Today's recipe adventure has inspiration from a number of different sources.
I love soft pretzels. I grew up right outside of Philadelphia and we used to get the most amazing soft pretzels from the Federal Street Pretzel Bakery (who apparently sells them online). These weren't the giant plastic tasting things you get in the movie theater; they're dense, chewy, and downright amazing. Every year my father buys a couple of cases to give out for Halloween. Bought that day, they're usually a nice, warm treat for a fall costumer.
I made my first soft pretzels at home a couple of years ago using Alton Brown's recipe. They were good (even though I find it impossible to make the "perfect" shape he does) but something was missing. It wasn't until I tried my hand at bagels that I came across this post over at The Fresh Loaf blog. Lye was the part of the process that must be missing.
Since I happened to have some lye from some soap making I've been experimenting with, I tried it with the bagels and it was an amazing difference. Lye (NaOH, sodium hydroxide, or caustic soda) is an extremely strong alkali used in many different applications. You're probably most used to seeing it in this form:
Although I'm sure many of you have seen it in this famous movie clip:
When a lye solution (or any strong base solution) contacts the dough it hydrolyzes the proteins, breaking them down into amino acids. Through the Maillard reaction the sugars in the dough and the newly broken down amino acids contribute to the browning and sweetening when baked. I don't have a deep understanding of the chemistry behind it, but know that it makes an enormous difference.
I was thumbing through The Silver Spoon, my Bible of cooking, and saw a recipe for rosemary rolls stuffed with cheese. I had been toying with the idea of stuffing a pretzel-type roll with cheese for the past week so this recipe particularly caught my eye. I was trying to come up with a good savory pretzel recipe, something that would make a good meal or appetizer that wasn't just carbohydrates and salt. (I had toyed with the idea of stuffing it with meat or cheese ...) The rosemary added to the dough struck me as a great idea. And, thumbing through some more recipes, a bruschetta inspired me to make use of a few ingredients I needed to put to use.
First, let's assemble the filling.
- 4 small tomatoes, seeded and diced
- 4 oz pancetta, diced
- 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
- 1/2 small onion, diced
- 8 oz mozzarella, cut into small cubes
- white balsamic vinegar
- olive oil
After a good amount of fat has been rendered out from the pancetta and the meaty bits are beginning to brown, add in the garlic and onions and remove from heat. This is to take a bit of the "bite" off of the garlic and onions. Set aside and allow to cool; putting it into the fridge may speed this up.
Combine this with the mozzarella and tomato. Add a splash of white balsamic vinegar and a small splash of good olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste.
You can add some other herbs, but I used a bit of salt that my family brought back with them from Italy that is very finely ground with some herbs already mixed in (smells like oregano and thyme). Although this whole recipe is essentially an experiment, this is a good opportunity to really take this recipe and make it your own. Be creative! Cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge. Just a note, there is a lot of rendered fat in here, so after some time in the fridge it will look a little ... thick. This is fine. I just wanted to give you some fair warning.
Now, for the dough. This was a challenging part for me since I'm not a very experienced baker. Essentially this is the synthesis of a few different recipes, but please don't take this as anything set in stone. Alton Brown's pretzel recipe, The Fresh Loaf's lye bagels recipe, and The Internet Food Association's homemade bagels recipe are all great and would all work well. My recommendation is to find a pretzel or bagel recipe you like and go with it. I'm sure some purists will argue that they are wildly different recipes, but I think they work out the same. You may need to cut back on your rising time if you're using a bagel recipe that normally makes airy bagels for this pretzel recipe.
- 20 oz. flour
- 1.25 c water (10.5 oz)
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp yeast
- 3 tsp sugar
- 1 Tbs honey
- 3 Tbs rosemary
After a few minutes, add in the flour and rosemary. There is a giant rosemary bush near my work that I snagged a couple of branches from and hung to dry. The recipe for the rosemary rolls from The Silver Spoon called for fresh rosemary, which might give a much stronger flavor. In the end, I think the subtle rosemary flavor that the dried herb contributed was better suited to the variety of flavors present.
You can make the dough one of two ways. Combine everything by hand and knead for about 10 minutes, or use a stand mixer with a dough hook and let a machine do most of the work for you. After a number of times doing it by hand, I finally own a stand mixer so I wanted to put it to use. After about 5 minutes it seemed done. Cover and let rise for about an hour.
This is a good opportunity to clean up. No, I'm serious. Your next steps may or may not deal with some chemicals that can cause harm, so having a clear workspace is important.
- 12 c of water
- 3 Tbs of lye
- 10 c of water
- 2/3 c of baking soda
DISCLAIMER: Please follow proper safety precautions when using lye. Clean up any spilled lye with soap and water. Wear gloves and protective eyewear and make sure your kitchen has some sort of ventilation. Even a small amount can cause a good amount of irritation. I take no responsibility for you hurting yourself, although I admit I will feel a little bad. Just don't be stupid and you'll be okay.
You can use less lye if you like, but the more lye you use the darker and more pretzel like they will be. If using lye, always add the lye to the water, not the water to the lye. If using baking soda, it doesn't matter but is probably easier to do the same thing. Bring to a boil.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
While the oven is preheating and the water is getting close to boiling, separate the dough ball into 8 pieces. If you want to stop just make a plain ol' pretzel, roll it out into a two-foot rope, twist the ends, then fold it over like pictured here.
For the other pieces I rolled them flat, added a couple spoonfuls of the bruschetta topping, and experimented with a good way of sealing the dough. You can see in the photos below the different ways, but the best way I found was was to pull up diagonal corners and seal as best as you can.
Boil each piece for about a minute, then flip it over. Use a spatula or slotted spoon to prevent getting any lye on your hands. (At this point it's diluted enough that it will probably not cause much harm, but better to be safe than sorry.) Remove from the water and place onto a piece of parchment paper (which is, I found out a couple years ago, different from wax paper). You'll see in the photos some which are lighter than others. These were boiled in just water, to show how clear the reaction with the lye is to the dough.
Brush with an egg wash (1 egg yolk, 1 tablespoon of water) then sprinkle with salt, dried spice mixtures, or whatever you wish. The final picture at the top of this page was done with the preferred sealing method flipped over, so the thinnest part of the crust was on top, and I sliced it a couple of times to give it some room.
This turned out amazing. The rosemary in the dough was subtle but added a good, savory flavor -- exactly what I was looking for -- and the filling was delicious and not overcooked. Keeping it cold in the fridge until the last moment helped. I think the dough could have been a little more fluffy. Perhaps the dried rosemary absorbed some of the moisture but it seemed a little dense coming out of the stand mixer. Now that I have the Kitchenaid, I'll be doing a lot more baking. Perhaps we can revisit pretzels at some point ... we shall see!
I wanted to do something for a Lagniappe! section using the tomato seeds, but I ran out of time. I have them saved, so if I can find a chance to come up with something I'll do an update.