Quarts of local blueberries, ears of Hudson Valley sweet corn and a mess of fresh greens boasted just-picked prominence at the Beacon Farmer’s Market last weekend, but crusty-on-the-outside, delicate-on-the-inside pretzels added to the market’s choice. These weren’t the stadium-style commercial fare thawed at the riverside and warmed up in assembly-line fashion, but individually prepared pretzels made with locally milled flour and pulled recently from the oven.
To describe the pretzels as “adequate” in size would be unforgivable. Twisted and baked by Beacon’s All You Knead Artisan Bakers, the day’s offerings ranged from generous to gigantic, so good and perfectly satiating for hungry market shoppers. My son (who worked up an appetite while playing Pokémon GO around town) promptly polished off one of the crispy golden purchases — hand-rolled, boiled, baked and finished with sea salt and butter — and we each saved another for later … but not much later. We shared them at home that afternoon and made plans to test our own old-fashioned recipe.
A couple of years ago, friends took my family on a tour of one of the country’s oldest bakeries, the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery in Pennsylvania’s Amish country. Tucked into an historic stone house in the town of Lititz, the bakery’s owners still turn out soft pretzels on site, in their building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Before tasting their boiled and baked specialty, we learned how to hand-roll our own baking rope using a premeasured piece of dough to shape it into a traditional design with three open loops. We didn’t actually pop our own rope twists into the oven, but while we practiced the rolling and shaping technique, our docent shared a lengthy backstory of the pretzel and its early beginnings as a noble treat of baked dough twisted into a semblance reflecting crossed arms held in prayer. I hadn’t really made much of a connection between prayer and pretzels prior to that but lately I’ll admit to a quiet reflection with my pretzel indulgence, in hopes that I can polish off the salted symbol without seeing an immediate body bulge along with unwelcome pounds.
That’s the thing with just-baked bread and other wheat-based foods. Their richness packs a few calories but appreciating the taste of a warm slice of sourdough or a buttery garlic knot once in a while can be too much to resist. And freshly baked bread or just-twisted pretzels don’t have to fall into the luxury goods shopping cart. Homemade and bakery-fresh bread puts loaves with a long shelf life to shame and preparing yeast breads at home costs little — for ingredients or baking tools. For this pretzel recipe, the dough also works well in loaf form. Instead of breaking pieces into pretzel-sized portions, divide the batch of dough into four parts and shape into mini loaves. Follow all other directions for boiling and baking. When ready to eat the loaf, slice it down the middle but only half way through the loaf and stuff with a spoonful of egg salad or grilled vegetables. Or thinly slice your pretzel loaf and drizzle it with honey.
Working with a few ingredients turns basic dough into a shared pleasure and letting friends and family roll their own ropes into a range of custom shapes from twists to knots makes the real work easy. The end result: a pretzel far better than any stadium-bought substitute.
Salty Soft Pretzels
Yield: 1 dozen pretzels
1 package active dry yeast
1¼ cups water (85 degrees)
1 teaspoon granulated maple sugar
4 cups flour
2 tablespoons kosher salt
For pretzel boil
3 cups water
¼ cup baking soda
In a large bowl, combine yeast and sugar in warmed water, (not exceeding temperature guidelines). Without stirring, yeast should activate in 5 to 10 minutes. Once activated, gradually add flour to bowl. Mix thoroughly until all flour is absorbed. Remove ball of dough and place on lightly floured surface. Knead dough firmly for a few minutes and cover dough mound with a moistened towel. Let rise 20 minutes. Uncover and pinch dough off into desired number of pieces for pretzels.
Individually roll dough pieces on lightly floured surface into rope forms, about 15 inches in length. Twist the dough into any shape you like or go traditional starting with an upside-down U, crossing ends twice and dropping the large loop down to fold over onto the ends of the rope. Tuck ends under or over large loop.
In a medium saucepan, bring water and baking soda to a low boil. With a slotted metal spatula, lower pretzels one at a time into boiling water and allow to float in boiling solution 30 seconds. Remove and place onto parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle immediately with kosher salt or sesame seeds or your custom spice blend. Bake about 20 minutes at 400 degrees until golden brown. Remove from oven and serve warm or add your favorite dip … hummus, mustard or salted caramel.
By Mary Ann Ebner, first published by The Highlands Current