Six years ago, I attempted to shift my existing pretzel obsession into the cookie category, with only moderate success. The chocolate pretzel cookies I made were shiny, twisted and gorgeous, but tasted so mediocre — dry, flat in flavor, basically meh. I concluded that the firmness we’d want from a pretzel-shape was probably not something we wanted in a cookie. But silly me, I was just looking in the wrong place.
Last fall, as some of you might remember, I did a little tiny bit of book-touring from November through mid-December and then February through March of this year, just like 28 cities or so in total of us hanging out, no big deal. Okay, it was kind of a big deal, and so many cool things happened over the course of those trips, I never got around to telling you about them maybe because the whole thing was so surreal to me it didn’t seem easily digested in 500-word snippets?
Nevertheless, I really owe you a story about the day I was in Boston and was invited to visit the America’s Test Kitchen/Cook’s Illustrated offices and kitchens, which are exactly as awesome as you’d imagine them, and yet cozier. The whole place feels like a giant house on different floors and people are incredibly friendly and warm. Did you know that CI has the largest privately owned cookbook collection in the world? Just 4,000 or so — who wants to move in there with me? The kitchens are amazing as you’d expect, busy with clusters of cooks testing out different recipes. When a recipe needs to be tested, a call is placed over the speaker that pipes through the offices and people are encouraged to stop what they’re doing and take part in blind tastings, because obviously this is the best place to work in the whole world. While I was there, we were encouraged to try steamed fish, and I really was about to, I was, but then over in the corner, I spied someone testing picnic fried chicken and the next thing I knew, I was maybe-possibly begging for my own personal unscheduled tasting and no doubt ensuring that I’ll never be invited back again. It was totally worth it. That stuff was amazing, and while the cook was emphatic in telling me they were just getting started with the testing, that it wasn’t ready yet, I snuck another piece. I’m not sorry.
What does this have to do with pretzels? Having witnessed even a particle-sized segment of how serious they take their recipe testing, it should be no surprise that the way to figure out how to make pretzel-shaped cookies that actually taste excellent was to turn to CI. The recipe is from an old article about perfecting the French butter cookie known as a sable. They found that two things helped them nail the hallmark sandiness of the cookie, dialing back the butter a bit, and using an egg yolk that had already been hard-cookied. I went one step further in tweaking this; I have an ongoing fixation with Swedish rye cookies and couldn’t resist replacing one-third of the flour with rye flour. The resulting cookie looks straight out of one of those Danish butter cookie tins, you know, if they were made with whole-grain flours and real vanilla, and they’re really fun to make with a truck-aproned assistant.
Cookie Week! This week is all about the cookies. Yesterday, we talked about Cigarettes Russes (Piroulines). Stay tuned for more as the week goes on.
More Cookies: There are over 85 cookie recipes in the archives. My favorite holiday-ish ones, as in, get these away from me or I’ll eat them all, are Austrian Raspberry Shortbread, Crescent Jam and Cheese Cookies, Grasshopper Brownies, Seven-Layer Cookies, Tiny Pecan Sandies, Nutmeg-Maple Butter Cookies and Peanut Butter Cookies. For a cookie ideal for gingerbread men, “ninja”-bread men or gingerbread
tenements houses, try these Spicy Gingerbread Cookies. [All The Smitten Kitchen Cookies]
Signed Smitten Kitchen Cookbooks: I have an ongoing arrangement with the wonderful independent bookstore in Soho, McNally-Jackson, in which copies of The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook can be ordered with custom inscriptions — i.e. not just the usual signature but anything you’d like, be it Merry Christmas! or Congratulations on your engagement! (Now bake me some cookies.) or No matter what anyone else tells you, you’re my favorite reader. No seriously. It’s you. all of which have happened because you guys really are that funny and awesome. This year, we have a hard deadline for Christmas shipping (i.e. you’d pay standard and not rushed shipping and the book will reach you by Christmas) of this Saturday, December 14th. Thank you! [Order Custom Inscribed Smitten Kitchen Cookbooks from McNally Jackson]
Sugared Pretzel Cookies
Adapted, barely, from Cook’s Illustrated
I love the rye flour in here; it gives the cookies an earthier flavor and depth, while the hard-boiled egg yolk gives the cookies a perfect sandiness that holds up even days later. You can use an equal amount of all-purpose flour (1/2 cup) if you don’t wish to make these with rye flour.
80, eh, in hindsight, I think this estimate from CI is too high (and commenters agree), I’d say 48 tops and 36 safely. Apologies for any trouble.
1 large egg, hard-boiled and cooled
10 tablespoons (140 grams or 1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (80 grams) granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract (this is halved from the original)
1 cup (125 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (45 grams) rye flour (medium or white will work)
1 large egg white, lightly beaten with 1 teaspoon water
4 teaspoons turbinado or clear sanding sugar
Place butter, sugar and salt in the bowl of stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Crack egg and peel shell. Separate yolk from white; add white to your next sandwich or egg salad. Press yolk through fine-mesh strainer and into mixer bowl with other ingredients. Beat mixture on medium speed until light and fluffy, scraping down sides of bowl and beater with spatula as needed. Add vanilla, mix until combined. Add flours and mix at low speed until just combined. Using rubber spatula or your hands, reach into bowl and knead dough a few times into a cohesive mass.
Divide dough in half; place each half on a square of parchment paper. Form each into a log about 6 inches long (it will be about 1 3/4 inches in diameter) and wrap tightly with parchment, twisting ends to seal. Chill logs for 30 minutes, until semi-firm. (If you chill them longer, you’ll want to warm them up a bit or it’s difficult to work them into pretzel shapes.)
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Slice 1/4-inch off first chilled log and roll slice into a ball in the palm of your hands; this softens the dough. On a counter, roll ball into a 6-inch rope. Pick up each end of rope and fold turn it into the center, pressing it into a pretzel shape. Transfer to baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, placing cookies one inch apart on prepared sheets.
Brush each pretzel cookie with egg white wash, then sprinkle with coarse sugar. Bake cookies until they have golden brown edges, about 13 to 15 minutes. Remove from oven but let firm up on baking sheet for 5 minutes before transferring cookies to cooling racks.
Do ahead: Cookies stored in an airtight container between sheets of waxed or parchment paper will keep for at least one week.