6-year-old me once took dance lessons at a studio that also happened to house a German bakery. And every week, after my final pirouette, I would go there with Mom and pick out a pretzel ball. They were wonderful, wholesome treats. I loved breaking the firm outer crust to reveal the soft, white interior. I usually ate this part first, hollowing out the inside, saving the salty crust for last. Sadly, that bakery is no longer there. But luckily, my love for pretzels is.

Today, they are my go-to snack, the satisfying handful of crunch that always fills my need for a savory fix. However, I also like them sweet, dipped into Pillsbury rainbow chip icing. Strange I know, but I’ve been hooked on it since an 8th grade slumber party. I like them hard, I like them soft. Shaped like Mickey Mouse in Disneyland or the trademark twist at a baseball game. Filled with sweet cream cheese or jalapeno. For every mood or occasion, there is a pretzel to go with it.

I thought I had experienced everything the pretzel had to offer. Then I discovered homemade rye pretzels. And they are not only tasty, but healthy too. Rye flour retains a large amount of nutrients in comparison to wheat flour. It’s high fiber content supports weight loss and the grain contains lignan, which protects against cardiovascular disease. Rye is also an especially good dietary choice for women, especially older women who may be experiencing menopausal symptoms. The lignan in rye has phytoestrogens, which can help ease symptoms such as hot flashes and may inhibit osteoporosis.

And did you know that pretzels have been around for centuries? The first evidence comes to us direct from 610 A.D. Legend has it that a monk with a little extra time on his hands started forming leftover dough into different shapes. One happened to look like a child’s arms crossed in prayer. He baked them and, voilà, “pretiolas.” These “little rewards” were then used as incentives for children to remain reverent in church. And now, with a little effort, you can reward yourself too.

The pretzel process has a bit of a “twist” (oh please forgive me for that pun), but it’s nothing a night in the kitchen with a little time can’t tackle. You begin by mixing your dough, similar to how you would start a bread recipe. Next comes the kneading. And the kneading. And the kneading. 12 – 15 minutes straight of it. The dough needs the extra work in order to reach a smooth consistency.

After the dough has a chance to rise, you divide it, hand-rolling each of the 12 pieces into a 16 inch rope. Make sure to cover your dough with Saran wrap to prevent moisture loss while shaping. Once your pretzels are twisted and resting, it’s time to whip out that pot and get boiling.

In case you’ve been wondering, this is why pretzels have that dark and shiny crust. But it’s not boiled water alone that performs this act; baking soda is the key, secret ingredient. The addition of baking soda adds alkaline to the water, which in turn coats the pretzel, allowing them to brown quickly at the lower baking temperature needed to maintain their chewy center.

Poaching was my favorite part of making pretzels. With it comes a wonderful sense of anticipation as you gently lower the pretzels into their fizzy bath, knot side down, and quickly set the timer to 30 seconds. With a slotted spoon in hand you wait, watching the timer. Once it beeps you flip quickly and set for an additional 30 seconds. Then its out of the water and onto a towel-lined baking sheet to drain.

The pretzels are transferred to buttered baking sheets, sprinkled with salt and popped in the oven for 15 minutes or so. Once done, they will perform their final trick; they disappear.

~Brittni

Rye Pretzels
Adapted from Pete Wells of the New York Times

These pretzels possess a wonderful, grainy texture and taste. The rye flavor is not too strong, just enough to add a hint of tang. It makes you stop and think, “Hmmm, there’s something different about this pretzel.” I recommend using a dark rye flour, but you can substitute whole grain as well. They are best eaten warm, straight from the oven but will keep for a few days if stored in an air-tight container.

You will need:
1 (1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast
1 tablespoon honey
1 cup whole-grain or dark rye flour
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus more for serving
1/2 cup baking soda
Coarse sea salt, for sprinkling
Mustard, for serving.

Directions:

Combine 1½ cups lukewarm water (110 to 115 degrees), yeast and honey in a large bowl; stir to combine. Add the rye flour, 2¾ cups all-purpose flour and kosher salt; stir again.

Dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead for 12 to 15 minutes, adding up to ¼ cup all-purpose flour if needed, until the dough is soft and smooth but not sticky. (Tip: to prevent dough from sticking to hands, rub a small amount of melted butter or vegetable oil on them.)

Lightly brush a large bowl with some of the melted butter. Shape the dough into a ball, seam side down, and transfer to the bowl; brush the surface of the dough with melted butter, cover with plastic wrap or a towel and let rise in a warm spot for up to 90 minutes, or until doubled in size.

Lightly brush two parchment-lined baking sheets with butter. Punch down the dough and place on a lightly floured surface. Cut into 12 pieces. With your hands, roll one piece into a snake with thinly tapered ends, about 16 inches long. (Cover remaining pieces with plastic wrap while working.) Transfer to prepared baking sheet, looping one end, then the other, over the midpoint of the roll, making a pretzel shape. Repeat with remaining dough. Let the pretzels rest 15 to 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees, placing two racks in and above the center of the oven. Meanwhile, bring 10 cups water to a boil in a large pot. When the pretzels are ready, stir the baking soda into the boiling water. (Note: if you double the recipe, make a fresh pot of the baking-soda wash for each batch.) Gently lift 2 or 3 pretzels, depending on the surface area of your pot, and slide them into the bath, knot side down. Poach for 30 seconds, turn them over and poach 30 seconds more. Using a long-handled mesh strainer, transfer the pretzels to a kitchen-towel-lined sheet tray to drain, then return them to the prepared baking sheets. Sprinkle freely with sea salt. Repeat with remaining pretzels.

Bake for 14 to 18 minutes, turning the trays halfway through, until dark brown. Transfer to a cooling rack until just cool enough to eat. Brush the tops with melted butter, if you like. Serve with mustard.

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