel heart twist. I would place this firmly in the “intermediate” category.
The secret ingredient is baking soda. And water. It is vitally important to boil each pretzel in baking soda infused water until the pretzel rises gently to the surface of its own volition before baking. Through some wizard magic, the boiling causes the dough to develop a crust that limits the rising and forces the dough to maintain the signature twisted heart shape.
Of course, you could shape this anyway you want. Makes pretzels sticks, pretzel bites, pretzel candy canes for Christmas! Or you could spell out “PROM???” in pretzels and give it to your unsuspecting crush. You’re welcome for the idea, high schoolers who read my blog.
The recipe I use uses an egg wash instead of butter, which is an easy and lower calorie way to achieve that glossy pretzel finish. Conversely, skip the egg wash and top with butter after making for optimum sticking power. Try topping with grated parmesan and garlic or cinnamon sugar if you like.
I use the LORD OF COOKING (aka Alton Brown)’s recipe for pretzels, because he knows all and I am but a humble plebeian in awe of his might. I prefer to pair them with my own recipe for spicy cheese sauce, because you basically can’t do nostalgia without processed cheese, am I right?
Alton Brown’s Soft Pretzels
1 1/2 cups warm (110 to 115 degrees F) water
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 package active dry yeast
22 ounces all-purpose flour, approximately 4 1/2 cups
2 ounces unsalted butter, melted
Vegetable oil, for pan
10 cups water
2/3 cup baking soda
1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Combine the water, sugar and kosher salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to foam. Add the flour and butter and, using the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed until well combined. Change to medium speed and knead until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl, approximately 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the dough from the bowl, clean the bowl and then oil it well with vegetable oil. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and sit in a warm place for approximately 50 to 55 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line 2 half-sheet pans with parchment paper and lightly brush with the vegetable oil. Set aside.
Bring the 10 cups of water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in an 8-quart saucepan or roasting pan.
In the meantime, turn the dough out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a 24-inch rope. Make a U-shape with the rope, holding the ends of the rope, cross them over each other and press onto the bottom of the U in order to form the shape of a pretzel. Place onto the parchment-lined half sheet pan.
Place the pretzels into the boiling water, 1 by 1, for 30 seconds. Remove them from the water using a large flat spatula. Return to the half sheet pan, brush the top of each pretzel with the beaten egg yolk and water mixture and sprinkle with the pretzel salt. Bake until dark golden brown in color, approximately 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before serving.
Jalapeno Cheese Dip
From the Kitchen of Emeralds and Ampersands
1 Tbsp Oil
1 small or ½ large onion, finely diced
1 jalapeno, seeded and finely diced
16oz of an easy melting cheese, such as Velveeta, American, or Monterrey Jack, shredded or sliced thinly
¼-2/3 cup milk
Fresh cilantro, chopped
Red pepper flakes (opt)
Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and jalapeno, heat until softened. Reduce heat to low. Add cheese. Stir until melted. Add milk to loosen sauce to desired consistency. Remove from heat. Stir in fresh cilantro. If jalapeno fails to provide desired kick, add a few red pepper flakes to desired spice level. Serve warm with chips or pretzels. Dip reheats well in the microwave (but it likely won’t stick around that long!).
Mom came through with some awkward photos. For your viewing pleasure: