Step 9: bake pretzels

On Wednesday we baked pretzels. I’ve made homemade pretzels before, so you wouldn’t think this would be particularly challenging, but I managed to make it really complicated somehow.

First, a disclaimer. In the real world, you should make pretzels approximately 20 seconds before you plan to serve them. Within a few days, they’re excellent, but warm right out of the oven, they’re frigging awesome. However, smørgåsbord day is always a frenzied chaotic storm of last-minute preparations–putting out decorations, arranging foods on the table, and preparing the foods that must be served absolutely fresh. Notably the Norwegian meatballs are a reliable source of at least 90 minutes of tension; if they don’t set off the smoke alarm and alert the ADT monitoring office, they at least make a giant mess, and after that you have to gather your wits somehow to gather the drippings, make beef broth, make roux, not scald yourself, and get a gravy together, all while last-minute RSVPers are calling to say they’re coming or not and bringing someone else or not.

Another comment on RSVPing: yes, it’s good to RSVP, especially when asked, and more especially when nagged about it in a blog like mine, but what’s the point of RSVPing the day of? No extra shopping, cooking, cleaning, or dish-purchasing will be done on the day of. Just show up and give your hosts an extra-enthusiastic kiss, please. When you call the day of, you’re likely to get frenzied freakazoids who are worried that if the conversation lasts one more sentence, meatball burning, roux scalding, or gløgg boiling will occur. Or whatever it is that your hosts are doing (we realize that although smørgåsbords are the best possible party, many people throw parties that lack a smørgåsbord theme). At any rate, the company of your pleasure is very much desired, and please come even if you haven’t RSVPed (unless it’s a dinner party and there’s a chance of exactly the wrong number of something-or-others being prepared), but don’t call. We’re busy. They’re busy. All hosts are busy the day of, or else they have a lot of hired help and professional caterers and the party won’t be any fun anyway.

Okay, I guess that wasn’t a comment, it was a rant. What do you expect? This is a blog!

Now let’s discuss those pretzels. The wonderful German cuisine for Americans cookbook that V got me for Christmas, Spoonfuls of Germany by Nadia Hassani, Hippocrene: New York, 2004 (which can be purchased here) is a nice collection of recipes, and the commentary and diagrams are nice, but it has some problems. First, the index lists only the translated names of foods, so if you want to make Knödel, you’ll have to figure out whether that’s filed under potatoes, dumplings, globs, blobs, starchy units, or whatever. Good luck. We haven’t actually found them yet. Another problem is that it wasn’t proofread very well, so for example, their recipe for spätzle calls for “soda water,” without specifying whether that means seltzer water/club soda or water with baking soda dissolved in it. She also is weak on the principles of baking, so if you’ve never baked and have her cookbook, just go ahead and follow her directions and you’ll probably get lucky, but if you are an experienced baker, please substitute your own knowledge where needed and consider her recipes to be serving suggestions.

About those spätzle: we were planning to make a double batch of them tonight, but we ran into our wonderful friends Noel and Ayse at our other wonderful friends’ David and Arlene’s befana tonight, and Noel promised to make Rotkohl and Spätzle. I explained that I’d already made a massive batch of Rotkohl (see later post), so he’s making a quadruple batch of Spätzle and we’re not, so it doesn’t matter that we don’t know whether to use baking soda or seltzer. (Vielen Dank, Noel!)

So anyway, Frl. Nadia’s pretzel recipe is hella confusing. She calls for 1 oz of fresh (cake) yeast, or 2 (1/4 oz) envelopes of active dry yeast. We have the little jar of Fleischmann’s, which says 2-1/4 tsp equals one package active, or RapidRise Yeast (1/4 oz) = 1 cake fresh yeast. So how the hell much of this shit are we supposed to use?! Well, whatever–but be sure to dissolve it in water that’s around 110 degrees F, and don’t trust V’s senses of this. Add salt. She calls for 1 tsp, which seems wrong, and I’m sextupling, see below, so it’s a healthy slug of salt in my version.

Moreover, her recipe makes 10 pretzels, which is almost enough for one person. We have invited almost 200 people, and probably 60-80 will show up. So we needed a sextuple recipe, and if we cut the pretzels, we might run out before half the guests have arrived. So if you don’t know how much yeast to use in the first place, and you need to make a sextuple recipe, and you sextuple the liquid but for some reason after immensely complicated algebra you only triple the yeast, and in metric at that (don’t ask), it all gets rather confusing. Meanwhile, if you’ve ever known Jane, you are likely to substitute whole wheat flour for at least half of the white flour in the recipe. This, however, changes the moisture requirements of a recipe. Note that in managing your moisture supplies, which are a sextuple batch of warm water and a I-don’t-know-uple of yeast.

Fire up Kitchen-Aid mixer! Put the yeasty mess in the bowl. Gradually add flours–to each 1-1/3 cup of yeasty mess, add about 3 C of whole wheat flour and 2 C unbleached white flour. Mix until it comes off the sides of the bowl yada yada yada. Knead. Cover with a moist towel and let rise 2 hours.

Go off and catch up on blogging step 6. Come back and dissolve 6 tsp baking soda in a big ass pot of hot water, bring to a boil. Get your oven preheating to 425 F. Briefly knead a whunk of the dough, roll into snakes about 1/2″ in diameter, and pull off 12″ snakes to make each pretzel. Make a loop, twist twice, flip upside-down, and fold the ends over, pinch, and plop onto a greased cookie sheet. Get a dozen or so ready on the sheet, cover with the moistened cloth, and move on to the next sheet. At some point, get V involved in the snakerating, and start this process, which should be familiar to those who have made bagels: drop the pretzels several at a time into the water to boil for 20-30 seconds or until they float, then fish out with a leaky ladle (Barbara Tropp’s name for the Chinese net spoon; Nadia calls for a slotted spoon–once again, whatever). Plop back on the greased sheet. When you finish up a sheet, sprinkle the pretzels with kosher salt.

If you’ve been ranted at about cooking by me before, you know that I believe kosher salt is a necessity in any kitchen. Uniodized sea salts are optional, kosher is mandatory, and iodized table salt gets the Barbara Tropp skull-and-crossbones treatment.

Slide into the oven and bake 25 minutes or until brown and crisp. Serve at once. Or store in Tupperware and serve on Sunday. If you do serve at once, butter’s a nice touch.