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.