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! ⚠

⚠ Another warning: Do not use aluminium baking trays for this! Sodium hydroxide has some interesting reactions with the aluminium oxide layer protecting your baking sheet. This might lead to unusable powder (polluted with aluminium ions), a baking tray with holes in it and a hydrogen explosion in your oven. ⚠

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!

Quick African vegetable curry

This is a tasty dinner for a school night, using African peanut curry sauce from Bim’s Kitchen as a base, cutting down cooking time by an hour or so. It still takes a little bit of time, but not much effort. Serves two very hungry people or 3-4 at a stretch.

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Half an onion, diced
1 garlic clove, diced
1 fresh green chili, chopped (optional, for chili addicts like me)
4 carrots, peeled and chopped in 1cm dice
2 courgettes, chopped into pieces
3 large mushrooms, chopped into pieces
1 glass of African Peanut Curry Sauce
4 eggs

Heat a bit of oil in a large pan, add the onions, garlic and chili and fry for a minute or so, without browning them. Add the chopped vegetables, and sauté for 10 minutes on a high heat, covered while stirring regularly. Add a pinch of salt at this stage. Add the curry sauce and a bit of water, cover again and cook for another 10-15 minutes. Crack open the eggs and gently slide then into the sauce. Cover and poach in the curry for about five minutes. Season with salt and pepper, serve with rice.
Actually, any West African side dish like fufu, TZ or banku would go nicely with it, but if you go through the effort of making those, you might as well cook groundnut soup from scratch…

Open source bread 4: Off-white sourdough loaf

This is another recipe based on my all-rye sourdough starter, a rather recent addition to my repertoire of breads. I have to admit I have been reading the chapter of pure sourdough breads in Richard Bertinet‘s Crust and was a bit scared of trying it myself, but at some point last year I took the plunge and gave his recipe a go. The first try only looked a bit like a car crash, and after a while of experimenting and adapting the recipe to my starter and way of working, those sourdough loaves started to turn out quite nicely (and they are really tasty and keep for a few days in the bread bin).

I called it an off-white sourdough as while it’s main ingredient is white bread flour, the rye starter gives it a beige-brown colour and a  very distinctive taste that is clearly not white bread.

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400g starter
850g strong white bread flour
580g water
20g salt

Mix everything but the salt and work it for about 20 minutes, adding the
salt after about 10 minutes.
Form into a ball on a flour-dusted surface, put in a bowl, cover with a
towel and leave to rest for 1h
Then put it back onto the flour-dusted surface, fold it to a ball again,
back to the bowl and rest for another hour.
Then back on the flour dusted surface, form into a ball, cut in half (I
use scales to get them equal), form into two balls, and put in flour
dusted proving baskets (or two bowls lined with floured tea towels),
seam side down, cover with a towel. Leave in a cool place to rest for
14-18h.
Preheat the oven to 250C. Carefully put the loaves from the baskets onto
a baking tray, ideally covered in a silicone sheet or baking paper (seam
side down) – they are quite soft and fragile at this stage, don’t
manhandle them or the finished bread will look like it had a car accident.
Cut criss-cross over the top with a sharp blade.
Mist the oven, bake for 5 minutes, then turn down the heat to 220C, and
bake for another 30-35 minutes. Leave to cool completly on a wire rack.

This bread keeps a few days and freezes well. Perfect lightly toasted
with a poached egg.

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Taste gone off

Let’s start this blog with something strange that just happened to me:
While being down with flu and severe fever, I noticed that this did not just affect my ability to stand upright and think straight, but altered my very sense of taste. It wasn’t, like some friends in a similar situation reported, a loss of all but the basic tastes, as is often the case with a blocked or inflamed nose, but a shift of tastes.
I first noticed that a dish of red cabbage, usually an explosion of sweet and sour tastes, was dominated by a dark and earthy flavour – a quick check with my wife confirmed that hers tasted as expected, so that must have been me. Later that night, I discovered the toothpaste had taken on a taste of near-unbearable bitterness, whereas fresh water took on some murky taste. Isostar, on the other hand, tasted really great – much better than it ever should taste in real life, even after a hard work-out. Oh, and bananas suddenly had a horrible taste of artificial banana flavour, like the really horrible banana sweets from the 1980s.

Luckily, most of this seems to revert to normal as of this afternoon, which hopefully also means the rest of my body will recover soon.