As a fifth generation member of the Daring Bakers, I missed four previous challenges. It has been suggested (somewhat insanely I wonder) that as an off the record non-official challenge, those of us who are touched with a baking madness, could play catch-up and make some of the things missed.
Much like bagels, pretzels are still somewhat of a novelty in the smaller, more 'sheltered' villages of little Britain. It takes a long while for us to accept culinary change, particularly if they are in anyway associated to a culture we may not understand and what is considered part of the fabric of US cuisine (so much so, that - according to dubious fact machine, Wikipedia - 2 Lbs of pretzels are consumed every year - by every American), it could be another 3 decades before it is fully integrated over here.
You all know how much we both love Mexican food, yet only a couple of years ago Paul and I were disappointed to find that the restaurant we had planned to visit for our Wedding Anniversary (Chi Chi's - for the deep fried Ice Cream and Margaritas, naturally!) had stopped serving Tacos and now served Tapas. This is a clear indication that people still want to be reminded of the food they ate whilst on package holidays to the Med but at the prices they were charging (£3.50 for 10 olives??), I could see this themed restaurant becoming a McDonalds.
On the other hand, Mexican food is filling, reasonably priced and just as varied as Tapas, yet it still remains an afficionado-only type cuisine.
With this in mind, it is inconceivable to think that there might be a hot pretzel stand in our local shopping mall. Burger King, yes. Hot Buttered Pretzels with Nacho Dip, no.
So, until today, I had to lock away that uniquely salty soft bread treat in the taste-bud part of my brain or console myself with airplane pretzels (and if you have been lucky enough to be on a post-peanut flight, you will probably have been given Snyders of Hanover pretzels, those little golden packets somehow holding all the promise of your holiday right there on the tray in front of you. Whether this is true or not, those crunchy little morsels never taste as good as when you're in the air, crunchy, salty but not the same, definitely not the same as soft pretzels). After baking pretzels today, I wondered why I had waited so long, and it wasn't just my lack of artistic ability or not being able to curl them into their familiar shape (that's what Paul's for). Pretzels are perhaps one of the easiest yeast based breads to make and certainly tastier than any long-rising loaf.
However, like any bread that has many years (nay, centuries) of history preceeding it, the pretzel is not without controversy. Only yesterday did we encounter this. Paul insisted that, as per his Mom's recipe, the pretzels MUST BE BOILED BEFORE BAKING. I, on the other hand, pointed out the Daring Bakers recipe, lifted from Ivonne's merely dips the raw, formed pretzels in hot sugary water, then leave to prove for half an hour before baking. Much easier than boiling.
This ancient treat has roots in Germany, Italy and even France, documented as early as the 7th Century. A rather charming story tells how an Italian Monk folded little pieces of dough into an intricate twist referred to as 'Pretiola', meaning 'little reward' which was given to diligent children who learnt their prayers. There are also other stories: a German baker desperate to save his life if only he can produce a bread for the Duke of Wurttemberg through which the sun can be seen twice. In another religious twist (pardon the pun), legend also suggests that the pretzel could have garnered its unique appearance through its yeasty depiction of the Holy Trinity or perhaps the position that monks adopt when in prayer.
Whilst the true history of the Pretzel remains shrouded in mystery, this curly treat remains firmly in favour, even in the new millennium. And here is how to make them:
DIPPED NOT BOILED PRETZELS makes 6-8
(from The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion)
2.5 Cups Plain Flour
1/2 teaspoon Salt
7g Dried (Instant) Yeast
1 teaspoon Sugar
1 Cup Warm Water
For the Glaze:
1/2 Cup Warm Water
1 Teaspoon Sugar
3 Tablespoons Melted Butter (I find it has a better flavour when it has cooled slightly but is still liquid)
Maldon Salt for Sprinkling
Place the flour in a large bowl. Make a well in the middle and pour in the yeast and sugar.
This could be where mythology enters into my repertoire but it has also worked for me: add the salt to the side of the flour so that it doesn't touch the yeast. The salt slows down the action of the yeast.
Pour the warm water over the yeast and sugar in the centre of the bowl, and working from the centre outwards, stir well with a wooden spoon until a messy dough is formed. You will probably need to add more warm water.
Once you have achieved a well combined but shaggy looking dough that is only slightly sticky, turn out onto floured board and knead for about 10 minutes or until the dough is soft and smooth.
Place in an oiled bowl and cover loosely with clingfilm. Leave to rise for half an hour.
Once the dough has doubled, maybe even tripupled in size, gently punch down (is there such a thing as a gentle punch, I wonder), remove from the bowl and form into a rough cylindrical shape. Cut into 6-8 equal pieces.
Dissolve the sugar into the half a cup of warm water.
Roll each piece into a long, thin sausage shape, 24 inches long, then form into the pretzel shape. Dip each formed pretzel into the sugar water and place on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with sea salt.
Preheat oven to 230c (or 250c if yours goes that high) and leave the pretzels to rise for another 15 minutes.
Cook for 6 minutes, then rotate them so that the pretzels that were at the front of the oven, are now at the back, and cook for another 6 minutes.
Remove from the oven, brush with the melted butter until it has all been used up and serve hot! We served ours with a chilli, baked potato and cheese soup that I quickly knocked up whilst the oven was on:
CHILLI, BAKED POTATO AND CHEESE 'SOUP':
One large baked potato, diced
2 Cups Grated Cheddar
250ml Sour Cream
1 Toasted Dried Chilli
Spring Onions Chopped
Squeeze of Fresh Lemon Juice
Heat the sour cream over very low heat until warm, stir in the grated cheese until it has melted, then add the diced baked potato and spring onions. Stir in the lemon juice which will stop the sauce from coagulating. Crumble over the toasted chilli, add a little salt if necessary and serve.