Going Soft

Honey Brown Butter Soft Pretzels

“I have to put these pretzels in the all-time top 5 of your creations.”  ~Tom  {CONTEXTUAL NOTE:  I make A LOT of ‘creations.’}
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Hearing those beautiful words confirmed that I finally won the soft pretzel game.  Incidentally, Tom has been absolved of the need to buy me Christmas presents for the next 5 years.

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There are so many soft pretzel recipes in cookbooks and online, yet, for the longest time, I couldn’t find one that I liked.  Either the pretzels ended up as sad pretzel pancakes due to insufficient rise, or they rose TOO much – thus losing all pretzel definition (much like my abs during Christmastime), or they weren’t chewy enough, or they weren’t shiny and golden enough.  In short, I was looking for total pretzel perfection and was repeatedly disappointed.

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So, I decided to take matters into my own hands…or, my own stand [mixer].  I decided to make my own recipe, incorporating the parts of previously-tried recipes that I liked, ignoring the parts I didn’t, and experimenting with some general baking principles that I hoped would translate into my ideal pretzel, in taste, texture, and appearance.

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Keys:
  • adhere strictly to all “rest” times dictated in the recipe
  • knead dough COMPLETELY, without adding extra flour (this is where a stand mixer and dough hook are super helpful) — dough should be completely smooth, very stretchy, and sticky without sticking to your hands (makes sense when you feel the dough)
  • really exaggerate the pretzel shape before boiling — the pretzels will puff up in the water (and also while baking), so the more you stretch them now, the more they can puff up while still maintaining those nice, shapely pretzel ears
  • allow ALL excess water to drip off of the boiled pretzels before returning them to baking sheets, otherwise they will steam in the oven rather than bake
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This dough is super easy to handle.  Shaping pretzels can be a bit tricky if you’ve never tried it before, but, having a smooth, pliable dough (like this one!) to work with makes the twisting tolerable!  I have included a twisting tutorial [with diagram] in the below recipe, but if you have another method or would prefer to learn from a YouTube video (yes, I’m talking to you Generation Xers out there), I won’t be offended.  Practicing with a 2′ piece of string beforehand is very helpful!

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If I had to pick a singlemost important step in the whole pretzel process, it would be the baking soda boil.  Even though the shaped pretzels are bathed for only 30 seconds in a large pot of boiling water and baking soda, this brief dip is critical for achieving that chewy exterior, which is then sealed off with an egg yolk wash and a quick bake.  The end result is a perfectly-shaped, deep-golden pretzel, with the tell-tale cracking along the sides, and all the buttery flavor of a mall pretzel.  They are best when eaten fresh from the oven, in front of a football game (even if you’re only watching the football game for the engagement ring commercials).
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If for some strange reason you won’t be consuming all of the pretzels on the day you make them, ONLY SALT THE PRETZELS YOU WILL EAT THAT DAY!  For all remaining pretzels, simply apply the egg wash as directed before baking, but omit the salt sprinkling.  Then, when you reheat the pretzels the following day, brush tops with a thin film of water and sprinkle with the salt before warming for 3-5 minutes at 375 degrees farenheit.  Day-old salted pretzels acquire a weird wrinkly texture on the top because the moist surface partially absorbs the salt, causing unsightly pruning effects — they still taste good, though they look like Jabba the Hutt.

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P.S.  Leftover pretzels make out-of-this-world breakfast sandwiches the following morning.  Just saying…

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Honey Brown Butter Soft Pretzels

3 tablespoons honey (bonus points if it’s local honey!)
1 1/2 cups warm kettle water (see NOTE in recipe)
1 packet active dry yeast (~2 1/4 teaspoons)
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, browned and semi-cooled in fridge for 10 minutes
1 teaspoon table salt
Large pot of water + ~2/3 cup baking soda
1 egg yolk + 1 tablespoon water
Coarse sea salt (or pretzel salt, if you have it)
In the bowl of a stand mixer, dissolve the honey in the warm water [NOTE:  to make sure that your “warm” water isn’t too hot — i.e. yeasticidal — dip your finger in the water; you should be able to comfortably hold your finger there indefinitely – if you can’t, it’s too hot].  Sprinkle the entire yeast packet over the surface of the warm honey water, and let stand 5 minutes, until frothy — if the mixture doesn’t froth, the yeast is dead – start over.  Add 2 cups of the flour,  and mix vigorously with a rubber spatula until smooth, ~1 minute.  Let stand 10 minutes.  Add the remaining flour, the semi-cooled brown butter, and the table salt, and let your dough hook go to town, on medium-low speed, for ~8 minutes [you can knead this by hand if you feel like it – ~10-12 minutes, but don’t add extra flour if you can help it].  Once done, your dough should be in one smooth, elastic, and springy mass.  Transfer dough to a greased mixing bowl, and cover with a clean kitchen towel.  Let rise until doubled in bulk, ~45-60 minutes, depending on how warm your kitchen happens to be.
Start preheating your oven to 420 degrees farenheit, making sure that all small children, pets, and wayward boyfriends keep clear of your oven.  Plop the baking soda into a large pot and fill with cold tap water, cover, and bring to an enthusiastic boil.  Meanwhile, turn your dough out onto a lightly floured countertop, and use a pair of kitchen scissors or a bench scraper to divide the dough into 8 equal pieces — no need to get neurotic here, just eyeball it by repeatedly halving the dough until you have 8 pieces.  Roll each piece into ~2′ long rope.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper (verify the “safe to” temperature on your parchment first!).  Shape pretzels [see diagram below, taking note of the pink and green ends to keep you oriented]:
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  1.  Working with one rope at a time, grab one end in each hand
  2. Twist the ends once, keeping hold of each end
  3. Make a second twist by switching the ends in your hands
  4. Place the bottom of the twist on the countertop, and bring the ends straight down to the bottom.  Dip your finger in a little water and dot the interface between the ends and the bottom with your wet finger so that they stick together and lightly press to seal.
Place shaped pretzels on prepared baking sheets.  In a small bowl, use a fork to beat together the egg yolk and water, and have a pastry brush at the ready.  By now, your water should be rapidly boiling.  Using your hands, pick up one pretzel by its big loops, gently stretching it out to exaggerate the shape, and gently place it into the boiling water.  Use a large, slotted spatula or wire spider to gently submerge the pretzel in the bath, and let boil 30 seconds.  Using your spatula or spider, remove the pretzel from the water, and allow it to drip dry before returning it to the parchmented baking sheet.  Repeat with remaining pretzels.  If you’re new to pretzeling, just work with one pretzel at a time; if you’re more experienced, go crazy and double up, just space your pretzel insertions by ~10 seconds so that they don’t stick together in their hot tub.
Once you’ve boiled all 8 pretzels, brush each pretzel with a thin layer of the egg wash, making sure that you don’t have any large egg globs on the pretzels or dripping onto the baking sheet — they will burn like no other if you do.  Sprinkle generously with the pretzel salt, and bake ~13-14 minutes, rotating sheets halfway if you notice one side browning faster than the other.  There’s nothing wrong with baking the sheets of pretzels one-at-a-time — there’s a fine line between perfectly deep-golden-brown and perfectly-burned…watch ’em like a hawk!  If the tops look done but the bottoms still seem soft, you can bake them for an additional 30 seconds directly on the cookie sheet (i.e. remove the parchment paper) to firm them up a bit.
Let sit on sheets for 2 minutes, then transfer to wire racks for slight cooling prior to eating, ~5 minutes.  Unsalted pretzels may be stored in airtight containers at room temperature for up to one day.
VARIATION :  For Cinnamon Sugar Pretzels, apply your egg wash as directed above but skip the salt.  Bake for 10 minutes, remove from oven, use a clean pastry brush to quickly apply a thin layer of water, and sprinkle with a mixture of salt, cinnamon (or pumpkin pie spice), and granulated sugar.  Return to oven, and bake an additional 3-4 minutes.

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