I have long since loved soft pretzels; those artfully twisted chewy doughy salt crusted pieces of joy. I always thought they would taste best from a cart on a New York City street, but then I realised that they can be made by hand at home anytime you fancy one…
I used a recipe from Rachel Allen’s Bake (Page 132) which I’ve mentioned here before as I really like everything I’ve baked from it up til now. Would soft pretzels make or break her winning streak? I was slightly worried as I had an idea that soft pretzels would be extremely complicated.
Things boded well when I looked at the ingredient list and had everything to hand. This isn’t that surprisingly when you realise that the dough comprises flour, sugar, salt, warm water, oil and yeast. It’s easy to mix up even by hand, although the dough did get quite sticky and it would be advisable to have a small dish of flour set out to add in rather than have to scrape dough off your fingers and then use your sticky paws to open the flour bag!
Apart from that, it all combined nicely and it was no time before I was kneading the dough. She suggests 10 minutes kneading, but since I was doing it by hand I managed about 6 before my arms gave up in protest. It kneaded beautifully, becoming glossier and more elastic with each turn before I put it to bed for the night in a well oiled bowl.
She suggests a rising time of 1-3 hours, but since I was making these to take for a 2pm tea soiree, I thought I would be up far too early for my own good to get them risen, rolled and cooked in time. I was fairly sure yeast wouldn’t take any harm from sitting for longer than suggested. And sure enough I was greeted by some fabulous looking dough next morning!
Thanks to my newly devout neighbours and their gospel singing I was up with the lark and despite being a bit bleary eyed and grumpy, I was actually quite glad to have given myself more time to address to the pretzels than I’d planned because the next stage is fiddly…
I punched the dough down (not thinking of anyone at all) and kneaded it further to encorporate the slightly crusty top in well and then divided it into two big lumps. I covered one with a tea towel and with a certain amount of relish got rolling. The book helpfully gives photos of each stage of rolling and twisting a pretzel and it was invaluable. It’s also a nice touch that they’ve put this on the outer of the left hand page at the end of a chapter so there is no page turning or attempts to get the book to stay open.
I thought rolling the dough would be fairly easy. I was wrong. It is extremely elastic and I’m about 27 years out of practise on making plasticine sausages. I wiggled, wriggled and rolled on the worktop and ended up with some stumpy looking dough which I struggled to loop and twist into anything resembling a pretzel. Just as I was about to lose patience, I decided to try oiling the work surface to see if it helped and bingo! Sausage-tastic! I suddenly had supple snakes of dough that wrapped round much more easily and began to look recognisably pretzel like (albeit if a thumbs only Muppet was making them!)
The first 3 pretzels took me 20 minutes to make. The recipe indicating it would yield between 10 and 14. I had visions of still being there rolling and twisting until noon. But luckily a bit of practise and the oiled surface meant that I suddenly had a nice little production line of pretzels going. I had lined some baking trays with baking paper and was able to set the dough directly onto them, placing about 6 on there and then covering with a teatowel and allowing to rise for the 10 or so minutes, it took to do the next batch.
Once risen, the recipe instructs that you dunk the pretzels in a solution of boiling water and bicarbonate of soda that has reduced in heat to a rolling simmer. I was having some difficulty getting my ends to stick despite the dabs of water suggested and was nervous that the pretzels would totally unravel in the water. However the water sets them so although they were a bit wonky going in, they weren’t any worse coming out! They need about 30 seconds each side, then drained slightly (I used a clean oven pad) and then dipped into some salt or poppyseeds. Feeling fancy, I used Maldon Smoked salt.
The dampness of the pretzel allows quite a lot of salt to adhere to the surface, so if you prefer them less salty, brush some of it back off with a pastry brush. Hot, bothered and somewhat frazzled at this point, I had ceased to care and just wanted them back on the trays so I could finally get them in the oven. This had been heating to 230˚ during my struggles to make sure the pretzels come out nice and golden brown.
The recipe suggests turning them halfway through cooking (about 4 minutes in) and when I went to put the second tray into the oven, I checked the first and was delighted to see that they were crisping beautifully top and bottom and wouldn’t need turning. In fact I was ecstatic to see how properly pretzel-y they were looking now that they were crisp, golden and coated in salt. Buoyed this, I went back to rolling and twisting with renewed vigour.
The second lump of dough was much easier to work with now I knew what I was doing and I had both batches of pretzels twisted, dunked, drained and coated within 15 minutes. A little bit of knowledge of the technique and the amount of space required helped hugely and I felt much more confident about the second batch, especially they were starting to look slightly less like VW logos…
Despite my slight meltdown with the earlier batch of dough, this is actually a super easy recipe and apart from the bit with the hot water, would be absolutely brilliant to do with kids. What little ‘un wouldn’t enjoy the squishy mixing, bouncy kneading and some serious twisting and rolling? It’s like Play-Dough you can eat! Just supervise older kids with the water and the oven or do that bit yourself. I think making pretzels with the kids would be far better than Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s suggestions in yesterday’s Guardian!
The pretzels took about 8 minutes in a very hot oven and then onto a wire rack where they cool extremely quickly. I just had to sample the runt of the litter and eat the first one I tried making. It looked like a dough related car crash, but it was gorgeous. Soft, chewy yet yielding. Deliciously tangy with sea salt, glossy and golden on the tongue and just the right amount of pull as you bit into it. It was as good as any pre-bought pretzel I’ve had, if not better for knowing what tiny amount of oil went into these ones. They really don’t keep more than 24 hours though, so you’ve got to eat the fruits of our labours on the day!
Without doubt I’ll be making these again, possibly as little rolls to serve chipolata sausages in with a homemade tangy ketchup or mustard dressing at a drinks party. With a bit of experience under my belt, these can only get easier each time I whip up a batch. These are a definite emphatic two thumbs up win for Rachel Allen once again!