I have these moments when I realize I’ve just said something. I don’t mean this to sound like I’m unaware of or not in control over my own speech, but I am a classic case of speaking before I think, at least when it comes to food.
A few weeks ago, N. and I were on the verge of no longer enjoying our morning errands. On Sundays, we frequently run errands before going to our local Farmers’ Market, and because one of us is occasionally a bit of a lazy slouch on weekend mornings (I’ll leave the guessing up to you), we often don’t hit the shops until after 10am. This is not a huge problem, except that my body is programmed to begin its hinting that “lunch would be nice, please” at about 11:30. By noon it’s more of a demand, and by 12:15 you’d better feed me, because I’m about to devolve into full-on hangry (which I remain convinced is one of the best portmanteaus ever invented. It’s right up there with spork). N. is keenly aware of this schedule, and yet for several weeks in a row we’ve found ourselves food-less during the half hour that takes me from peckish to crotchety to downright unpleasant.
Despite this, I retain a sense of snobbishness when it comes to choosing what I will eat to relieve this condition. We play a game when it comes to choosing food, especially when the choices are undesirable; I affectionately call it the “bleh” game. It consists of one or the other of us facetiously offering “we could eat there…” which inevitably engenders the titular response. This game was in full effect as, plagued by my hangriness, we walked past one of those soft pretzel stands at the mall we were ambling through and N. suggested it. I looked in at the pizza pretzels – studded with cheese that looked painted on, pepperoni grease slowly cooling and solidifying, and declared, loudly, “psssh, I could MAKE those.”
Suddenly, I was beholden to it. N. isn’t always taken in by my crazy food schemes, but apparently the idea of a homemade pretzel masquerading as pizza was something he’d never known he always wanted. It fell to me to create a version that wasn’t sodden with grease, wasn’t packed with questionable preservatives, and wasn’t luke-warm and pressed behind plastic with its sad, sorry brethren. My typical response to this would be to turn to the internet. This time, however, I had Nana’s sweet roll dough to guide me, and I wondered whether I could achieve my objective by creating a savory version of her lovely elastic dough.
Removing the sugar and adding savory Italian herbs to the mix was a successful experiment. The kitchen smelled like foccaccia while my dough rose, and I was thrilled with the flavor in the piece I pinched off to sample. I divided my dough into eight little balls, rolled them into long stringy ropes, and surprised myself when careful looping and twisting resulted in a pan full of something that actually looked like pretzels.
But here’s where things started to go a bit imperfectly. I topped my plump little pretzels with chunks of sundried tomatoes, mounded them with shredded mozzarella, and draped slices of pepperoni over the top. They lost their definition and looked more like piles of cheese than like pretzels, but that didn’t bother me much.
Upon baking, however, a bit of their charm dissolved. In the time it took to bake the dough, the cheese didn’t brown or bubble they way I’d hoped. Further baking time led to overly charred edges on the tomatoes, and the cheese that had fallen onto the parchment paper I’d laid down as extra insurance went from bubbling to black. N. ate them with gusto anyway, devouring several for dinner that night and taking foil-wrapped leftovers to work for the next few days. But I wasn’t satisfied. Not only were there overcooked elements, but the result didn’t taste quite like a pretzel. It was good, but lacking in that toasty, crunchy exterior that makes a soft pretzel great. I’m going to give you the recipe I used, but first consider these alternatives and, if you try any, let me know how they work out.
Next time, I’m going to mix the sundried tomatoes right into the dough along with the herbs. Their flavor will still be there, but I think they will stay chewy and moist instead of burning. I’m also toying with the idea of stuffing the pretzels with the cheese rather than sprinkling it on top – this would result in an oozing, melty, stringy core to each pretzel, and it would allow you to boil the pretzels before baking them, which contributes to the classic texture of the exterior my version was missing. I would flatten each individual dough ball into a rectangle, sprinkle it lightly with cheese (leaving a generous border on all sides to prevent leakage), then roll and pinch tightly before making a rope and twisting as before.
I’d then boil the pretzels (Alton Brown has a recipe that looks really promising, no surprise there), drape them with pepperoni or olives or onion, and bake as before. This would, I suspect, eliminate charring, create a better texture, and perhaps introduce a more successful alternative to the travesty that is stuffed crust pizza.*
These would be delightful dunked in some garlic butter, or basil spiked marinara, or even seasoned and pureed roasted red peppers, if you’re into any of those sorts of things. But either way, you’ll have a remedy for the sneaky Sunday afternoon hangries that far excels anything you’ll find at a food court.
Makes 8 sweet, slightly stubby 4-inch pretzels
2 tsp active dry yeast
¼ cup warm water (stick your fingertip in; the water should be about body temperature)
1-2 tsp honey
¼ cup scalded milk, cooled
¼ cup melted or very soft butter
1 tsp salt
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried oregano
2 ¼ cups bread flour
1 3oz. package sun dried tomatoes (not packed in oil – these would be, I suspect, too wet for this recipe)
½ – 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
24 slices pepperoni
Combine yeast, honey, and warm water in the bowl of your stand mixer (or in a medium bowl) and set aside for 5 minutes, or until the yeast is bubbly and smells like bread.
Meanwhile, heat the milk and combine with the butter, swirl until the milk is cooled and the butter is melted.
Add cooled milk, melted butter, and egg to the bubbling yeast and mix on low speed with the paddle attachment until the egg is broken up a bit and things are slightly combined.
Add flour, spices, and salt (you could probably add any combination of spices you like, including crushed red pepper for some heat, or rosemary for a woodsy flavor. I’d stick with dry spices, though, for easier distribution and that classic pizza flavor) and mix with the paddle attachment until a wet, sticky, uneven dough forms. You could also add the tomatoes at this point, if you want to incorporate them directly into the dough.
Scrape clean the paddle attachment and switch to the dough hook. Knead at medium-low speed for 5-8 minutes or until dough is smooth, elastic, and willing, if you pinch a bit between your thumb and finger, to stretch out about an inch without tearing.
Dump your ball of dough into a glass or ceramic bowl greased with olive oil and turn it over once or twice until it is coated in oil, then cover with a clean kitchen towel and stow in a warm, draft-free place for 1½ hours, or until it has puffed and doubled in size.
When you return to your dough, after you admire its impressive swell and the way it already smells of pizza, gently deflate by pressing your knuckles into the center of the puff. Let it sit for a few minutes to get its breath back.
Turn the dough out onto a barely oiled surface (I don’t have a marble stone or anything fancy like that, but I do have a pizza peel, which was a little small but otherwise worked just fine) and divide into eight even pieces.
If you want to stuff the centers of your pretzels with cheese, roll each dough ball out into a thin rectangle and sprinkle a few tablespoons of mozzarella over the surface, leaving a wide margin on all edges to prevent the shreds from escaping. Then wind it up tightly and pinch the edges to secure.
Whether you are stuffing with cheese or not, now is the time to roll the ball (or coil) of dough into a long skinny rope 18-24 inches in length. The best way to do this, I found, is to use the palms of your hands and start in the middle. Push the rope of dough firmly away from you, then back toward you, starting in the very middle and then, as the dough bulges toward the outer edges, follow it along moving outward until the rope is even in thickness and at least 18 inches long.
To form your pretzels, bring the ends of each rope toward each other into a horseshoe shape.
Then, about a third of the way down each end of the horseshoe, make a twist. Take one end of the rope and twist it fully around the other (that is, the left side of the rope should end up back on the left side once you’ve twisted it completely around the right end).
Gently grab the ends above the twist and flip them over, pressing them into the bottom of the horseshoe loop to adhere. You’ve made a pretzel!
Place all eight of your formed pretzels on parchment lined baking sheets (I found I needed two), cover them with a kitchen towel, and let rise for 30 minutes. During this time, you should preheat your oven to 375F.
When the pretzels have risen again – it won’t be a dramatic change, but they will get a bit plumper – add your toppings. If you’ve integrated the tomatoes and cheese already, just drape a few slices of pepperoni over them and you’re done.
If you haven’t integrated the tomatoes or cheese, stud the tops of each pretzel with the tomato pieces, sprinkle with cheese, and then add the pepperoni on top. Be careful not to get too much cheese on the parchment paper, as it will burn and lend an acrid taste to your pretzels.
Bake your topped pretzels at 375F for 20-25 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and the dough is fully cooked. The cheese won’t get quite as brown as it does on a pizza, but it will still be melty and delicious.
Let cool for 5 minutes before eating, so the dough has a chance to firm slightly.