The perfect homemade soft pretzel: the research continues

perfect homemade soft pretzel

The nice folks at King Arthur Flour, in their most recent catalog, posted a recipe for pretzel sandwich buns.  I made them, and they were very nice, but I thought: well, why sandwich buns? Why can’t I make nice soft pretzels at home?

I can, as it turns out.

But not a single batch has turned out perfectly yet. Some have a nice sourdough flavor, but lack consistency. Some are too bready. Some are too tough.

I’ve made at least four batches so far. They’re all good, but none has been perfect.

I’m still working on it.

Here’s the best version so far:

Combine –

  • 2 cups flour (white, or a mix of white and whole-wheat)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 T instant dry yeast
  • 1 T butter
  • A scant cup of warm water
  • A pinch of sugar, or a scant teaspoon of honey

Mix, and knead for at least five minutes, using enough extra flour to make a nice smooth non-sticky dough. Put down in a greased bowl, covered with a dampened cloth, in a quiet place, for at least an hour (preferably more), until the dough has doubled. (A longer rise gives a yeastier flavor, which I like.)

Punch down the dough, divide into eight pieces, and roll each into a long rope about 15 inches long. Tie into a pretzel shape. Here’s a video to show you how:

(You can tie a double knot too. But practice a bit first.)

Place your eight pretzel children on a greased surface, cover with a dampened cloth for 15-30 minutes, and let them rest. While that’s going on, prepare for the end of the process as follows:

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  • Prepare a water bath: a saucepan with about a quart of water and about ¼ cup baking soda, heated to boiling.
  • Also break an egg into a large bowl and beat it.
  • Also line a baking sheet with parchment paper, or (second best) grease a baking sheet heavily.

Carefully drop your unbaked pretzels one or two at a time (depending on the size of your saucepan) into the boiling-water bath. Flip after 30 seconds or so. Take out of the boiling water after a minute.

Let the boiled pretzels rest for a few seconds. Give them a bath in the beaten egg (both sides), place them on the baking sheet, and dust them with coarse salt. (Coarse sea salt is inexpensive and easily available, at least locally.)

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden-brown.

Cool, and serve with butter or mustard. If there are any left the next day, reheat them in the microwave for (literally) ten seconds or so, and they’ll be almost like new.

Still not perfect, I know. Something’s missing.

But I’ll figure it out. I’ve got lots of time on my hands.

Barilla pasta, homophobia, and my recipe for faux Fettucine Alfredo


The CEO of Barilla Pasta, last week, made some very angry remarks about gay marriage, and said that he would never allow gay couples to appear in advertisements for his pasta. I paraphrase: “If people don’t like it, they can just buy another brand of pasta.”

Is he seriously out of his mind?

How many brands of pasta are there? I can think of six without stretching my brain too far. I generally buy what’s on sale, or what’s cheap, because – let’s face it – there’s not much difference. De Cecco is excellent (Mia Farrow and I agree on that); if I see it on sale, I buy it immediately, because it’s very certainly better than any other brand.

But is Barilla really better than Prince, or Bertolli, or Buitoni, or store brand, or Ronzoni, or anything else? Not really. Pasta is pasta, and I don’t need to buy pasta from a homophobe.

(Notes: the CEO of Barilla has sort of apologized, now that he’s realized how stupid he was. Also, other brands – like Buitoni and San Remo – have welcomed gay people to eat their pasta. Here’s a recent Buitoni advertisement:)


Now: who wants fettucine Alfredo a la Futureworld?

–         Cook 1 lb pasta (preferably fettucine, but any other pasta will do, so long as it’s not anything made by Barilla) al dente. Drain.

–         While cooking the pasta, mix up the following:

  • ½ – ¾ cup ricotta cheese
  • ½ cup Parmesan cheese
  • 1 egg
  • 2 T prepared chopped garlic (sold in jars)
  • 2 T dried (or, better yet, fresh) parsley
  • Salt and pepper

–         Add ½ cheese mixture to empty saucepan over medium heat. Stir for a minute or two. Add pasta slowly, still stirring. Add remaining ½ cheese mixture. Taste, and correct salt / pepper / Parmesan / garlic.

–         Enjoy, with warm Italian bread and maybe a little extra Parmesan.

–         (And don’t buy Bertolli.)

For Bloomsday: Stracotto di maccheroni


Today is Bloomsday: June 16, the day upon which James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses” takes place (in the year 1904). Joyce fans and scholars celebrate the day by reading aloud, and dressing up, and doing all kinds of odd things.



This recipe I discovered on Facebook, in a nice blog called “Paper and Salt.” It was (evidently) one of Joyce’s preferred dishes, which he first tasted while living in Trieste. He asked his wife Nora (nee Barnacle) to cook it for him, in a letter to her: “I would like roast beef, rice-soup, capuzzi garbi, mashed potatoes, pudding and black coffee. No, no I would like stracotto di maccheroni, a mixed salad, stewed prunes, torroni, tea and presnitz. Or no I would like stewed eels or polenta with… Excuse me, dear, I am hungry tonight.”



(I find upon research that most of the Italian recipes for stracotto call for more interesting and exotic spices, like cinnamon. Partner doesn’t like beef with cinnamon, so, if/when I make this, I’ll make the version below – probably in a slow-cooker (except for the rigatoni):



2 pounds boneless chuck roast
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 large onions, finely chopped
2 carrots, in 1-inch pieces
2 celery ribs, in 1-inch pieces
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup red wine
2 cups beef or veal stock
1 can (14 ounces) crushed tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 bay leaves
1/2 teapoon red chili flakes
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 pound dry rigatoni
Grated parmesan, to taste



1. Pat roast dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. In a large pot over medium heat, add 1 teaspoon oil until hot but not smoking. Add meat and brown on both sides, about 12 minutes total. Transfer to a platter and set aside.



2. To the same pot, add remaining 1 tablespoon oil and onion, carrot, celery and garlic. Sauté over moderately high heat until softened and golden, about 5 minutes. Add wine, stock, tomatoes, thyme, oregano, bay leaves, and chili flakes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low.



3. Return roast with any juices on platter to pot and cover. Braise, turning over once every 30 minutes, until tender enough to shred with a fork, about 3 hours. Add additional wine as needed, if sauce reduces too much.



4. Transfer meat to a cutting board and allow to cool slightly. Meanwhile, discard bay leaves from sauce and, using an immersion blender, purée sauce until texture is thick and even. Cut meat into 2-inch chunks, then shred with 2 forks. Return shredded meat to sauce, and season with salt and pepper.



5. Cook rigatoni in a pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of pasta water. Stir water into sauce, then add pasta and stir to coat. Top with grated cheese.


For Sunday: Edward Abbey’s recipe for Hardcase Survival Pinto Bean Sludge


I have not posted a recipe for yonks.  This is because I haven’t found or cooked anything really new or interesting.

This recipe (which is from the fabulous website Letters of Note) is a little exceptional. It answers the question: What does a penniless curmudgeon loner poet cook for himself while living in the American Southwest?

I’ve never prepared this recipe. It sort of fascinates me, however, and I think I may someday make a scaled-down version of it, minus the tennis shoes and saddle blankets.

1. Take one fifty-pound sack Colorado pinto beans. Remove stones, cockleburs, horseshit, ants, lizards, etc. Wash in clear cold crick water. Soak for twenty-four hours in iron kettle or earthenware cooking pot. (DO NOT USE TEFLON, ALUMINUM OR PYREX CONTAINER. THIS WARNING CANNOT BE OVERSTRESSED.)


2. Place kettle or pot with entire fifty lbs. of pinto beans on low fire and simmer for twenty-four hours. (DO NOT POUR OFF WATER IN WHICH BEANS HAVE BEEN IMMERSED. THIS IS IMPORTANT.) Fire must be of juniper, pinyon pine, mesquite or ironwood; other fuels tend to modify the subtle flavor and delicate aroma of Pinto Bean Sludge.






5. After simmering on low fire for twenty-four hours, add one gallon green chile peppers. Stir vigorously. Add one quart natural (non-iodized) pure sea salt. Add black pepper. Stir some more and throw in additional flavoring materials, as desired, such as old bacon rinds, corncobs, salt pork, hog jowls, kidney stones, ham hocks, sowbelly, saddle blankets, jungle boots, worn-out tennis shoes, cinch straps, whatnot, use your own judgment. Simmer an additional twenty-four hours.


6. Now ladle as many servings as desired from pot but do not remove pot from fire. Allow to simmer continuously for hours, days or weeks if necessary, until all contents have been thoroughly consumed. Continue to stir vigorously, whenever in vicinity or whenever you think of it.


7. Serve Pinto Bean Sludge on large flat stones or on any convenient fairly level surface. Garnish liberally with parsley flakes. Slather generously with raw ketchup. Sprinkle with endive, anchovy crumbs and boiled cruets and eat hearty.


8. One potful Pinto Bean Sludge, as above specified, will feed one poet for two full weeks at a cost of about $11.45 at current prices. Annual costs less than $300.


9. The philosopher Pythagoras found flatulence incompatible with meditation and therefore urged his followers not to eat beans. I have found, however, that custom and thorough cooking will alleviate this problem.

The truffle crisis


As you may or may not know, there is a truffle crisis in Europe.



The European black truffle, Tuber melanosporum, is cherished by gastronomes everywhere. It has an indescribable flavor and aroma. It is rare and cannot be cultivated easily. It is hunted by dogs and pigs, which dig them up, but which are not allowed to eat them. (Apollonia tells me that the pigs are given acorns as a reward. Do you call that justice?) It grows symbiotically with the roots of certain trees, usually the oak.



(There are also white truffles (Tuber magnatum), and pecan truffles, and Oregon truffles. Go read about them on Wikipedia.)



The European truffle crop has been much smaller lately, partly due to climate change. Given how much demand there is for them, this is a problem.



There are also Chinese truffles (Tuber himalayensis / Tuber indicus). They grow much more easily than their European cousins. They have little or no flavor. They are being brought to Europe, and mixed in with European truffles, the way cocaine dealers mix flour or sugar in with their product.



Also: the spores of the Chinese truffle are beginning to escape into the local environment, and Chinese truffles are now growing in Europe. It is feared that, like kudzu, the Chinese truffle will crowd out the aristrocratic European varieties.



(I have never knowingly tasted a truffle. I think I’ve had things with truffles in them, but I have no clear recollection. Apollonia tells me that her Italian relatives have whole rooms full of them, and eat them like apples, but I am never sure how much faith to put in her little stories.)



I have given before the recipe for salade Rossini.  I have never made it. Perhaps I never will. But I like reading (and thinking about) the recipe:



·       Potatoes cooked in chicken stock;

·       Mussels (a third less than the potatoes);

·       “As many truffles as the budget will allow, sliced and cooked in champagne”;

·       A nice fruity vinegar and olive oil and salt and pepper and some tarragon over all. 



It sounds delicious.



Children: don’t allow the Chinese truffle to ruin our imaginary salade Rossini. Insist on the black European truffle.



Western culture depends upon it.



For Saint Patrick’s Day: Irish soda bread, my way


I started making this a few years ago.  I’m not Irish, but Partner is one-half Irish, and he and I have been to the Auld Sod together, and we had a wonderful time there. 



I try to be a good wife, and it’s a traditional recipe, so –



But the original recipe is dry and uninteresting.  So I livened it up.  (Speaking of lively: you should hear my friends Apollonia and Cathleen go at it over whether or not to include caraway seeds.)



The result: Partner’s godmother’s sister, a full-blooded Irish-American, judged my version “the best Irish soda bread she’d ever tasted.”



(I’ve changed the recipe so much, it barely resembles the original.  But at least it still has some baking soda in it.)





For one loaf (recipe can easily be doubled and divided into two loaves):

        Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

        Sift together two cups flour, ½ tablespoon baking soda, a pinch of salt, and six tablespoons of sugar. 

        Add 1/3 cup shortening (or a bit more) to the flour mixture and blend with a fork until thoroughly mixed (it should look mealy and grainy when it’s ready).

        Add at least 2/3 cup raisins, or golden raisins, or dried cranberries, or even chopped prunes, along with ½ cup cold milk and a teaspoon of caraway seeds.  (I like them; some people don’t.  See the above comment re Apollonia and Cathleen.)

        Mix, but don’t overdo it, or the dough will toughen.

        Roll out on a floured surface into a round loaf.  Make a big X on top of the loaf with a sharp knife, and sprinkle the top heavily with sugar.  (You might even want to drizzle some honey on top.  Not too much.)

        Bake on a parchment-paper lined sheet for 20-25 minutes, until it’s lightly browned and sounds hollow when you tap on it.

        Wrap in a tea towel when you take it out of the oven. (I don’t know why, but my original recipe calls for this, and I always do it, and I think it’s cute.)

        Cool before serving.




And think of me as you enjoy it.


The pioneer way


The other day I found myself thinking about homemade baked goods.  So, that evening, after half an hour on the treadmill at the Boston Sports Club, I popped down to the supermarket and bought a pack of Betty Crocker Rainbow Chocolate Candy Cookie Mix.  Approximately forty-five minutes later, Partner and I were sharing a nice plate of warm homemade cookies.



Yes, I know, “homemade” is one thing, and “from scratch” is another.  I do lots of baking from scratch: pancakes, banana bread, real homebaked bread, pies, pound cake, genoise, fruitcake.  But sometimes I just want it quickly, and I don’t want to fool around.



I am just WASPy enough to feel vaguely guilty about this.  My grandmother, after all, was a Washington Pioneer, born in Washington Territory six months before statehood in 1889.  Grandma grew up in a shack, and did everything from scratch, or not at all.  


Even when I bake “from scratch,” I still use an electric oven.  I don’t fire up a wood-burning stove.  I don’t gather eggs from the backyard, or churn my own butter.  I don’t have the right ingredients to capture the distinctive flavor of the Betty Crocker Rainbow Chocolate Candy Cookie, like carnauba wax and soy lecithin and beeswax.  (I kid you not, they’re listed right there on the packet.)



I do not think Grandma Williams brewed up her own carnauba wax.  Her cookies were very good nonetheless.



Would Grandma have turned up her nose at my instant quickie cookie-dough mix? I think not.  She did not, after all, turn up her nose at electricity and automobiles and indoor plumbing when they came along.  She was very conscious of time-saving and labor-saving devices; she had eleven kids, and she seemed always to have a house full of people, all of whom expected to be fed on schedule.



She needed all the help she could get.



As do I.



So: Grandma Williams and I are both pioneer women in our way, aren’t we?




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