Pizza Pretzels

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.
Food Blog March 2013-0882A 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.”
Food Blog March 2013-0904Suddenly, 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.
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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.

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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.
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Pizza Pretzels
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 egg
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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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).
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  • 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!
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  • 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.
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  • 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.
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  • 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.
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  • 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.
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  • Let cool for 5 minutes before eating, so the dough has a chance to firm slightly.
We had ours with a salad inspired by pizza toppings: spinach, artichoke hearts, olives, tomatoes, and some pine nuts for crunch, tossed with mustard lemon vinaigrette.
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* I love, love the idea of stuffed crust pizza.  Forcing more cheese into an already cheese-laden dish?  Yes, please!  But the reality of it is so disappointing: a thick block of semi-melted sludge inside a soggy crust, like someone wrapped a stick of string cheese that had been lying in the sun for an hour in some sandwich bread and called it a day.  It’s a worthy notion, but the execution just hasn’t been perfected.

Pizza and Beer

Food Blog March 2013-0802Sometimes, a week calls for pizza.  But you don’t want the delivery variety dripping with grease and lazy with a smattering of mix-n-match toppings.  You want something fresher.  Better.  You want the feel of dough you can stretch under your hands and control over the size and shape of the pie and choice in the quality and variety of ingredients.

Homemade pizza.

N. and I have often talked about pizza memories, and how, when we were kids, pizza just wasn’t the same without a side of root beer.  It had to be in one of those hard plastic molded glasses, and it had to be with a clear straw.  And sometimes, you forgot you’d ordered root beer instead of Coke or Pepsi, and that first gulp with its spicy depth would be a tremendous surprise.

As we got older, the “root” part of the equation melted, and suddenly it was pizza and beer, plain and simple, one of the mother food and beverage combinations (is that a thing?  Like mother sauces?  It should be.  After all, beer is the third most popular beverage worldwide, and variations on pizza have been around since ancient Greece).

As I thought my way through this pizza plan this week, I wondered whether they had to be separate.  I mean, yeast makes bread dough and beer possible.  Beer is liquid, and there seemed no logical reason why it couldn’t be substituted for the water I’d ordinarily use to make a pizza crust.

Once this idea was lodged in my head, it wouldn’t go away.  This just seemed too perfect.  Beer and pizza, kneaded together – a truly complete meal.

Even though beer is essentially water with yeast and flavorings, I wasn’t sure what would happen when I mixed the two.  I heated a bottle of amber ale in the microwave with a couple teaspoons of honey, just until it was body temperature.  When I added the yeast and engaged the lightest of stirs, the whole measuring cup erupted with bubbles and I had a head at least three inches high.  This slowly collapsed, but I took it to mean the yeast was satisfied with its new spa treatment.

Food Blog March 2013-0772I used a combination of bread flour and whole wheat flour, and produced a spectacularly nutty tasting dough that was also the stickiest I’ve ever worked with.  It slithered and dripped off of my stand mixer’s dough hook and plopped thickly into the oiled bowl I coaxed it into, and I crossed my fingers and hoped that after its six hour chill in the fridge it turned into pizza crust.

Food Blog March 2013-0777When I liberated it and faced it again, it wasn’t the easiest dough to work with, but it did work.  It wouldn’t deign to be tossed like a pizzeria pie, but I stretched and spread and pushed it across a cookie sheet liberally spread with cornmeal, and it turned into a rustic, bubbly, delicious crust.  Topped with mozzarella, sausage, and sun-dried tomatoes, it baked into a glorious symphony of assertive flavors.  We sprinkled on a few leaves of fresh basil while it was still steaming hot, and declared it one of my best homemade pizzas. Food Blog March 2013-0780This is a sticky, wet dough, but it works.  I’m going to make it again and tweak the quantities of flour and olive oil, but trust me: this is worth fooling with for the flavor alone.  The beer comes through right at the end of each bite as a deep yeasty earthiness.  It lends the tiniest bit of bitter flavor that contrasts really well with the fatty sausage and tart sun-dried tomato.  And really, why shouldn’t it?  It’s beer, and this is pizza.  They were made to be together.

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Beer-crust pizza

12 oz. beer (I used an amber ale.  I think a darker brew would be even better)

2 tsp honey

2 tsp yeast

¼ cup olive oil

2 ½ cups bread flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

2 tsp salt

¼-½ tsp black pepper Food Blog March 2013-0774

Heat the beer and honey in the microwave (or a small saucepan) until the liquid is body temperature – you should feel only the slightest heat when you dip in a curious finger.  This took about 45 seconds in the microwave for me.  It will take longer if your beer has been refrigerated.

Swirl the mixture to distribute the honey, then sprinkle the yeast over the surface and set it aside for 5 minutes.  If you stir the yeast in, you will get a tremendous amount of foam on the surface, so in case of overflow I think it’s better to just let it sit.

While you wait for the yeast to perk up, combine the flours, salt, and pepper in a mixing bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer.

When the yeast and beer have married to create a thick foam, stir in the olive oil, then add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients.  Using the paddle attachment (if you are using a stand mixer), combine at low speed just until ingredients come together into a rough, uneven dough.  Replace the paddle attachment with the dough hook and knead on medium-low speed for 5-7 minutes.

This dough will not pass the windowpane test.  It will not even stay together particularly well.  It will seem like an exercise in futility and disaster, and you will be sorely tempted to add more flour.  But if you resist, and plop it into an oiled bowl, and cover that bowl with plastic-wrap and leave it in the refrigerator for 6-8 hours, it will turn into something more like normal pizza dough.  I promise.

Food Blog March 2013-078390 minutes before you intend to bake, take the bowl of dough out of the fridge and set it on the counter to finish rising and come to room temperature.  After this time has passed, and the dough is considerably increased in size (it may not quite double, unless your counter is quite warm), stretch it to your desired shape – it easily makes a thick 9×13” rectangular crust, and might be coaxed into 2 medium sized, somewhat thin round crusts – on a cornmeal or flour speckled board or tray.  I just doused my cookie tray with cornmeal and pressed and pushed the dough directly on it until I was happy with the shape.

Food Blog March 2013-0789Food Blog March 2013-0786Food Blog March 2013-0792When adequately stretched, add toppings and bake in a preheated 450F oven for 12-15 minutes, or until puffed, crisp, and golden.  Wait 5 minutes before you cut it, to give the cheese time to congeal just a little.

Food Blog March 2013-0804We ate this in embarrassingly large squares and left enough in leftovers to serve as lunch the next day.  Cut slightly smaller and for slightly less voracious eaters (or if you add a side salad), this would be an adequate dinner for 4.