One of my favourite things about my roommate my senior year in university was that we both loved to cook and were both really good at it! We shared so many recipes with each other that year. In fact, we lived right behind the frat house for the Engineering fraternity (and were friends with a lot of Engineering students), so we got the reputation of being the place to go if you wanted a yummy home-cooked meal. We often had guys just showing up on our doorstep, asking “So whatcha got cooking today?” Susanne’s homemade soft pretzels were always a big hit!
Now, you might be wondering what Susanne’s pretzel recipe has to do with Lent. Well, in earlier times, Roman Christians (of about the 4th century) observed a much stricter fast during Lent than we do now. They were prohibited from having milk, butter, cheese, eggs, meat, cream, and sugar. They used the ingredients that were left to them to make individual breads and shaped them into something resembling a person’s arms as they are crossed in prayer to remind them of what Lent was all about.
Monks later revived this custom and introduced these breads to more northern countries. The Romans had named these breads bracallae which means “little arms”. The Germans turned this into the word bretzel and from there we get our term pretzel.
1 pkg. yeast
1 1/4 cups warm water
4-5 cups flour
2 tsp. salt
butter (I know, I know. The early Lenten observers didn’t use butter but I really find this really does add a nice glossiness and taste to the pretzels as well as is the best thing I know of to keep the pretzels from sticking to the baking sheet).
4 tsp. baking soda
kosher salt (or some other coarse salt)
Instructions: Dissolve the yeast in the 1/4 cup of warm water. Once dissolved, add the rest of the water. Mix 4 cups of flour with the 2 tsp. salt and add the yeast/water mixture. Mix this together adding more flour as needed to make a stiff dough. Knead this for about 10 minutes until the dough is elastic. Form the dough into a ball and coat it with butter. Put this in an oven safe bowl, cover with a moist dish towel and place in a warm oven to rise for 45 minutes.
Note: you want your oven set on the lowest possible setting OR you can turn the oven on for a while and then turn it off and place the dough in the still-warm oven. You might have other warm locations in your home that are suitable for allowing the dough to rise as well. When I lived in a dorm at school, I would use the radiator as my spot for allowing dough to rise.
Once the dough has risen, it’s time to shape your pretzels. I pull off a small ball of dough and use my hands to roll it out like a snake. (Think back to when you played with play dough!). Once you have your snake (not too thin – you want a decent sized pretzel), I find it easiest to lay it down in front of me and hold an end in each hand. I cross my hands over each other to form the pretzel shape. Believe me, the first time I tried to make them, I felt kind of clumsy on my first pretzel but you get the hang of it really quickly. It can be a good idea to look at a pretzel or a picture of one to have a visual in front of you when you try to make the first one. The following video shows how to shape pretzels but she does it slightly differently than I ever did. She adds a twist to it (as do most pretzel makers) whereas mine were always more just crossed over each other rather than twisting first. If you find that the pretzels aren’t holding together too well, you can dip your finger into water and use that to “glue” the pretzel together at the points at which the dough meets.
Get a large stock pot filled with water up to a boil. Add the baking soda to the boiling water and drop pretzels into it. Don’t crowd the pot. You’ll know the pretzel is done (for this stage) when it floats. Sprinkle with or dip each pretzel top into the coarse salt and place on a buttered baking sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes.
We used to go to a Swiss Colony store in the local mall and buy port wine cheddar cheese spread to smear on these pretzels and it was soooooo good. It was even better to do when they were still warm from the oven. Some people prefer to have theirs with mustard or cream cheese (plain or flavoured). Wish I could find that cheese spread up here in Canada (sighing wistfully).