Last weekend, we had a semi-surprise family gathering at our house. Tim’s second cousin was in town with his dad at the local bar playing a show. The family, Tim’s uncle and his cousin, as well as another cousin, came by for drinks and some picky food before we all went over to the show. It was a nice opportunity to see everyone, talk about the upcoming family wedding, and just catch up.
Of course, I was all a-twitter about what to serve, and ended up making Tim’s mom’s “Olive Puffs” … so yum… and buying other things, like some marinated mozzarella balls, and various dips. We had cocktails and wine too. When Tim’s cousin Keith arrived, he came bearing a cheese plate and pretzel bread. The bread was SO good and I was reminded that one of my brothers loves it. So I started thinking about how to make it. I had attempted hard pretzels many years ago, but this was a new thing for me.
I looked at several recipes I found online, and there are many ways to make pretzel dough. I attempted two of them, one involving refined sugar, one using a combination of self raising flour and plain flour, but neither was very successful. The self raising flour seemed to bubble up all over the place and the baking soda flavor was overpowering. So I looked at all 5 of the recipe’s I found and came up with this one. This time, it came out great, moist, dense and very flavorful, with that chemical tang that you find in pretzels but can never pinpoint the exact flavor. There are two methods of imparting the flavor that I came up against, both involve boiling, one in a water/baking soda solution and one in a water/lye solution. When I mentioned to Tim about the lye, he was 100 against it, (“Why would you want to boil bread in Drano?!”) so I went for the baking soda solution. The purpose is to set the crust, and sort of flash cook it, so it really darkens and caramelizes when you bake it, similar to the way that bagels are made. I also added some salt to the water, because I figured it would add more flavor, and it really did.
A few notes here about the flour you use. I ended up buying bread flour, which I know I will use again, but if you only have all purpose, don’t sweat it. They will both work fine, I also think you can combine whole wheat and plain flour to make it a little healthier and more hardy. I would go 1 cup whole wheat, and the rest plain flour. And yes, it’s worth opening up another package of yeast for this one. Believe me, it makes a huge difference, both in the rising of the bread and the flavor. We made mock chicken burgers and had them on the breads last night for dinner… and it was divine!
Elizabeth’s Pretzel Bread
3 ½ cups of bread flour (or all purpose flour)
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon honey
3 teaspoons (1 ½ packets) instant yeast
1 cup lukewarm water (110 – 120 °F)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter melted
2 tablespoons whole milk or half and half
½ cup flour reserved for kneading
1 tablespoon oil
For the soak:
4 quarts water
½ cup baking soda
For the coating:
Kosher salt to taste (or pretzel salt if you can find it)
2 tablespoons melted butter
In a large bowl combine the flour and salt, make sure they are very well combined and set aside. In another small bowl, combine the water, honey, dark brown sugar and yeast. I suggest mixing it all together and dissolving the sugars, then adding the yeast and then mix so the yeast is completely dissolved. Let this mixture set for 10 – 12 minutes until the yeast starts to proof (bubble up.) Once the yeast mixture is creamy and bubbly, add in the milk and the cooled melted butter. Add to the dry ingredients. Mix well, you can use a stand mixer and paddle to start this, and you will have a slightly sticky solid dough or you can use a wooden spoon and your hands. Once you have a cohesive dough, turn it out on a floured surface, or you can use a stand mixer with a dough hook, in any case, the reserved flour will help you to get a smooth supple dough (the old saying, smooth as a baby’s bottom comes to mind.) The dough will feel heavier and more solid than you may think it should be, but that’s OK. Oil a large bowl with some flavor neutral oil, although I used olive oil in this case. Make sure the bowl is big enough to hold the dough after it has doubled. Toss in the dough, turning it so it’s covered lightly all over with the oil, this prevents sticking.
Cover the bowl with a slightly damp tea towel, and allow to rise for 30 minutes, punch it down, make sure it’s not sticking, it won’t seem to have risen a whole lot, but once you punch it down this time, it will rise like crazy. This time let it rise for another hour in a warm dry place, until it’s doubled. I suggest on your stove top, with the oven on low.
At this point, preheat your oven to 400 ° C. You may use a pizza stone if you like, but a good old cookie sheet with parchment over it will work just as well, set it aside, ready for action. The point here is, you need a very hot oven. About the time you’re done with the second rise, put the 4 quarts of water on to boil. You will add the baking soda to this when it has come to the boil, but in the mean time, you will punch down the dough again and shape it into the shape you want it to be in when baked. I would divide it into 8 round balls, also known as boules. My first time I tried to do pretzel shapes, but they failed miserably, came all undone. So until you’re more confident, I would try the simple boules below, then experiment with other shapes. Remember you can also make these into much smaller shapes, bite size servings. It makes no difference, so do what you want.
When the dough is shaped, let them rest while you add the baking soda to the rapidly boiling water. Stir well so it’s totally combined. Work with one dough at a a time and drop your formed breads into the water, top down, and boil for 30 seconds, turning them mid-way.
Set the boiled dough onto the final baking sheet and cover with the Kosher salt. Continue the process with the remaining dough balls. Once they’re all on the pan and salted, cut some X’s or patterns around the tops, about 1/8 inch deep with a very sharp knife so the dough has somewhere to split and rise when baking. You can be really creative here, it makes for a dramatic presentation and finished product.
Slide them onto your hot oven, and bake for 25 minutes, but start checking them at 20 minutes, they should be highly risen and very dark brown all over. They may be done between 21 – 23 minutes, depending upon your oven. They may stick if you used tin foil (as I did for these photos) but they will become easier to remove once they cool down.
When the breads are out of the oven, brush them lightly with melted butter, it will make them shiny and soft, as well as adding some nice flavor to them. Let them cool well before you eat them. An alternative to the butter after baking, is to brush an egg wash over them before you put them in the oven, that will make them shiny. All you have to do is lightly beat one egg with a teaspoon of milk or water, and brush it over the loaves, then salt them and proceed as above.