We can be pretty sure that the pretzel originated in Italy by an Italian monk who wanted to reward children who said their prayers. In fact, it is said that this is why the pretzel has its crossed over shape; to replicated the position of the hands of children in prayer. By all accounts they were quite popular. Though the monk's name is clouded in time what he called them isn't. He named them "pretiola" which means "little reward."
I love those pretzels you can sometimes find in the mall. With that in mind I set out to make my own and ended up making a better pretzel.
History of the Pretzel
This form of small bread made its way to France and Germany. In the later, the bread is called Brezel. There is also an account of the pretzel shape being born when the sun-cross shape (a circle with a cross inside) was banned in 743. No matter what the source, the pretzel has been the unofficial symbol of German bakers since the twelve hundreds. (see image left)
Pretzels gained favor in the Catholic church not only because of their shape, but because of their very short ingredient list; they could be eaten during Lent.
No matter where it originated Germany is now the one nation that has most thoroughly adopted the pretzel with the strongest support in Bavaria.
The pretzel eventually made its way to the Americas via the Pennsylvania Dutch. Even today Pennsylvanians consume about twelve times the number of pretzels as the rest of the country.
A Note About this Pretzel Recipe
If this article were written in German this would be referred to as a Laugenbrezel or "Lye Pretzel." We don't need to use lye though, just a common kitchen ingredient that will create the same effects on our cooked pretzel as lye did so many centuries ago.
To get the deep brown and shiny surface pretzels are known for, we will be using baking soda in a water solution. This solution is very similar to the solution that bagels are boiled in to give the bagel its unique color and texture.
Bear in mind that the baking soda is not going to be used for leavening; we will still use yeast for that.
Basic Pretzel Dough
Makes six to eight pretzels depending on size
Prep time 20 min - Total time 20 min - 300 cal/serv
Ingredients for 8 servings
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour • 1 tablespoon yeast • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt • 1 cup warm water • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Pretzel Dough, Rise, and Shaping
Combine the flour, yeast, salt, water, and vegetable oil in a large bowl. Mix until smooth. If needed add one or two tablespoons of water if the dough is too dry.
Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl, coating the dough on all sides, and place a towel over the bowl. Allow the dough to rise for half an hour.
Punch dough down before turning onto a lightly greased surface and dividing into six or eight separate pieces. Roll each piece into a longish rope.
To get that pretzel shape form a loop at the center of the rope and lay that on your work surface with the loop at the top. Bring the ends of the rope down and then around back toward the top of the loop. Form a single twist about two inches from from both ends of the rope and then tack the ends near the top of the loop.
Glaze or Topping
Prep time 10 min - Total time 20 min - 300 cal/serv
Ingredients for 8 servings
1 Cup water • 3 teaspoons sugar • 6 teaspoons baking soda
Glaze and Baking
Preheat the oven to 400° F ten minutes prior to baking.
In a small bowl combine the water, sugar, and baking soda. Mix until all of the solids are dissolved.
With a pastry brush paint just the top of each pretzel with this solution. You don't want to soak the pretzel, just put enough liquid on it so that you can clearly see that it has been painted.
Add to the surface of each pretzel salt, sugar, course ground black pepper, or any other dry topping you think might taste good on a pretzel.
Place some parchment paper on a baking sheet and then distribute the pretzels evenly on the parchment paper. Bake the pretzels at 400° for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown.
With a thirty minute rise time you might suspect that these pretzels will be pretty dense; you are right, they are.
Though you can use a stand mixer and dough hook to make the dough, this really isn't necessary. You can knead the dough by hand in a very short period of time.
The glaze above does two things. The baking soda gives the outer surface a much deeper darker brown color. A baking soda and water solution is also used in bagel making for the same purpose.The sugar in the glaze gives that surface some sheen.
I've presented a limited number of toppings, but with such a short bake time you could use a hard cheese, caraway seed, fennel seed, or a variety of other dried spices rather than just salt and/or pepper. Try it with rosemary, thyme, or even cumin seed.
My personal favorite is course ground black pepper.
You can get other effects by changing the type, but not the quantity of flour. There is no reason why you can't use rye, whole wheat, or white flour.