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PBR & Pretzels

December 9, 2006

PBR & Pretzels
There were more than a handful of PBR’s leftover from a poker game last week (during which I won six dollars, btw) and I thought that one of the best accompaniments to my Milwaukee lager would be some home-made soft pretzels.

I have a had a fascination with chewy, soft, New York style pretzels for years. After sitting in the family car outside the Holland and Lincoln tunnels en route to Jersey for so many hours growing up, I became accustomed to them as a pacifier. Not literally in the sense that my parents pacified me with pretzels, but in the way that as an agitated, overanxious kid stuck in traffic I couldn’t resist the smell of those smoky, too-dense salt-covered treats. They seemed to me some sort of freaky salvation. If I could just get my hands on one of them…

I don’t recall for how long they’d salve my gridlock-induced wounds, but I think of them fondly. The pretzels that is. And the yellow mustard, and the ash-crusted bottoms. They used to have real charcoal in some of those soda-vendors’ carts….and you could taste it too.

Fortunately my tastes have developed significantly over the years as clearly evidenced by the aforementioned Pabst Blue Ribbon.

While traveling in Alsace some years back, I was re-acquainted with all of the reasons why I loved soft-pretzels in the beginning. There’s something truly fascinatingly satisfying about the texture of a well-made pretzel. In Alsace, there are so many kinds- the long thin ones with lots of space between the laces, the small chubby ones, the dried and crunchy ones, the savory ones. They’re not just a medium, but a metaphor as well. And though it’s not really my style to get too much into the minutiae of the history, if you want some pretzel-loving, check out google images here.

It remains eminently clear that there’s more to the pretzel than Mister Frito Lay would have you believe. Trust me, I know these things.

Anyway, here’s the scene; We had driven over the Vosges from Riems and Nancy and enjoyed some of the most stupendously gratifying Munster and we came down the hill into famed Ribeauville. We were looking for two things…storks and grapes. Sure we found them, but what found us were the pretzels.

I knew about the wine and the fabled baby-delivery service but I had forgotten about the pretzels. Again, I say…fascinatingly satisfying. I can’t explain what it is about them, but damn them to hell they are good.

So it was with a heavy heart and a longing for the slopes of the Vosges that I set about making the pretzels that I present to you now. I tried them about a year ago and met with little success. It was one of those days when my head was in it, but my hands seemed to have forgotten what they were doing with the dough. I hadn’t done any baking in a while, and I certainly hadn’t attempted something so steeped in tradition as the poor, pedestrian pretzel, and I confess, I completely fucked them up. I hadn’t worked the dough nearly enough, the glutens were brittle, my mind went numb. Really though, I hadn’t come to the board with the right attitude. I thought hey, they’re pretzels, how much do I really owe them?

Well, the answer is lots. You owe them lots. So give it up.

Herewith, my successful and respectful pretzels.

2t Instant Yeast (I generally use Red-Star…works for me)
2T Brown Sugar
5-6 Cups AP Flour (I prefer King Arthur)
2t Fine Sea Salt
2C Whole Milk
2T Baking Soda
Kosher Salt for topping

* Warm the milk to about 110F, reserve.
* Combine the sugar, sea salt, yeast and about 4 cups of the flour in a medium mixing bowl. I do mine right in a kitchen aid fitted with a dough hook.
Stuff in the bowl
* Mix at low to low/med and pour the milk in steadily.
* After the milk has been added, continue mixing while adding the remaining flour slowly. Depending on the humidity and the moisture content of your flour, you may not need all 6 cups. If the mixture begins to look very dry, stop adding flour.
* Mix for 7-9 minutes, stopping occasionally to push the dough down completely off of the dough hook.
* After mixing, remove the dough and place on a lightly floured work surface. Knead by hand for about 3-5 minutes. If the dough feels good and strong but smooth and mostly tear-free you’re all set to move on to number 7. If you think the dough could use a little more development, return to the mixer for another 3-5 minutes on a low setting. It should have some give when you poke it with a finger, but it should spring back somewhat also. You want the glutens to develop enough to lend some toothy character to the finished product, but not to be so strong so as to become difficult to work.
The boule
* Once the dough is good, retire it to a lightly floured mixing bowl and cover it with a clean and dry kitchen towel. Place in a relatively warm location and let rise for an hour or more. It should nearly double, but not quite.
* Pre-heat your oven to 425F. I leave my pizza stone in the oven all the time, so if you have one, go ahead and place it in there too. It helps with heat retention.
* Place a 4-6qt pot of water on the stove. Add 2T baking soda and set it to boil.
* Punch down the dough delicately and divide it into 12 equal pieces.
Divided dough
* Form each of the twelve pieces into logs of about 8-10 inches in length and place them onto a lightly floured cookie sheet.
* Cover them with the kitchen towel and let them relax for about 15 minutes.
* After relaxing, the logs should be easier to roll out a bit longer. Roll them to about 15-16 inches in length. They may feel slightly hollow on the inside because the dough is fairly dense…you want to roll them firmly enough at this point so as to remove all of the built-up fermentation gas. TIP: Have a bowl of water next to you on the work surface and periodically dip your fingers in the bowl and then rub your hands together. Sprinkle a few drops of water on the board if it’s slippery with dried flour. Remember, add water to make it sticky – flour to make it slippery.
Good looking logs
* Shape the individual pretzels. To do this, take the right-most end of the dough and twist it twice with left-most end of the dough leaving a loop of about 5-6in diameter with the twists facing away from you as shown. Bring the twisted ends down towards you so that the twisted section is in the middle of the loop, and the ends rest on the lower curve of the loop. Stick the ends to the loop by brushing a teeny-tiny bit of water between the pieces.
techincal illustration 1techincal illustration 2
* Retire the individual pretzels to another cookie sheet or large board.
* By the time you are through with shaping the pretzel, the water should be up to a boil. Place the pretzels, four at a time into the water bath. Dunk them each under the water with a pair of spatulas or slotted spoons. Boil for 15-20 seconds. Remove and place on a prepared plate or tray with paper towels.
* Remove pretzels from paper towels fairly quickly, as they’ll tend to stick, and place them six per tray on two greased cookie sheets. Sprinkle generously with kosher salt.
* Bake at 425F for about 20-22 minutes, rotating the trays once, or until evenly golden brown all around.
Damn they fine!
* Enjoy immediately with your condiments of choice. Mine include Amora Fine et Forte Dijon, Maille Dijon, or anything else that strikes your fancy…and don’t forget the Pabst if you’ve got them.
Again...Damn they fine!
Some simple modifications would obviously include the use of a sourdough starter to encourage shelf life and further develop the flavor, the addition of finely minced rosemary and garlic to the dough. Caraway seeds are a favorite of mine too…possibly minced onions on top, some Reggiano wouldn’t hurt either.

Pretzels aren’t all that difficult, just give them some attention and you can’t go wrong.

Ready for the game.

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