Bavarian Soft Pretzels

After moving from New York City to Innsbruck, I've had to let go of a few things.  First and foremost, my iced coffee.  In Germany, when I asked for an 'iced coffee', the waiter thought I meant 'eis kaffee' (a coffee ice cream shake).  People just don't do iced coffees here... I guess it's so common in America because there is an abundance of ICE...  and Americans LOVE their ice.  However, in Europe, ice seems to be kind of a nuisance - but that's another story... 

Second, I've given up my everything bagels for brez'n.  Also known as pretzels, these little bad boys have been around for ages...  the Middle Ages, in fact.   Sources vary in the actual location, (Germany, France, or Italy), but they all agree that these were invented in a monestary by monks.  In 610 AD, an Italian monk invented pretzels as a reward for children who learned their prayers.  The strips of dough are crossed resembling arms crossing the chest.  In Germany, pretzels may have been created by bakers who were held hostage by dignitaries... or in response to a ban on heathan symbols on baked goods, like the sun cross.  

Within the Catholic Church, the pretzel was lauded for their religious significance.  Made of only flour and water, pretzels could be eaten during Lent.  Because of their unique shape, they were symbols of good luck and spiritual wholeness.  The three holes created a three-pronged shape relating to the Holy Trinity.  By the 12th-century, pretzels were used as the emblem for bakers and their guilds in Southern Germany.  In 1185, perhaps the first illustration of the pretzel... at a banquet of Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus...appeared in the Hortus Delicarum, the first encyclopedia written by a woman.

12th century Hortus deliciarum   [Credit: Wiki]

Pretzels were so popular that they became integrated into the Christian faith.  They hung on Christmas trees in Austria,  they were worn around the necks of young children, parents would hide pretzels on Easter for their children to find, and pretzels were used like wishbones in marriage ceremonies (the larger half would bring the couple luck).

It wasn't until the 1700s, that German immigrants and Swiss-German immigrants, later known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, brought pretzels to America.   Soft pretzels caught on like a house on fire... due mostly to the new mass production methods as a result of the industrialized age. Pretzels were everywhere - at schools, convenience and grocery stores, and entertainment venues such as movie theaters, arenas, concert halls, sport stadiums, and even, in the the mid-1400s, the first street vendors started selling pretzels on street corners (Some things never change!).

Pennsylvania produces 80% of the pretzels made in America.  The average American eats two pounds of pretzels each year, while the average Pennsylvanian can eat up to twelve pounds a year.  I rarely ate pretzels back home (so two pounds seems a bit much for me)... but here in Austria, where at one point we had pretzels every morning (thank goodness THAT carb fest is over!), a few pounds a year is quite possible!

So, every now and then I crave that just-out-of-the-oven pretzel... and other than waking up at the crack of dawn and trekking to our lovely Ruetz bakery, I think my oven will do just fine.  Ruetz comes from a 110 year long line of bakers... so they know their stuff.  But there's something about making a batch on your own... seeing and mixing all of the stuff that goes in... and tasting something (hopefully, amazing) in the end.  

I've tried a half dozen recipes, (all of which my husband liked) but I just found each previous batch not quite right.  I decided to give it a go with a recipe from Jo Cooks.  She called it the 'World's Greatest Soft Pretzel', so it's just got to be good, right? 

I followed Jo's recipe pretty closely.  My only deviation was that I used 1/3 C of baking soda instead of 5 tablespoons.  That's it.

And, I finally got a nice color on the outside, a soft crumb on the inside, and a slight crackle when you bit into the crust (not all soft from the bite to the chew).  The double brush with butter makes these pretzels extra tasty.

These pretzels are a win-win... my husband likes them and I like them too!  This will be my official pretzel recipe.  Thanks, Jo!

Well, if you don't have time to make some on your own... and you live in NYC... you can go to one of these highly rated pretzel establishments.  Make sure to go on April 26th when it's National PRETZEL Day!!

If you crave more than just a pretzel, grab a date and go to Kurt Guntenbrunner's restaurant, Blaue Gans, in Tribeca for some weisswurst to go with that pretzel.  And, have a beer for us!

guten Appetit!!


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