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.

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Those evil scones

Nicola Griffith emailed to ask about the ginger scones at the Bad Monkeys publication party. The recipe is from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible, which all carbohydrate fans should own (while you’re at it, you’ll want to pick up a copy of Beranbaum’s Pie and Pastry Bible, too, and then you might as well complete the trilogy with The Cake Bible, although I don’t use that one as much).

My shorthand version of the recipe looks like this:

12 tablespoons of butter
3/4 cup of heavy cream
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup of sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2/3 cup crystallized ginger, cut into tiny pieces
additional cream and sugar for topping

1. Cut butter into 3/4-inch cubes and freeze for at least 15 minutes. Whip the cream until soft peaks form, then refrigerate.

2. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, ground ginger, salt, and lemon zest in a food processor. Add frozen butter and process until the mixture resembles fine meal.

3. Empty the mixture into a large bowl and stir in the crystallized ginger. Make a well in the center, pour in the whipped cream, and use a spatula to stir it into the flour mixture until all of it is moistened. Knead the dough in the bowl until it holds together, then turn it out onto a floured surface. Continue kneading until it can be shaped into a smooth ball.

4. Divide the dough in two, and shape each half into a 3/4-inch thick disk about 6 inches in diameter. Wrap the disks individually in plastic wrap. Freeze for at least 15 minutes.

5. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a large cookie sheet. Using a sharp, heavy knife or cleaver, cut each dough disk into eight wedges. Arrange these on the cookie sheet with at least an inch and a half of space between them. Brush the top of each wedge with heavy cream, and sprinkle with sugar.

6. Bake the scones for 15-20 minutes, or until the edges begin to brown. Remove from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool. Enjoy.


* If you wear a wedding ring, you’ll want to remove it before sticking your hands in the bowl in step 3. The dough is incredibly sticky when you first start working with it, so if you don’t take the ring off now, you’re going to have to take it off later, over the sink, where it’s more likely to fall into a drain.

* Properly wrapped, the dough disks from step 4 will keep in the freezer for months. You can also wrap and freeze individual wedges, and bake yourself a single scone whenever the mood strikes you (this is good for portion control, bad for energy conservation — it’s not just a snack, it’s a moral dilemma!).

* Once you get the basic recipe down, you can substitute dried fruits for the crystallized ginger and other spices for the ground ginger — a version using dried apricots and 1/4 teaspoon of ground cloves won the 2004 Issaquah Iron Chef competition.

* Although the scones are at their moistest immediately after baking, they won’t turn into hockey pucks if you leave them out overnight; they just get slightly crunchy.

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The history of gluten?

This year’s Christmas breakfast:


1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup whole barley flour
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 to 2 tablespoons minced crystallized ginger
1 egg, beaten
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

Combine dry ingredients in one bowl, wet ingredients in another. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in wet ingredients all at once, mixing just until the batter comes together. Ladle batter onto a hot skillet 1/4 cup at a time, and cook until pancakes are golden brown on both sides.

The above recipe is from King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking. The text claims that these pancakes “are so light you won’t believe they’re 100 percent grain!” which led to the following exchange at the breakfast table:

ME: Wow, these really are light pancakes. I’ve had white-flour pancakes that were heavier than these.
LISA: Part of that’s the mixing. If you overmix the batter, it starts to form gluten, and then the pancakes are tough.
ME: Hmm, I wonder who figured that out.

There are at least two whos being referred to here: the prehistoric chef who first worked out the whole “knead” vs. “don’t knead” dichotomy of baked goods preparation, and the more recent individual who nailed down the underlying chemistry and gave gluten its name. But who was that second person? Is there a History of Noteable Food Scientists I can look this up in?

And while we’re on the subject: what kind of sausage would you pair with triple ginger pancakes? I’m thinking something light and mildly sweet, like chicken-apple or chicken-blueberry.

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