I’m so excited to be participating in Baked Sunday Mornings because it’s challenging me to try recipes that a) I might overlook, b) I plan to make at some point, but haven’t materialized yet, or c) I have avoided because they seem intimidating. In this case, it’s the latter; I’ve never tried making homemade soft pretzels before because I’m a little daunted by baking with yeast, though it’s something that’s been on my radar for a while. So this was a perfect opportunity to expand my repertoire!
There are few treats that rival a good soft pretzel when you want something sweet, but not too sugary. I love the crisp, golden outside and the soft, pillowy inside, especially warm…. mmmm. Add a dipping sauce or two, and it’s pretty tough to beat, especially since you can argue that pretzels could constitute an actual meal, not just dessert! (Surely I can’t be the only one who could justify that, right?!… *crickets*)
When I visited BAKED in June, I had the pleasure of trying one of their whole-wheat pretzels, and it did not disappoint. I can’t remember the exact toppings (garlic and basil maybe?), but it was definitely savory and was served with a cheese dipping sauce. I was delighted to find their pretzel recipe in the new BAKED Elements book, and even more delighted that it’s a sweet version topped with cinnamon-sugar!
So what makes a soft pretzel different than baked bread? Like bagels and unlike other breads, pretzels are boiled briefly in a baking soda bath before baking. There are two main reasons for this:
- The act of boiling in water sets the crust on the pretzels before they go in the oven, and it creates their characteristic dense chewiness
- The chemical reaction with acidic baking soda promotes the crust’s browning, shine, and pretzel-y flavor
Essentially, the pre-baking bath is instrumental in making a pretzel, a pretzel. (How’s that for scientific analysis?!) Without boiling, the pretzels would come out of the oven looking grayish and pasty, and lacking the trademark texture and flavor of soft pretzels.
One thing I appreciate about BAKED’s pretzel recipe is that it is highly customizable. Whenever I bake anything new, I’m always thinking, “How can I change it up?” or “What kinds of variations would work with this recipe?” The dough itself is not very sweet; it’s the toppings that tip these pretzels to the sweet or savory realm. The book gives topping suggestions besides cinnamon-sugar, so of course I had to play. In addition to cinnamon-sugar, I topped some of my pretzels with grated Asiago and Parmegiano-Reggiano cheeses (¼ cup each for half the batch), as well as a few with ground chocolate-sugar (comes in a grinder from Trader Joe’s). I also decided to make mine a little smaller than directed… ’cause who doesn’t want more pretzels?!
As a novice pretzel baker, I found that the dough was extremely easy to make and handle. As I mentioned, I’m a bit intimidated by yeast and rarely use it, so I was delighted when my yeast mixture foamed up beautifully and the dough did, in fact, double in size as predicted. I was unsure about how long to mix the dough– the recipe simply says to mix with the dough hook until it pulls away from the sides of the mixer bowl and becomes elastic. My limited experience with yeast doughs told me that it generally takes a while to achieve the proper consistency, but the pretzel dough barely took a couple minutes to come together, so I was hesitant to stop the mixer so soon. I took the risk, and fortunately my dough was lovely, which was a pleasant surprise. The book says that it may take new pretzel bakers a while to get the hang of rolling and shaping the dough, so I was a little apprehensive about this as well; but again, it was surprisingly easy and quite fun. My petite pretzels were rather adorable, methinks!
I baked half of the batch at 475ºF as directed, which I topped with melted butter and the cinnamon-sugar mixture. They were quite dark after 8 minutes, so I tried the second half (topped with the shredded cheeses) at 450ºF. I also made a few pretzel “bites”, which I garnished with the chocolate-sugar topping. I was very pleased with how they all looked, especially the cheese pretzels. I also liked the texture a little better on these; without compromising the chewy crust, the lower baking temperature (for 9-10 minutes) kept the interior of the pretzels slightly fluffier.
I was so giddy waiting to taste the pretzels while I took my photos! When finally it was time to sample the wares, my reactions were mixed. My favorite by far were the cheese pretzels– the dough and topping complement each other perfectly. Unfortunately, I felt that the pretzel was too salty/savory for the sweet toppings. The cinnamon-sugar pretzels were tasty, but I think they would reach a new level of pretzel heaven if the dough was a little sweeter. The topping, however, was delicious, especially with the hint of fresh nutmeg. I didn’t care for the chocolate-sugar topping at all, so I won’t use that again, but the bite-sized pretzels are darling and worthy of further topping exploration. Really, the dough is so easy to work with that you could make it into all sorts of fun shapes and sizes.
Check out Baked Sunday Mornings for the Whole-Wheat Cinnamon Sugar Pretzels recipe and see what the other bakers are up to! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have pretzels to stuff in my mouth.
UPDATE: The pretzels were very tasty on the day of baking, but 1-2 days later, their appearance, texture, and flavor had significantly declined. These are definitely to be eaten right away for best quality. Next time, I’m going to freeze a few to see if they can be stored that way and revived to freshness!