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Mmm, pretzels

I've seen an advance copy of next Sunday's New York Times review of Bad Monkeys, and it's awesome -- much better than I'd hoped for.

More about that later. For now, let's talk soft pretzels. The good news about the review gave me a pretext to bake something for the gang at Queen Anne Books, and I've been wanting to try making my own pretzels for a long time. What's stopped me, up to now, is fear of disfigurement. Traditional soft pretzels get their distinctive crust from being dipped in a solution of lye and boiling water. Lye doesn't come from the supermarket, it comes from the hardware store, and it's caustic enough to burn unprotected skin -- the first time I ever heard of the stuff was back when I was a kid and the New York Post ran a story about a cop who'd had a mixture of lye and jelly thrown in his face.

Fortunately there are less dangerous alternatives. The recipe I went with, which is from Baking Illustrated, uses a baking soda solution. The water's still hot, so you have to be careful, but scalding is a risk I'm used to dealing with. And the finished pretzels are amazing. Not as amazing as being compared to J.D. Salinger and Tom Pynchon in the Times, but close:

1 teaspoon instant yeast
1/4 cup honey
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups bread flour
1 cup warm water
3 tablespoons baking soda
Coarse or kosher salt for sprinkling

1. Combine the yeast, honey, salt, flour, and water in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Knead for 5-7 minutes, until the dough forms a smooth, elastic ball.

2. Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise at room temperature until doubled in size (about one and a half hours). Punch down dough and allow to rise a second time, for about 30 to 40 more minutes.

3. Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Divide dough into 12 equal portions. Roll each portion into a "rope" about 20 inches long (the original recipe suggests doing this on a floured surface, but the dough's not that sticky, and I found a plastic cutting board offered better friction for rolling). Form each rope into a pretzel shape and press down to get the ends of the dough to stick.

4. Put the baking soda and 6 cups of water into a 12-inch skillet and bring to a boil. Line a large cookie sheet with aluminum foil and spray with oil. Using a flat metal strainer or a slotted spoon, lower the pretzels into the boiling water (you should be able to fit 3 or 4 at a time) and boil for 30 seconds. Flip them using tongs and boil for another 30 seconds. Then, place them on the cookie sheet. (A couple tricks I figured out: first, the reason you use the strainer to put the pretzels into the water is not just to avoid splashing, although that's part of it. If you just drop them in by hand, they'll sink to the bottom of the skillet and stick, which is bad; sliding them in slowly gives them a chance to become buoyant and slippery. Also, because you only want to flip them once, you should lower them in "face down"; that way they'll be right-side-up when you move them to the cookie sheet.) The pretzels won't expand much in the oven, so you can crowd them pretty close together. They should all fit on one sheet.

5. Sprinkle pretzels with salt. Put in oven, and bake for 12-16 minutes, or until pretzels are well-browned. Transfer pretzels to a wire rack to cool. Serve warm.

Baking Illustrated mentions two variants, which I haven't tried yet: in one, you sprinkle the pretzels with cheese instead of salt; in the other, you bake them "plain," and then, while they're still warm, brush them with melted butter and dip them into a mixture of 1/3 cup sugar and 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 23rd, 2007 10:16 pm (UTC)
Yay on the NYTBR!

Being raved in there is almost as cool as being interviewed for Bookslut!
Aug. 24th, 2007 02:17 pm (UTC)
Almost. Thanks for reminding me, by the way -- I put up a link to the interview on my web site as soon as it posted, but forget to brag about it here on LJ. Let me go fix that...
Aug. 24th, 2007 03:24 am (UTC)
Added to my recipe file (and reminded me that I need to copy Tony Levin's Carrot Cake recipe to that InDesign doc as well.

Personally I'd be proud of the Pynchon comparison more than the Salinger, even though by some strange combination of marriages, dear old J.D. might be called my great uncle.
Aug. 24th, 2007 05:25 am (UTC)
You know, it's one thing when one of your favorite authors is available to read on LJ. It's completely fabulous when said author also posts recipes!

Thanks. And I can't wait to read the full NYT review.
Aug. 24th, 2007 06:50 am (UTC)
I can't *wait* to read Bad Monkeys! (from Greg M.)
Matt! You wrote another book! I'm buying this from Prairie Lights TOMORROW (and I'm in my third & final year of getting an MFA in playwriting and the semester's about to start and have absolutely no time to read.)

"Sewer Gas & Electric" and "Fool on the Hill" occupy a very prized space on my bookshelf. I've been waiting on "Set this House in Order" because I didn't know when you would come out with a new book.

I'm really not a gushing fan-guy in real life, but I'm very exciting.

(from Greg Machlin, greg underscore machlin at yahoo dot com)
Aug. 24th, 2007 01:44 pm (UTC)
Congrats on a great review!

You should try the lye method. I don't know what pH they use, but I've stuck my hands in far more dangerous solutions without a single burn.
Aug. 24th, 2007 02:25 pm (UTC)
Because I am a geek, I actually looked it up on Wikipedia -- they give it a pH of 13.5.

I think the other thing that worries me about lye is toxicity. Not so much the toxicity of lye itself, but the toxicity of other substances that I might mistake for it. I don't fully trust hardware store clerks to steer me to the "baking" lye.
Aug. 24th, 2007 04:17 pm (UTC)
Hm, is that specifically for pretzels? pH is a measure of concentration, so dillution would be able to lower it. I don't think I'd trust the clerks either, anyhow. If the hardware store guys are like the car parts guys, they'll just blindly steer you to something that gets you out of the store. Wikibooks has a recipe that doesn't call for lye, and I think that wikipedia mentioned sodium carbonate (far less toxic; it's in ramen) as an alternative. http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Cookbook:Pretzel

I'd never realized lye was an important part of cooking some baked goods, so I think I've got some reading materials for the afternoon. I'm so very easily fascinated.
Aug. 24th, 2007 05:34 pm (UTC)
You do mix the lye with water for pretzel-dipping, so yeah, the final pH would be lower, but it's still perilous enough that when Alton Brown did his pretzel show, the Liability Lawyers in Black forced him to use baking soda instead.
Aug. 24th, 2007 07:09 pm (UTC)
They do that to croissants and dinner rolls over here, too. With the lye, I think. It's kind of odd, but tasty once you get used to it.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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