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Homemade soft pretzels, with a twist

by Brian Clarey

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These ain’t your garden-variety grocery store pretzels — these are homemade. (photo by Brian Clarey)

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Some people like potato chips. Some go for corn chips or cheese poofs. Not me.

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Pretzels are easily my favorite snack food — probably because I’m a carb junkie, and also because I like salt. I buy bags of hard, sourdough pretzels and eat them in one sitting. I like dark ones, nuggets, sticks and rods. I eat them with cheese, with chocolate, with mustard or all by their lonesome.

I eat so many pretzels that a couple months ago I decided to make them on my own: the big, soft ones like I used to buy in New York.

Of course, since I moved away I learned the New York pretzels kind of suck, at least compared to the ones in Philadelphia, where they rank second only to cheesesteaks in the local cuisine hierarchy.

All pretzels are basically bread, so I began my recipe with a good dough. I’ve been experimenting with whole-wheat flour, and I discovered that it works wonderfully — in moderation and with the proper yeast. I found a yeast in my grocery store made especially for whole grain flours; I proofed it for five minutes or so with a quarter-teaspoon of white sugar and a quarter-cup of hot water. When it got nice and foamy I added my flour: two cups of whole wheat and three-and-a-half of white flour. I use the unbleached kind.

A quick word on flour: Bleached, enriched white flour is the same stuff you use to make papier mache — and it does pretty much the same thing once it gets inside of you. When flour is bleached, it strips it of most of its nutrients which then must be put back in artificially — hence the “enriched” part. Whole-wheat flour is much healthier, but trickier to work with, requiring tweaks in the amount of oil and water, and it can also result in a grainier dough. So I mix.

The dough gets another cup or so of water, a couple ounces of oil (melted butter works really well too) and a pinch of salt. Then I let the dough rise for at least an hour but more if I can wait that long.

I’ve found that a small handful of dough, rolled out like a log about a foot or so long, makes for a perfect pretzel — bow it at the bottom and wrap the ends around with a twist, just like the monk who invented them did.

A bit of trivia: pretzels are shaped that way because they are supposed to look like a child’s arms folded in prayer.

Before baking, pretzels must be boiled for a minute or so in water with a bit of baking soda in it. This causes a cooked skin to form on the outside, just like with bagels. The skin gives the pretzel a chewy exterior, and it also makes for a dense bread because the skin won’t allow it to rise as much while baking. The longer the boil, the more dense the pretzel.

Then I arrange them on a good, heavy baking dish, brush a little shirred egg yolk on them and dust them with coarse kosher salt. They go in a 400-degree oven for 10 or 15 minutes — don’t take them out until they’re golden brown.

A batch like this can generally yield about a dozen good-sized pretzels, but remember that they are best when eaten right away. If you can’t eat them all, you can freeze unused portions of the raw dough and have them another time.

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