Oh, my lovely bretzels! What happened to you? When we went to bed last night, you were the absolute height of bretzel perfection: round, dark, shiny, speckled with tiny cubes of sea salt and popping out from your plus signs, as if your goodness inside was just too much for you, also, to bear. This morning, you are damp, your exterior has shrunk a little and your salt particles wish to slide off your crust. I know it rained cats, dogs and elephants last night but not in here, not in your zip-lock bag!
I’m not kidding about that storm, though; I could argue with some confidence that the world did actually tip upside down last night. Specks from the bathroom ceiling are on the floor, water dripped through the kitchen skylight as well, and the top of it, as if it were the most normal thing on earth, is crowded with leaves. This is Manhattan, people, there are no trees anywhere near this window.
All pre-Halloween spookiness aside, let me go back a few steps further. Bretzel rolls came into our life in a par-baked frozen format from Fresh Direct, a really-not-bad-at-all grocery delivery service in New York City. Curious if they would really taste like those street pretzels we both loved as kids (not as adults, you see, because these days, they’re morbidly dry and disappointing), we ordered a bag of six and, oh, they did! I’d top mine with a poached egg and a sprinkling Dijon vinaigrette and eat it for breakfast; Alex would slather his with the spicy brown stuff, and while I could have gone without Fresh Direct deliveries for 99 percent of my grocery needs, these bretzels kept us coming back.
That is, until they were discontinued for reasons undisclosed to us, if you can imagine that nerve. I’ve been promising Alex for eons that one day, I would try my hand at them. But, I have to admit confusion when I looked at pretzel after pretzel recipe. Do you know what makes a pretzel a pretzel? That gives it that tell-tale scent, color and almost tinny flavor on the surface? I didn’t, and the recipes I found were no help, just having the water, flour, salt, sugar and yeast found in almost any basic bread. Speckling a roll with salt does not a bretzel make! But now I know what does: it’s the bath of water you boil it in, and not just any water bath, as you would use to make pretzel’s cousins, the bagel, but the baking soda and sugar you add to the water. Not only does it make the water foam furiously (really, use the largest pot you have, to save yourself the crusty stove we have awaiting our attentions this morning), but the moment you drop those rolls in, that unmistakable pretzel smell emanates from your kitchen. It’s fantastic.
The one we split last night was perfection; Alex declared it even better than the original, and I do agree. I just wish I’d read this little gem before I put left them in that bag overnight.
Pretzels are best when eaten the same day, but will keep at room temperature, uncovered, for two days. Do not store in covered container or they will become soggy.
Adapted from Bon Appetit, January 1994
2 3/4 cups bread flour
1 envelope quick-rising yeast*
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (about) hot water (125°F to 130°F)
8 cups water
1/4 cup baking soda
2 tablespoons sugar
1 egg white, beaten to blend (glaze)
Combine bread flour, one envelope yeast, one teaspoon salt and one teaspoon sugar in food processor and blend. With machine running, gradually pour hot water through feed tube, adding enough water to form smooth elastic dough. Process one minute to knead. Grease medium bowl. Add dough to bowl, turning to coat. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, then towel; let dough rise in warm draft-free area until doubled in volume, about 35 minutes.
Flour baking sheet, or clear area of counter. Punch dough down and knead on lightly floured surface until smooth. Divide into 8 pieces. Form each dough piece into ball. Place dough balls on prepared surface, flattening each slightly. Using serrated knife, cut X in top center of each dough ball.** Cover with towel and let dough balls rise until almost doubled in volume, about 20 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Grease another baking sheet and sprinkle with cornmeal.*** Bring 8 cups water to boil in large saucepan. Add baking soda and 2 tablespoons sugar (water will foam up). Add 4 rolls and cook 30 seconds per side. Using slotted spoon, transfer rolls to prepared sheet, arranging X side up. Repeat with remaining rolls.
Brush rolls with egg white glaze. Sprinkle rolls generously with coarse salt. Bake rolls until brown, about 25 minutes. Transfer to racks and cool 10 minutes. Serve rolls warm or room temperature.
* I used regular old active dry yeast. Worked fine, but the rise time is closer to an hour.
** I slit them right before putting them in the oven, as we did in my bread class, in hopes to keep the mark as sharp as possible. However, they are not as easy to slit after boiling them, which forms a seal. I might try it both ways next time.
*** For some reason, greasing and then cornmeal-ing a baking pan sounded like a potential stuck mess, so I instead lined one with parchment paper and sprinkled that with cornmeal. It worked great, and was a much easier clean up. (We’d baked many breads in my bread class on parchment paper in my bread class, so I knew it should work.)