It has been a while since Alessio, Asha, Pamela and I got together for our monthly challenges. The four of us have been busy with personal matters which took precedence over our kitchen explorations/ experiments and we didn’t really have the spare time. So much so, that we have all been a bit irregular even with our own regular blog posts. It seemed a good idea to take a two month break from “Velveteering” and we’re back at it once more.
This month Alessio suggested we make a favourite snack of his, German style Soft Pretzels. As is the style of the challenges we usually set ourselves, the choice of recipes are left each of us and we’re free to put a twist on them if we like. This time, I decided to be conservative rather than adventurous and the only twist in my pretzels is the one I put into shaping them!
Like many foods I have tried in the past, the only pretzels I have ever eaten are the ones I have made, as I’ve never seen Pretzels in the stores here. Pretzels can be broadly divided into two kinds – soft pretzels and hard pretzels.
Apparently the Pretzel (from the German name for it, “Bretzel”) has been around since about 610 AD! The story goes that monks in France or Italy created these shaped breads from small strips of dough as rewards for young boys who sat quietly through church services.
The shape of the Pretzel is thought to resemble folded arms during prayers, and the three holes in it are supposed to represent the Holy Trinity. The monks called these little breads “Pretiola”, a Latin word which means “little rewards”, later known as “Brachiola” in Italian meaning “little arms and eventually became “Bretzel” in German and is today the Pretzel!
The hard and crunchy Pretzels is said to have originated in Pennsylvania in the late 17th century. According to stories, a baker’s helper fell asleep while Pretzels were baking in the oven. When he woke up from his nap the flames in the oven had died down.
Feeling the Pretzels hadn’t cooked enough, he lit the oven again only to have the Master Baker decide that the Pretzels had been over baked and couldn’t be eaten. Before throwing them out, the Master Baker decided to taste one of the lot and to his surprise, found the Pretzels crunchy and quite tasty. He also realised that Pretzels baked this way had a longer shelf life.
There are a lot of traditions, festivities and stories fashioned around the Pretzel. The phrase “”tying the knot” is also supposed to be attributed to the Pretzel! Some people think that this comes from the Pretzel featuring in Royal weddings of old in Switzerland where the couples wished for happiness with a pretzel forming the nuptial knot!!
I have no idea how much of all this can be proved by history, but it makes for extremely interesting reading. I looked at a lot of recipes for making soft Pretzels and they all involved boiling the Pretzels in a caustic soda/ lye solution (sodium hydroxide) or a less dangerous solution of baking soda in water like is done while making bagels. Just baking them would have made them soft so I was curious why they needed to be boiled first.
It seems soft Pretzels can be made without the boiling process and the Germans call the boiled and baked Pretzels, “Laugenbrezel” which means boiled in lye. If you make them shaped into little rolls, they’re called “Laugenbrötchen” but as “Laugenstangen” if made into small bread sticks.
It seems that the boiling in the soda solution makes them deep brown (Maillard Reaction), soft yet somewhat chewy and gives them their unique flavour. I can vouch for the flavour difference as I have made a Cheddar Cheese And Onion Pretzel Bread (no boiling here) and I liked these Pretzels much, much better.
The word among those who are in the now is that Pretzels boiled in caustic soda/ lye aren’t a patch on those boiled in a baking soda solution, but I’d rather leave the caustic soda in the Chemistry lab and use the baking soda in water. Baking soda is easy to find and more importantly, very safe to use.
I found many Pretzel recipes that used a lot of butter, some used oil and others had eggs but I felt that the more authentic version would be one without any of these. The original Pretzels were, after all treats, doled out to well behaved little boys sitting through long and boring sermons and I somehow do not see the clergy rewarding good behaviour with brioche!
Alright, I’ll come clean. The real reason I chose this recipe is that I can do without butter and eggs in my breads. I also chose to top my Pretzels with a mixture of white and black sesame seeds and not sea salt simple because I didn’t have it. So I increased the salt in my dough by half a teaspoon.