Philly soft pretzels

First stop on the “we-just-got-back-from-Iraq” tour was Colorado to see the future in-laws and surprise them for their 25th wedding anniversary. To keep our arrival a secret, Farrell and I camped out at his sister’s house in Denver, where we had the opportunity (nay…the pleasure) to entertain Mia, my three-year-old future niece.

How do you busy a three-ear-old while also impressing your new side of the family with some true east coast cuisine? Philly-style soft pretzels.

Why pretzels? Because before I started getting out to see the rest of the world, I assumed all intersections in the U.S. were manned with shaggy-looking men pushing grocery carts stocked with soft pretzels, speckled with coarse salt, carefully wrapped up in paper bags and purchased for mere pennies.

Because Pennsylvania (where I hail from) produces 80% of America’s pretzels and Philadelphians eat 12 times the national average of pretzels every year.

(And because I worked at Auntie Anne’s pretzel shop for a summer and wanted to show off my mad pretzel-twirling skills.)

Pretzels are just about as difficult to make as a loaf of yeast bread that requires sufficient kneading. The dough can absolutely be made in your stand mixer, but letting the three-year-old knead her own chunk of dough is a fantastic way to get the little munchkin involved (as well as tire her out for nap time while the dough rises).

Also fun for Mia was being able to shape her very own pretzel man. She’s kind of a free-spirit child and my instructions for folding the pretzel shape fell on deaf ears as she formed legs and arms around a wide circle. Extra precaution is needed when boiling such delicate creations in baking soda, but lost dough limbs can be reattached before baking.

– Philly soft pretzels – Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

2 cups water, warm (hot tap water works well)
1 tablespoon sugar
2 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
5 ½ cups all-purpose flour (I used 3 ½ cups whole wheat and 1 ½ all-purpose)
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 cup baking soda
Coarse salt or other optional toppings

Pour the warm water and sugar into a large bowl. Add the yeast and let it sit for 10 minutes, it should become frothy. Add one cup of flour to the bowl and mix until combined. Add salt and the remaining flour and mix until the dough starts to pull away from the sides and form a tight ball. Knead it, beat it, flip it and fold it until you end up with a smooth and elastic dough, probably a solid 10 minutes. If the dough is too sticky, add additional flour in small amounts. If you’re using whole wheat dough, you will need to give the mixture some extra effort, but remember to look for that elastic consistency; you may not achieve a completely smooth texture because of the grainy flour.

Or, you can do this whole step in a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment. Knead on medium speed for 3-5 minutes.

Transfer the dough into a bowl coated with cooking spray. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place for an hour or until doubled in size (my whole wheat batch took about three hours and still didn’t completely double in size).

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper/corn meal/cooking spray. Separate the dough into 16 pieces, about 2 1/2 ounces each, or however big or small you want your pretzels. With your hands and with the aid of a slightly floured work surface, roll each piece into an 18-inch long strip.

It’s pretty easy to form that traditional pretzel shape, and several ways to do it. First, fold the dough snake into a “U”, twist the ends and attach the feet to the bottom of the bend. Or, for the true professionals, there is a flick-of-the-wrist trick to shaping the pretzel that looks effortless and impresses all of your friends. Pretzel ballet, really. After whipping up hundreds of pretzels daily at Auntie Anne’s I can safely say I’ve mastered this technique, but unfortunately the only way I’ve ever been able to explain it is by saying, “Uhh…you just twirl the dough around itself.”

This lady does a much better job at explaining the trick though. Keep in mind that Auntie Anne’s dough is really soft and flexible (probably chock full of pretzel-enhancing chemicals), so don’t worry if your dough doesn’t effortlessly roll out to such gigantic proportions.

Next, let your shaped pretzels rise for another 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile, boil a few inches of water in a wide, shallow pan over medium high heat. Add the baking soda and poach 3 to 4 pretzels (or however many fit in the pan) on each side for about one minute. Remove them with a slotted spoon and return to the lined sheet pan and sprinkle with course salt. (Salt is the only topping added before baking the pretzels, all other toppings, glazes/sugar/etc, should be added after the pretzels are baked.)

Bake at 450 F for about 12-15 minutes, until the pretzels gather a rich brown cover. Plain pretzels can be dressed up with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon-sugar or a delightful orange glaze (stir together some powdered sugar and orange juice until the desired consistency is reached) for a sweet treat.

But, Philly-style dictates a hearty brown mustard as the best way to enjoy your doughy creation.

Looks like she approves! Maybe next time I’ll introduce her to scrapple?