Soft Pretzels with Sesame Seeds and Sea Salt

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I’ve been on a bread-baking kick this winter, starting with a cinnamon-roll bread at Christmas and most recently making bagels for the most incredible Sunday brunch.  Homemade bread is a family tradition that I’ve been intimidated to adopt for years, but I’m learning that there is something very satisfying about making yeast breads… It’s a time-consuming process, certainly, but each successful step – the yeast foaming, the dough rising, etc. – feels like a huge accomplishment.

I made these pretzels for the Superbowl and served them with a fontina cheese sauce.  However, as with most foods, they’re better with butter.

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  • 1 ½ cups warm water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 package dry active yeast
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 4 ½ cups all purpose flour
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 10 cups water
  • 2/3 cup baking soda
  • 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water
  • sesame seeds
  • Flaky sea salt

Combine the water, sugar and yeast in a small bowl, stir to combine, cover with a dishtowel, and leave to rest in a warm place for about 5 minutes, until the solution is foamy.

In a large bowl, combine the salt, flour and butter. Add the yeast mixture, making sure to get every last bit.  Mix with a dough hook attachment on low speed until well combined, then increase the speed to medium for another 4-5 minutes, until the dough is smooth and springs back after touch.  If you don’t have a dough hook, as I didn’t, the process is a bit strenuous, but certainly doable… Follow the steps above, but stir the ingredients with a large spoon or spatula, until the dough is too tough to stir anymore. Sprinkle a bit of flour on a work surface, and knead the dough by hand for about 10-15 minutes. At some point, while kneading, you may realize that the dough is either too dry – ripping easily and refusing to form long strong gluten strands, or that it is too wet – sticking to your work surface and fingers. Add either water – by wetting your fingertips and continuing to knead, or flour – about a tablespoon at a time, to get your dough to the perfect consistency. To test whether you’re done kneading, take a small piece of the dough between your fingers and stretch it. Well-developed gluten will form a translucent membrane, known as the “windowpane”. If the dough tears before you’ve seen the windowpane, continue to knead.

Grease a large bowl with oil, and place the dough inside.   Cover with a damp dishtowel, and place in a warm spot to rise for about an hour, until the dough has doubled in size. (Yeast responds best to warm, moist environments. I use my oven. To do this, turn the oven on to the lowest temperature for about 3 minutes. Fill a ramekin or other small heat-proof container with water, and place inside.   Turn off the oven. When the temperature is warmer than room temperature but not too hot for your hand to be comfortably inside, put in your cloth-covered dough, and leave it to rise.)

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees, and line 2 half-sheet pans with parchment paper. Brush or spray the paper with vegetable or canola oil.

Bring 10 cups of water and the baking soda* to a rolling boil in a large saucepan or dutch oven.  Turn the dough onto a lightly oiled surface, and divide into 12 equal pieces. (For larger pretzels, divide into 8 pieces.) Gently roll out each piece of dough into an 18-24 inch rope. (Do not tear or force the dough to lengthen. If it refuses to give, let it rest under a damp dishtowel for a few minutes before giving it another try.) To shape the pretzels, make a U with each rope, twist the arms around each other twice, then fold them down onto the bottom of the U. Place on the oiled sheet pans, covered with a damp towel.

Place each pretzel, a few at a time, in the boiling water for about 30 seconds. Return to the sheet pan and brush with a mixture of the egg yolk and water. Sprinkle with your favorite pretzel toppings. I used white and black sesame seeds and flaky sea salt.

Bake for 10-11 minutes total for the smaller pretzels, rotating the pans about halfway through. (The larger pretzels will take about 12-14 minutes.)

Enjoy within the next few hours for optimal flavor and texture. Otherwise, store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days. When ready to serve, warm in a 350 degree oven until hot.

*This huge amount of baking soda is not a typo and not something to be skipped in pretzel making. Baking soda alters the pH of water, creating an alkaline solution, which is important for the flavor and browning of pretzels. Traditional Bavarian pretzels are soaked in a lye solution, to achieve that deep mahogany color and unique flavor. Baking soda is easier to come by, less corrosive, and less frightening from a medical perspective, so I’ve opted to use it here. Culinary lye flakes can be ordered online. Do not substitute with Draino!

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