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Untangling the pretzel

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By Michael Estrin

Nearly two decades ago, the humble pretzel became a classic “Seinfeld” joke when first Kramer, and then George, rehearsed a seemingly innocuous bit of throwaway dialogue for a fictional Woody Allen film. The line—“These pretzels are making me thirsty”—was repeated in endless variations, with each interpretation producing greater laughs, ultimately elevating the gag to the status of sitcom legend. But sadly the pretzels themselves—think store-bought, rock-hard, over-salted—were nothing special. Back then, pretzel lovers really only had a few options: the processed snack food that surely would make you thirsty, or the extra-greasy mall staple that would make your eyes widen and your stomach cringe. How we got to this sad place in our pretzel consumption is a lot to untangle, and fodder for another story. But thankfully, pulling yourself out of a pretzel funk in time for Oktoberfest doesn’t require much more than a basic recipe, a little technique and a willingness to experiment. Because once you’ve mastered the classic pretzel—crusted with salt, hard and brown on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside—you’ll easily be able to let your imagination run wild, concocting both sweet and savory variations on this German staple.

THE BASIC PRETZEL

6 cups all-purpose flour
1⁄2 cup sugar
1⁄4 cup butter, softened
2 teaspoons salt
2 eggs, plus 1 egg white
two envelopes active dry yeast
coarse pretzel salt

  • Dissolve the sugar and yeast into 2 cups of lukewarm water (about 110 degrees). Let the yeast bubble and foam for a few minutes.
  • Meanwhile, using a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment, mix the salt, softened butter, two eggs and 3 to 4 cups of the flour on low speed. (If you don’t have a mixer, you can use an old-fashioned spoon and bowl combo, but be prepared for a workout.) Add the yeast mixture and the remaining flour, and mix until the dough forms a moist, slightly sticky ball. Knead the dough for several minutes by hand on a lightly floured surface.
  • Pull pieces of dough into ropes, rolling them between your hands to about 12 inches long and as thin as a pencil. (Remember, length and diameter have more to do with aesthetics than taste, so don’t sweat it if you’re unable to master rolling right off the bat.)
  • To make a classic pretzel, form the rope into a U-shape, cross one tip over the other, twist the crossed tips around once, and fold the top over the base of the U. (If shaping isn’t your thing, you can always make sticks, rings or even bite-sized nuggets.)
  • Place pretzels on greased cookie sheets.* In a small bowl, whisk an egg white with a few ounces of water. Paint the tops of the pretzels with a brush and sprinkle with pretzel salt.
  • Bake at 400 degrees 12 to 15 minutes until golden brown.

*Depending on how you like your pretzels, you may want to dunk them in an alkali bath before adding salt and baking. Skipping this step is fine; plenty of recipes don’t call for an alkali bath. But the process does give you a crispy, bagel-like outer crust while preserving a soft, doughy inside. Most home chefs use baking soda (about 3 tablespoons) in a shallow pan filled with hot water about two inches high. Give each pretzel only a quick dunk—in and out of the water, then straight to the oven.

 

3 Pretzel Twists:

Jalapeño Cheddar

Dice two tablespoons—more if you’re feeling bold—of jalapeño peppers (toss the seeds to cut down on heat) and add 1⁄2 cup of cheddar cheese, shredded as thin as possible. Pair with a beer that stands up well to spicy foods. Negra Modelo is always a favorite, and the Mexican take on an Austrian brew is a nice way to celebrate the multicultural origins of this pretzel.

Pesto Parmesan

While mixing, add 1⁄2 cup grated Parmesan cheese and enough pesto to give the dough a green, oiled hue (about 1⁄4 cup). Simply add a little more flour if the oil in the pesto makes the dough too wet. Pair with a malty, medium- to full-bodied beer—ideally, a seasonal märzen like Paulaner Oktoberfest.

Peanut Butter Coconut

Add 1 1⁄2 cups of peanut butter chips to the dough. Regular peanut butter works too, but chips give finished pretzels little bursts of flavor, whereas the straight stuff flavors all of the dough. Dust the twists with shredded coconut before baking, and pair these dessert-worthy pretzels with Maui Coconut Porter.

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