Germany's Oktoberfest may be over, but for us philistines it can be a month-long reason to try a whole lot of beers, many of them with "pumpkin" in the name. And since beer calls for snacks, I started checking out the recipes in the forthcoming cookbook, Classic German Baking (releasing October 18). I was having a hard time tearing myself out of the Tortes and Strudels section, so I asked author Luisa Weiss to give us her pick for a traditional bite and she came back with the recipe below (also on page 194 in the book) for a soft pretzel called Brezeln.
MAKES 10 PRETZELS
The humble pretzel is a hugely important thing in the German baking world. It is the traditional symbol of the national bakers guild and was one of the first devotional breads created many centuries ago. While to many outsiders, pretzels are to Germany what apple pie is to the United States, pretzels are actually a southern German tradition. In fact, in 2014 the state of Bavaria successfully registered the protected status of the Bavarian pretzel with the European Union. In Bavaria, pretzels are uniformly plump, with a wonderfully crunchy “skin,” a chewy and yielding interior, and a torn “belly.” In Swabia, the “arms” and “shoulders” of the pretzel are thin, making them crisp and crunchy, while the belly is plump and soft. Instead of letting the belly tear during baking, on a Swabian pretzel the belly is slashed crosswise with a very sharp knife after proofing.
One thing both pretzels have in common is that they are dipped in a lye solution before baking, which not only gives the pretzels their inimitable flavor, but also imparts the dark mahogany gloss that every good pretzel should have. Food-grade lye, which must be diluted with water, can be purchased online. It usually comes in granule form. Care must be taken when using it. Wear rubber gloves when preparing the solution and remember always to add lye to water, rather than water to lye. Keep small children away when you prepare the solution and dip the pretzels.
Pretzels are traditionally sprinkled with coarse salt before baking, but in recent years I’ve also seen them sprinkled with sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and even coarsely shredded cheese. Instead of shaping the dough into pretzels, you can also use it to make little round or oval rolls, also dipped in lye before baking. These are called Laugengebäck and make wonderful sandwiches. I like them best split in half, spread with unsalted butter, and topped with a slice of smoked salmon or savory ham.
Once you’ve made your pretzels, you can indulge in the glorious tradition of bayerisches Frühstück (Bavarian breakfast), which consists of a freshly baked pretzel, a pair of Weisswurst (boiled pork and veal sausages), sweet mustard, and a tall glass of wheat beer. Or you can slice the pretzel in half horizontally and spread it liberally with unsalted butter. Put the pretzel back together again and you have yourself an excellent little snack, the classic Butterbrezel.
Fresh yeast gives the pretzels great flavor and a nicely puffy texture, so I think it’s worth seeking out here. But instant yeast can be used instead.
4 cups, scooped and leveled/500g all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
1⁄2 ounce/15g fresh yeast, or 3⁄4 teaspoon instant yeast
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons/280ml water, lukewarm
2 teaspoons fine salt
1 1⁄2 tablespoons/20g unsalted butter, at room temperature
10 cups warm water
1⁄2 cup food-grade lye
Coarse sea salt (not kosher salt), for sprinkling
- To make the dough: If using fresh yeast, place the flour in a large bowl and make a well in the middle. Crumble the fresh yeast into the well. Sprinkle the sugar over the yeast. Pour in 3 tablespoons/40ml of the lukewarm water and stir gently just to dissolve the yeast without pulling in too much flour. Cover with a clean dishcloth and set aside for 5 minutes. (If using instant yeast, stir the flour, yeast, and sugar together in a large bowl. Proceed immediately with Step 2.)
- Pour in the remaining 1 cup/240ml lukewarm water (if using instant yeast, add the full 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons/280ml). Add the salt and butter and stir together by hand. Knead the dough in the bowl until it comes together shaggily, and then dump out onto a floured surface and knead for 8 to 10 minutes (set a timer). You will have to keep flouring the surface at first as you knead, but as the minutes pass, you won’t need to keep flouring. The dough will get very smooth and will be relatively firm. When the kneading time is up, let the dough rest, covered with the dishcloth, for 15 minutes. Then divide the dough into 10 equal portions and let the portions rest, covered with the dishcloth, for 5 minutes.
- To form Swabian pretzels, take a ball of dough and roll out on the counter (do not flour the counter—you need the tackiness of the work surface to help propel the dough back and forth), putting more pressure on the ends of the dough to form long, thin strands and a fat middle, which will become the pretzel’s “belly.” The strand of dough should be about 24 inches/60cm in length. Lay the strand in an upside-down horseshoe shape. Take each end in one hand, cross them once, and press the ends into the top of the belly. Transfer the pretzel to the baking sheet and repeat with the remaining portions. To form Bavarian pretzels, roll the pieces of dough out to more uniformly thick rolls and then form as directed above. Place the pretzels on an ungreased, unlined, non-aluminum baking sheet and repeat with the remaining dough, filling two baking sheets. Let the pretzels rest at room temperature, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Then place the pretzels in the freezer for 1 hour. If your freezer is too small, place in the refrigerator.
- Preheat the oven to 425°F/220°C. Take the pretzels out of the freezer.
- To make the lye bath: In a deep non-reactive bowl, wearing rubber or latex gloves, pour the warm water into the bowl and then carefully add the lye to the water. Stir gently to dissolve the lye completely. Avoid splashes. Loosen each pretzel from the baking sheet and dip into the water, turning it over, for 10 to 15 seconds. If you haven’t frozen the pretzels, they might stretch a bit during this process, but don’t worry; the dough is forgiving. Just handle them as gently as you can, and when you place them back on the baking sheet, adjust their shape if they have gotten wonky.
- Sprinkle the belly of the pretzels lightly with the sea salt. Using a very sharp knife and working quickly, slash the belly of each pretzel horizontally. If making Bavarian pretzels, skip the slashing. Place one baking sheet in the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the pretzels are a deep mahogany brown. Remove from the oven and let cool on a rack while you slide the second batch in to bake. The pretzels should be served warm or just cooled. They are best the day they are made.
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