Friday, January 26, 2007

Pretzel Logic

Theories about the origin of the pretzel are many. Some say that the iconic twisted shape is meant to portray arms folded in prayer. One legend states that a baker accused of a crime was offered the opportunity to avoid prison if he would produce a piece of bread through which the sun could be seen three times. Still another tale claims that the three-holed shape symbolizes the Holy Trinity. Even the word pretzel has no clear history – it is variously described as a variation of the Italian pretiola (or “little reward”, intended for children who learned their psalms) or perhaps the Latin bracchiola (“little arms” – arms folded in prayer, perhaps?), just two of the asserted beginnings.

Whatever the truth, there’s little argument that pretzels are one delicious snack – one of the most popular in the U.S. I read a claim (although cannot find verification) that the pretzel market in the United States is nearly half a billion dollars a year. Pretzels, it would seem, are pretty popular.

They’re fun to make, too, and fit in nicely with discussions Medieval studies (according to Wikipedia, the use of the pretzel shape as an emblem for bakers dates to at least 1111 A.D.), history of the Christian church, the math associated with baking or even chemistry (a Maillard reaction takes place during baking – this reaction is the basis for natural- and artificial-flavor creation – which gives the pretzel its bitter bite). And if you don’t have, need or want a reason for making pretzels at home, it’s just an all around great hands-on project and one that is sure to entertain all ages. Little ones enjoy the play-clayesque activity of shaping the dough and older kids love to think up new toppings and shapes. What’s not to love?

The basic recipe is simple:
    - two packages dry yeast
    - 1 ½ cups warm water
    - 2 tablespoons sugar
    - 1 tablespoon butter, melted
    - 4 ½ cups white flour, divided
    - 1 teaspoon salt
    - 5 cups very warm water
    - 2 tablespoons baking soda
    - salt for sprinkling (table, kosher or sea)

Preheat your oven to 475 degrees F. Pour 1 ½ cups of warm water into a large bowl and stir in the yeast and sugar to dissolve. Let sit for five minutes, the yeast should bubble and froth (if it doesn’t try again with more water, yeast and sugar). Mix together butter, four cups of flour and 1 teaspoon salt. With the mixer on a low speed or by hand, slowly blend in yeast mixture. Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl and let rise, covered, for one hour. After rising, divide dough into equal portions and roll or shape pretzels as desired. Dissolve baking soda in the very warm water in a large bowl. Dip pretzels into water and place onto a lightly oiled or greased cookie sheet. Sprinkle with salt and bake for 12 minutes. When they’re cool enough to handle, enjoy!

Try whatever variations sound interesting to you – different toppings like sesame or poppy seeds work well, or perhaps some dipping sauces might be fun. What happens if you dip some pretzels in the baking soda mixture, but not others? What happens if you double the amount of baking soda? Does the dough hold its shape if you form it into letters? Why or why not? Have fun and experiment, it’s all the more fun with a delicious treat at the end.

This article will be published in a modified form in the next issue of The New Classical Family

1 comment:

kitten_mc said...

Thank for sharing this recipe.