Sunday, January 25, 2009

Soft Pretzels

The other night, the family sat on the floor in front of the idiot box flipping channels. We stopped on Alton Brown's Good Eats on the Food Network and learned a thing or two about popcorn and soft pretzels. (If you've ever watched Alton Brown, you know how zany he is.) Since then, I've been craving soft pretzels. I love the kind you get at the mall, despite the arm-and-a-leg price they charge for that soft, doughy, salty goodness. A little online hunting yielded a recipe that comes pretty dang close to Aunt Annie's. I've tweaked it a little, based on comments from reviewers on the site where I found the recipe. This recipe is labor-intensive, sort-of, but well worth the effort.

Soft Pretzels
1 1/2 cup warm water
1 1/8 tsp active dry yeast (or 1/2 packet of yeast)
2 tbsp brown sugar
3 tbsp melter butter
1 1/8 tsp salt
1 cup bread flour
3 cups all-purpose flour

Soda Bath
2 cups warm water
2 tbsp baking soda

Coarse salt to taste
4 tbsp melted butter
Pinch sugar

1. Dissolve yeast in warm water. Stir and let rest for 5 minutes. Add sugar and stir. Add melted butter, salt and flour. Knead dough until smooth and elastic (about 7 minutes in a mixer, longer by hand). Place in greased bowl, turn over to coat dough, cover and let rise for 2 hours or until dough doubles in size.
2. While dough rises, prepare baking soda water bath with 2 cups warm water and 2 tbsp baking soda. Be sure to stir often.
3. Punch down dough. Divide into 12 equal portions. Roll each portion into long ropes (see Lessons Learned for tips), then shape into pretzels. Dip each pretzel into baking soda bath, coating completely, then place on parchment paper on cookie sheet. (It helps to lightly spray the parchment paper with cooking spray.) Let rest for at least 15 minutes.
4. Melt butter in small bowl. Add a pinch or two of sugar, then brush pretzels with butter mixture.
5. Bake at 500 for 8-10 minutes or until golden brown. Brush with more melted butter mixture, top with coarse salt or cinnamon sugar and enjoy.

Lessons learned: I used a dough cutter/wedge to divide the dough in half and then into smaller portions. The first pretzel was difficult to roll out. Don't just make a snake with the dough and then roll it out. It works much easier if you flatten each section of dough into a rectangle and then roll it tightly, as you would a cinnamon roll. From there, use the palms of both hands to gently roll the dough out, forcing your hands farther apart with each pass of the dough. The dough will shrink, but with persistence, it will stretch out. The longer you get it, the closer you'll get to the mall version. Aim for at least two feet per rope.
What's the purpose of the baking soda bath? I'm glad you asked. It is what enables the pretzel to develop that nice brown color on top. Otherwise, the bread isn't in the oven long enough to brown. And who wants to eat an anemic, pasty looking pretzel? (I could go into the ins and outs of acidic and alkaline contents of the bread ingredients, but Alton Brown does a much better job of that, so I'll let you ask him.)If you want an even more uniform brown color, brush the pretzel with an egg yolk water bath just before it goes in the oven. Me? I prefer the taste of butter.
I used my convection oven, which dials down the temperature to 475 with the fan on when I set it to 500. The recipe originally called for 450 for 8-10 minutes, but many reviewers said that wasn't long or hot enough. So, I upped it and was pleased with the results. The pinch of sugar in the melted butter really helps create that mall flavor. The pretzel would be pretty bland without it, I think.
I know this recipe is a keeper because my son's face lit up and he told me that it's as good as the ones in the mall (without me even mentioning my goal to recreate the mall version). And, my husband declared it one of the better bread products I've made.

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