Sourdough Soft Pretzels

I think it took me a little longer to fall into the sourdough-everything craze than it did some people, but that could be because I’ve been nurturing a little starter for some time now. Left with a bit of discard, though, from a (semi)weekly bake of my standard sourdough loaves, I decided to branch out from pancakes, and revisited the humble-but-stellar pretzel. Thus although I don’t have a clever or nostalgia-laced story to offer today, in an effort to get myself back into this blog-thing I supposedly have and considering that we mowed through the first batch of these in about twenty minutes and were already planning a second, they certainly seemed worth sharing!

I’m adapting two recipes here: one from King Arthur Baking Company (have you seen they’ve updated their name?!), and one from Smitten Kitchen, which she in turn adapted from Martha Stewart. The KAF (or, I guess, KABC?) recipe doesn’t include the traditional boiling step, moving their shaped dough straight into the oven after a single rise. I wanted the extra browning and chewy texture the baking soda boil offers (I have neither the materials nor the courage to use food grade lye… at least not yet…), so I used SK’s procedure for that part.

We had our half dozen chewy, slightly tangy results dunked in a beer cheese sauce – a simple, roux-thickened mix of stout, milk, mustard, and cheddar whisked into a smooth, thick cheese gravy,* and, in an attempt to be slightly virtuous, a side of sautéed cabbage.

Enjoy the sequence of pretzel-shaping shots below, featuring N. as my arm-and-hand model (he was also very keen to perfect his technique, so even though I told him he only needed to shape one pretzel while I photographed, he did three of the half dozen we made that night before I pushed him aside – I wanted to play with dough ropes too!).

* cheese gravy sounds weird, I know. But this had more body than just a sauce; it clung thickly to the pretzels and could have made a great macaroni and cheese base. It didn’t have the right ingredients or flavors to be a queso (Tex-Mex) or a fondue (Swiss), so I’m going to embrace the weirdness. Cheese gravy it is.

 

Sourdough Soft Pretzels
Adapted from King Arthur Baking Company and Smitten Kitchen
Makes 12 (but easily halved; I’ve included quantities for both below)
2-3 hours (it will take longer to twist and boil 12 pretzels than it does for 6)

 

For 12:
¾ cup + 2 TB water
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 TB honey
1 cup sourdough starter, unfed / discard
3-3½ cups bread flour
¼ cup milk
1 TB butter
1½ teaspoons salt

 

For 6:
⅜ cup + 1 TB warm water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
½ TB honey
½ cup sourdough starter, unfed / discard
1½-1¾ cups bread flour
2 TB milk
½ TB butter
¾ teaspoons salt

 

For the boil:
water to fill a 12-inch skillet
¼ cup baking soda
2 TB brown sugar

 

To bake:
Coarse salt or pretzel salt

 

  • Combine the yeast, warm water, and honey in a medium bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer). Let them sit for 5-10 minutes, until the mixture is bubbly and smells like bread. Add 1½ cups of the flour, and all of the sourdough starter, milk, butter, and salt.
  • Using the dough hook, knead into a smooth but slightly sticky dough; for me this took about 5 minutes on medium speed. If it really seems like it is too wet (too sticky), add the remaining ¼ cup of flour and knead at least 2 minutes longer.
  • Cover the dough and leave it to rest for 45 minutes, ideally in a warm place. It will only rise a little bit, so don’t be alarmed.
  • Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, then dump and pull your risen dough out onto a lightly floured board. Using a knife or a bench scraper, divide the dough into 12 even lumps (or 6 if you are making a half recipe).
  • Now the part that can seem intimidating: shaping the pretzels. Working with one piece of dough at a time, use your fingers and the palms of your hands to roll the lump or ball of dough into a long, even rope about 18 inches long. Above you can see N. measuring the one he’s working on. Note: too much flour on your board here is not a good thing. You don’t want the rope to stick (as you can see some of ours did), but you do need some friction or the dough will just slide around on the board instead of rolling and elongating.
  • Drape the 18-inch rope into a U shape on your board. Holding each end between your thumb and forefinger, but leaving the bottom of the U on the board, gently cross the left side over the right side about 2 inches from each end. Repeat, again crossing the (new) left side over the (new) right side so you have two twists in your pretzel. Now, again holding one end in each thumb and forefinger, flip the ends down to the bottom of the U shape to form a pretzel. Pinch the points where they intersect with the U a little bit to keep them in place. Gently but quickly, relocate your shaped pretzel to one of the lined baking sheets. Repeat with the remaining dough.
  • When you have twisted all 12 (or all 6) pretzels into shape, stow them in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. This is a pretty soft dough, so plunging them right into the boil might result in disintegration.
  • While the pretzels chill, fill a 12-inch skillet about ¾ of the way with water and bring it to a boil. This is also a good time to preheat the oven to 350F, and to line an additional baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • After at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator, remove the tray(s) of pretzels and set them near the stovetop. Carefully, (carefully!), add the baking soda and brown sugar to the boiling water. There will be a lot of abrupt bubbling and fizzing! Stir gently to disperse and dissolve, then carefully add the pretzels 2 or 3 at a time. I find this should be done gently but with speed, to prevent the dough from stretching out of shape.
  • Let the pretzels boil in the bath for about 30 seconds, then use a strainer or spatula to flip. Boil another 30 seconds on the second side, then carefully, again using the strainer or spatula, remove the pretzels from the water and arrange them with space in between on the empty parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pretzels, letting the water come back to a boil between each batch. They won’t grow too much in the oven, but you don’t want to overcrowd them; I would suggest no more than 4 on each baking sheet unless they are very compact.
  • While the pretzels are still wet from the baking soda bath, sprinkle on some coarse salt or pretzel salt, then slide into the preheated oven and bake 25-30 minutes, until they are deeply golden and have a slightly crisp crust.
  • Remove from the oven and consume, with glee, as soon as they are cool enough to handle (or, if you’re me, a few minutes before that…).

Project Cook: Garden Focaccia

A garden path sentence is one in which the reader is misled, usually by a word or two that function(s) as a different part of speech than the reader expects, making the rest of the sentence seem incomplete or nonsensical when it is in fact grammatically correct. It takes its name from the idiom “to lead [someone] down the garden path”: essentially, to mislead or deceive them.

Here’s an example: “the old man the boat.” We initially see the phrase “the old man” and think that’s the subject of the sentence. Therefore, the ending “the boat” makes the sentence feel incomplete. But when we realize “man” is actually the verb and the subject is “the old,” suddenly it makes sense: this ship is being sailed by retirees.

Here’s another: “the horse raced past the barn fell.” Here, everything makes sense up until the last word if we’re reading the sentence with “the horse raced” as an active phrase. But it’s not, and it’s not the barn that fell either: the sense of the sentence only emerges if we understand what’s really being said is “the horse [that was] raced past the barn fell.”

Garden path sentences were introduced to me by one of my students a few years ago, and they blew my mind a little, but they shouldn’t have. Not only do I know full well as a student (and teacher) of words that sentences haven’t truly completed their meaning until their final punctuation mark is reached, but as a lover of food, I know that an expected direction, or perhaps being “led down the garden path” with an illusion or a twist, sometimes makes the dish that much more enjoyable.

It seems a bit cruel, perhaps, in a world in which the baking aisle of so many grocery stores has been ransacked, to show you a loaf of bread, but I was so taken with the images of decorated focaccias my Pinterest page was suddenly showing me, as taken as I was with the idea of garden path sentences, that here we are: a loaf literally studded with deceptive visuals, turning carefully placed herbs and vegetables into an edible flower garden.

I started with Anne Burrell’s recipe, making only the smallest of adjustments: she uses AP flour; I went with bread flour, reduced the olive oil a touch, and subbed in honey for the sugar used to start up the yeast. As for process, I added a step I’ve always done with my mom’s challah, letting the mixture – more batter than dough at that point – rest for 15-20 minutes after adding about half the flour. I think this gives a truer sense of how much flour is really needed, since the initial addition has a chance to start hydrating. It’s not 100% necessary, but I notice it means I wind up using a bit less flour overall, and that’s not a bad thing these days.

The real magic here – where we verge into complexity and deception – is during the rising: while the first rise is standard, letting the dough swell and double in a bowl, the second requires more unusual methods. You spread the risen dough out on an oil-drenched baking sheet (be sure yours has sides!), coaxing it with your fingers to spread reluctantly all the way into the corners. You press and stab your fingers all the way – all the way! – through the dough, making dozens of small holes straight down to the baking sheet below, to create that characteristic bubbled texture of a focaccia, before allowing it to rise again.

Halfway through this second rise comes the fun part – or the fiddly part, depending on who you are. Assorted herbs, thinly sliced vegetables and citrus zest, get pressed gently but firmly into the partially risen dough to form whatever patterns you desire. I used chives, parsley, and dill for “stems” and leaves, and then slender segments of olives and cherry tomatoes for “flowers,” and some curls of lemon zest for extra flair. I tried to roll a few tomato roses, but for me at least, cherry tomato skins provided not quite enough material to work with.

The finished loaf is quite the spectacle – the brightness of your “garden” fades a bit in the baking (there’s a metaphor here for spring into summer, perhaps), but the bake isn’t quite long enough for the delicate herb stems and leaves to burn – instead they crisp and frizz as residual oil soaks into the bread. You have to saw carefully with a bread knife to keep everything in place as you carve off big slices perfect with a salad, or a bowl of soup, or the base of a sandwich, or just straight out of hand. There’s a joke here about a garden variety of options, but I’ll leave you only with this: as he baked the bread disappeared.

It must have been delicious.

Project Cook: Garden focaccia
Adapted from Anne Burrell
Makes 1 large 9×13 inch loaf
1¾ cups warm water
2 teaspoons yeast
1 TB honey
4 ½ – 5 cups bread flour
½ + ⅓ cup olive oil
1 TB kosher salt + more for sprinkling
Assortment of herbs, vegetables, and/or edible flowers to decorate
  • Mix yeast, water, and honey in the bowl of a stand mixer and let sit 10-15 min, until the yeast is foamy and puffed. Add 3 cups of the bread flour and ½ cup of the olive oil, beat on slow speed with the paddle attachment just until the mixture comes together, then loosely drape with a clean kitchen towel and let sit 15-20 min. This allows the flour to begin hydrating and the yeast to start working.
  • Add 1 cup more flour and 1TB salt, then knead at medium speed with the dough hook 5-7 min until smooth and elastic. Sprinkle in remaining flour ¼ cup at a time if dough seems very sticky while kneading. I ended up using the full 5 cups of flour.
  • Cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour in a warm spot. “Punch down” the risen dough by gently depressing your fist into the middle.
  • Pour the remaining ⅓ cup olive oil onto a 9×13 inch cookie sheet with sides and tilt the sheet back and forth until the bottom and sides are well oiled. Flop the risen, punched down dough onto the oiled sheet, then use your fingertips to coax it toward the sides. As you stretch the dough, create focaccia’s characteristic dimples by pressing and stabbing all the way through the dough all over its surface. You have to create actual holes, not just depressions, to retain the texture. Some of the olive oil from the baking sheet will lap up over the surface of the dough – that’s okay.
  • Cover the dough with your towel again and let it rise for another hour.
  • 30 minutes into the second rise, preheat the oven to 425F and add your decorations to the loaf: press in herbs, vegetables, and/or flowers in a pleasing pattern. Finish the rise, sprinkle on some kosher or coarse salt, then bake in the preheated 425F oven for 25-30 minutes until bronzed and crusty. Mine was quite well browned after 25 minutes.
  • Remove to a wire rack to cool before slicing carefully and devouring.

Zucchini Spice Bread with Cherries (now with post and recipe!)

This past summer, we did not grow zucchini. Still traumatized by the various baseball bats we had to consume the previous year, N. flatly refused it. He couldn’t find the humor even in my joke that we would only grow a small one… Needless to say, no zucchini graced our table this summer.

But I missed it. In particular, I missed my favorite zucchini bread recipe, a cinnamon-spiced affair with an appealingly-crusty top but still-moist center from The Bon Appétit Cookbook that I’ve made probably at least a dozen times. It’s lightly sweet, it’s not overwhelmingly, well, zucchini flavored, and you don’t even have to squeeze out the grated squash before adding it to the mixture. In fact, you shouldn’t; the recipe relies on some of that wetness to attain the correct consistency. Buying zucchini from the grocery store to put toward this purpose just didn’t seem right – this was, as the book itself declares, a recipe designed for a zucchini harvest.

So when one of my coworkers advertised her bounty, I suggested that I’d be willing to take one of her prolific squashes off of her hands, and as a result I received a delivery at least as long as my forearm. Yes. This meant zucchini bread. To keep myself interested, in this incarnation I not only included the deeply toasted chopped walnuts the recipe calls for, but subbed in some almond flour for part of the all-purpose flour to add extra nuttiness and – not that this recipe needs it – assured moisture. I also added my most recent baking obsession: a generous few handfuls of tart dried cherries. And then, since just a loaf will never do, I made four. And I still had a chunk of zucchini left that’s probably still at least 6-7 inches long.

This recipe calls for two cups of grated zucchini. And that seems like a lot, until you realize it really only takes one reasonably sized squash to make that amount. So here I’m offering a recipe for two loaves, since if you’re facing down a bed-full of zucchini, that’s the least you’ll want to make. They freeze beautifully too, so you can sock away a loaf or two until you, or your family, or your neighbors, are feeling zucchini-receptive again. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that, just in case the end pieces feel a little dry, toasting and adding a generous smear of cream cheese is revelatory.

 

Zucchini Spice Bread with Cherries
Adapted (barely) from The Bon Appétit Cookbook
Makes 2 loaves 9x5x3 inch loaves
2 cups chopped walnuts
6 large eggs
4 cups granulated sugar
2 cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup almond meal or almond flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
4 cups coarsely grated zucchini, not squeezed
2½ cups dried tart cherries, such as Montmorency

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F. While it heats, scatter the walnuts on a cookie sheet and put it in the oven to toast. The nuts should go about two shades darker brown and look slightly oily when you take them out. Once nicely toasted, remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
  • Prepare two metal loaf pans by spraying with non-stick cooking spray or rubbing with butter or oil.
  • Using an electric mixer or a stand mixer, beat the eggs in a large bowl until they are foamy. With the mixer running, gradually add the sugar, then beat until the mixture is very thick and pale. This takes a good 3-4 minutes. Slowly beat in the oil, then the vanilla.
  • In another bowl, whisk together the flour, the almond meal, the salt, cinnamon, baking soda, and baking powder. With the mixer on low speed, beat in this dry mixture in three additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl in between.
  • Gently fold in the walnuts and cherries to ensure even distribution. The batter will be extremely thick. Don’t despair! Fold in the zucchini (it will be almost too much for a standard stand mixer, but it will fit. Mostly). The batter will loosen up considerably as the grated pieces release moisture.
  • Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans and bake at 350F until the top is dry and crusty, and a toothpick or cake tester inserted comes out clean. This pretty dependably takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes. Cool the loaf for at least 5 minutes in the pan before turning it out onto a rack to cool completely.

Banh mi salad (no recipe)

I don’t have a recipe for you today, but I do have a suggestion that, like my almost-too-late discovery of the aperol spritz in Venice, has probably already occurred to you. But just in case. It turns out that banh mi, that beloved Vietnamese sandwich that, along with pho, is probably the nation’s most well-known dish in the United States, translates amazingly well into a salad. You chop or stack all the ingredients from the sandwich – well seasoned and seared tofu, or pork, or chicken, fresh cucumbers, wafer-thin jalapeno slices, assorted vegetable pickles, soapy-fresh cilantro sprigs – atop crisp, juicy romaine or crunchy shredded cabbage (or a combination of both). You toss it gently with a dressing made from mayonnaise, sriracha, fish sauce, and lime juice or rice vinegar. Finally, since banh means “bread” in Vietnamese, so it couldn’t be banh- anything without a bread component, you fry the torn innards of a baguette in a generous quantity of oil, sprinkle them with a little salt, and pile them to precarious heights on top.

And if you already have some of these items lying around – like, say, you had banh mi sandwiches a few day before – it comes together in the time it takes you to fry the croutons.

Boom. Lunch is served.

Project Cook: Herbed Fougasse (no recipe)

There’s a new season of a certain baking show out on Netflix which, at least in the US, they are releasing only week by week. I’m salivating to watch it, but because I know I can’t control myself, I’m not letting myself start until I have a good backlog of episodes built up. Instead, I’m watching… wait for it… older seasons of the same show. Surprise!

In a recent episode I watched, the bakers were tasked with making two fougasse loaves as their technical challenge. A fougasse is a bread hailing from southern France, usually flavored with herbs, shaped and slashed to resemble a leaf or an ear of wheat, with a chewy interior and a lightly crunchy crust. It is a bit oily, and is best – in my humble opinion, anyway – when it is topped with some coarse, crunchy salt. It’s the bread N. and I gravitate toward whenever we pick up a loaf from Whole Foods’ bread counter.

If the bakers on the show could do it, even not knowing what the final loaf was or how it should look, I determined I could too. I went for that wonderful, reliable text that is Shirley O. Corriher’s Bakewise, and slightly adapted her recipe for Fougasse with Biga. A biga is a pre-fermentation starter, like a poolish, that adds flavor and helps create a light texture. I subbed in some of my sourdough starter.

Corriher’s recipe doesn’t include any flavoring beyond what’s in the bread itself, but I opted for some mixed herbs – chopped rosemary and dill, and some tiny thyme leaves – to amp up the flavoring.

This is a project cook because the bread requires not one, not two, but three rises before baking. Corriher doesn’t knead much, but uses a stretching and folding method in between rises called autolysis. The dough that results is quite soft and sticky, but results in beautifully chewy, tearable cords of finished bread all the way around the leaf (except, as you can see, in a few spots where the dough stretched a bit too thin – these were aggressively crunchy instead, though still delicious).

All told, these were worth a morning of rises and folds and stretches, and despite that the original intention was to have bread with our dinner, since I wound up with two and they were still warm at lunchtime, we had to at least sample the goods… Next time I will add a little bit more salt to the dough itself – sprinkled on top was good, but the interior was a touch bland – and will not follow Corriher’s instruction to sprinkle the tops with cornstarch before their final rise. I’m not sure what it accomplished, and I didn’t love the look on its way out of the oven. I will add the herbs again, and I certainly will repeat the still-oven-hot drizzle of olive oil and coarse salt, as I did in this iteration.

* quality note: all photos this week taken with my iPhone.

Crouton Cook-off

The problem with spending your whole Sunday thinking it’s Saturday is that you arrive to Monday morning out of breath and without a post to share! Good thing it’s still summer for this absent-minded professor.

This week, instead of a complicated recipe, I thought I’d do a little experiment. Since I can’t make bread pudding all the time (fitting into my summer wardrobe is nice), and I refuse to toss the crusts from my weekly sourdough loaves* but I do still need room in the freezer for other things, I’ve been playing a lot with seasonings and cooking methods for croutons. My favorite way to flavor them, besides good old salt and pepper is, curiously enough, a healthy shake of poultry seasoning. The mix of herbs adds depth, and it’s nice to use that little canister more often than just on Thanksgiving Day. To lighten them up, lemon zest is also a frequent addition.

As for cooking method, I vacillate between baking the seasoned cubes and frying them in a skillet. Since in between salads I forget which I prefer, I decided to conduct a cook-off experiment, seasoning the whole batch exactly the same and then baking half the cubes and pan-frying the other half.

Ultimately, although the oven version came out a fraction crunchier, we determined the main difference between cooking method lies not in end result, but in investment of effort. The oven batch had merely to be tossed onto a cookie sheet and stowed in a preheated oven for about 20 minutes. The stovetop version had to be stirred frequently for about the same amount of time; leaving it unsupervised resulted in quickly burned bread. So we wind up with a win some, lose some set of options. On one hand, preheating and baking probably heats up your house more, but produces a slightly crisper end result with less effort from you. The stovetop method probably doesn’t warm up the room as much, and it doesn’t require as long to preheat, but if you aren’t willing to babysit the croutons, there’s less margin of error for achieving an even crunch without burning any edges. So… for perfect crisp croutons and very little effort on your part, bake your seasoned bread cubes. If it’s summer and you don’t have or want to use air conditioning, bake them in the morning, cool completely, and store in something airtight until the rest of the salad is made.

* If you still have more crusts than you know what to do with, I recently learned stale bread can be composted; see here for a short how-to.

Crouton Cook-off
Enough for 3-4 salads
zest of 2 small or 1 large lemon
1 teaspoon kosher salt or ½ teaspoon table salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
¼-½ teaspoon poultry seasoning
generous ¼ cup olive oil
2 cups bread, torn or cut in cubes of your desired size
  • If you are baking your croutons, first preheat the oven to 350F.
  • Whisk all ingredients except bread together in a large bowl.
  • Add bread cubes and toss well for even coating.
  • To bake, spread seasoned cubes on a cookie sheet and stow in the oven for 15-25 minutes, depending on how crunchy you want your end product. 15 minutes preserves some give in the middle; 20-25 minutes results in fully crunchy cubes.
  • If you are pan-frying rather than baking, heat a skillet over medium heat and add the seasoned cubes. Cook 15-20 minutes, stirring and flipping frequently for even browning.
  • For both cooking methods, set croutons aside to cool before serving. They will crisp just slightly more as they cool down, but not significantly.