Pretzels

After much nagging from my family, and quite a few lacklustre or outright failed attempts, I might finally have cracked the way to make proper pretzels as we know them from our old life (and holidays) in Bavaria.

I ended up roughly following this recipe (in German), but there were a few snags I had to work out to make it really work.

A tricky one is to do with the fact that the recipe asks for two tablespoons of Natron – which is actual pure caustic soda. This gets dissolved in boiling water and the pretzels are cooked for 20-30 seconds before being baked – this gives them the brown crust and the typical taste. The German name Laugenbrezel literally translates to lye pretzel – so that alkaline bath is pretty important.

Pure caustic soda is surprisingly hard to find in the UK. Sure, you can get drain cleaner, which is caustic soda, but it might have impurities you woulnd’t want to find on your food. Caustic soda is not used in any food in the UK, so you can’t get food grade caustic soda in the spice shelf (as you can in German supermarkets), and you can’t bring it in when coming back from holidays or get it mailed to you – Royal Mail and airlines consider it a dangerous substance, which is fair enough.

Most cookbooks in the UK recommend using baking soda instead for the alkaline bath. The problem is that while baking soda is slightly alkaline, an aquaeous solution will only reach a pH level of about 8.5 which is by far not strong enough to give pretzels the desired texture or taste. But here, a neat trick can help us out – if you heat baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3) above 80oC, it will decompose into sodium carbonate (Na2CO3), CO2 and water. And sodium carbonate is much more alkaline than baking soda, a solution can reach a pH level of about 11. Handily, the conversion can be done easily by baking 3-4 tablespoons of baking soda while preheating the oven. See e.g. here for a closer description of the chemical reaction.

⚠ A fair warning though: sodium carbonate and its solution are noticeably caustic! Be careful with it, make sure to not splash it into your face or eyes, and should you touch it, make sure you wash skin or fabrics with plenty of water right away. Some goggles or glasses would not be amiss! ⚠

The other issue I had with the first few tries of making pretzels is that they come out of their alkaline bath dripping wet, so if you put them on a baking tray like that, they will sit in the liquid and become a bit gooey, and the texture will be all wrong. I fixed this issue by putting a lightly oiled cooling rack on a backing tray, and thus baking the pretzels slightly suspended in the air – so the excess lye can drip off and not touch the pretzels anymore.

Ingredients:

  • 350ml milk, lukewarm
  • 10g fresh yeast
  • 1/4 tsp of sugar
  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 10g fine salt
  • 3-4 tbsp baking soda
  • 1.5l water
  • coarse rock salt

Dissolve the yeast and the sugar in the milk, then add the flour and the fine salt and knead to get an elastic dough. Work it until not sticky anymore, then form into a ball on a slightly floured surface and rest for 1h.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200oC and use it to bake the baking soda on a tray for an hour or so. Be careful when retrieving it from the oven, it will now be noticeably caustic and can hurt skin, eyes, or fabrics!

After an hour, roll the dough into a tight ball again, and then separate into 12 equal pieces. Fold, and then roll out each piece into a string of about 40cm/16″ length, slightly thicker in the middle and thinner at the ends. Shape this into a pretzel and make sure the ends stick on the sides. Put it onto a floured kitchen towel (or a couche if you have one). Then repeat with the rest. Cover and let prove for another hour or so.

Bring the water to the boil in a pan that is wide enough for a pretzel. Prepare a baking tray with a lightly oiled baking or metal cooling rack on top. When the pretzels are done proving, carefully dissolve the baked baking soda in the boiling water.

Submerge one pretzel in the boiling lye and cook for about 20-30 seconds. Make sure it is properly submerged. Use a plastic tool for this! Then lift it out, place on the rack on the baking tray and scatter with coarse rock salt. Repeat with as many pretzels as fit on the rack. Then bake them for about 20-25 minutes until they are a dark, shimmering brown – it should remind you of a conker, not the dull brown of burnt toast. Then repeat with the next batch and so on.

Once cooled, they are ready to eat – either with just butter for breakfast, or with Obatzda and a beer in the evening… My little test eaters were very happy with the result!

Open source bread (reprise): Rosemary Loaf

This is a bread we used to make a lot in the olden days in a standard bread maker when we had a huge rosemary bush in the garden of our rented flat. Now that the new rosemary has taken hold, I have adapted the recipe to make a loaf in a tin.

The dough works very similar to a simple white loaf, but has some extra olive oil and milk – and of course rosemary.

500g string white bread flour

200g water

70g milk

10g fresh yeast

20g olive oil

10g salt

15g finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves

Mix the ingredients and work into an elastic dough (takes about 20 minutes). Form into a tight ball on a lightly floured worktop, and rest for one hour in a covered bowl. Form into a ball again, then shape into an oblong that fits in your greased bread tin (I use olive oil for this bread).

Cover and let prove for another hour in a warm place. Preheat oven to 250°C, just quickly, then slide in the tin. Bake for 5 minutes, then reduce temperature to 220°C and bake for another 25 minutes. Take the bread out of the tin and let cool on a wire rack.

Tastes great with cheese or with soup, or also surprisingly nice with honey.

Wholemeal Rye Bread

I went to Scandi Kitchen the other day to buy fresh yeast for my bread baking – they are one of the few places in central London where you can just walk in and get fresh yeast any day. Walking past the shelf with flours and baking ingredients, my gaze fell onto a pack of shredded rye kernels – another ingredient I have been looking out for, as it is a key ingredient for the heavy, moist rye wholemeal bread so typical of German and north eastern European cuisine.

So, here is my version of this continental staple:

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400g Sourdough Starter
150g shredded rye kernels, soaked overnight and strained
100g sunflower seeds
600g wholemeal rye flour
20g salt
500g water

Measure the starter into a large bowl, then add rye kernels, sunflower seeds, flour and the water. Mix thoroughly and when it starts to come together, work the dough for about 10 minutes (preferably in a bowl, it’s a rather sticky and messy), then add the salt and work for another 10 minutes. You might want to do this in a kneading machine or kitchen mixer if you have one handy. Scrape it out of the ball onto a work surface dusted with more wholemeal rye flour (no white flour shall come near this bread). Form into some kind of ball, adding a bit more flour to the surface if required. This can be a bit tricky, as the dough is really moist and sticky. Put back into the bowl, cover with a cloth and rest for 1h. Roll into a ball again on the dusted work surface. Rest for another hour.

Split the dough into two equal halves, and form two balls. Then roll them into short and fat logs that fit into baking tins. Put them in greased tins and leave to prove for 12h-14h in a cool, but not draughty place. I use the storage under the stairs for this.

Preheat oven to 250C. Bake in the tins for about 5min, then reduce the heat to 220C and bake for another 30min. Turn out of the tins and leave to cool completely on a wire rack.

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This bread goes really well with a stronger cheese, smoked fish or gravad lax, or if you like meat, with smoked ham. And maybe some pickled gherkins.

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