Valentine’s Day is upon us again.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll warn you that I have always been an enthusiastic celebrant of this holiday. I look forward to the day every year and find a way to enjoy it, come Hell or high water. From crafting a painfully-sappy but wholly sincere card for my SO to getting a present from my best friend, the outrageous expectations of romance, goodwill, and chocolate imposed by this holiday have for me, somehow and with a great deal of luck, been consistently met. Regardless of whether the prospect of another February 14th fills you with joy or dread (or leaves you deeply unmoved), it certainly provides an adequate reason to bake something fun (NB: literally anything can be an adequate reason to bake). Even if you’re a curmudgeon who curses the day as a lurid festival of commercial manipulation and forced sentiment, you can’t possibly deny that pretzels are a delightful treat and any excuse to make them is a worthy one. If you’ve got a honey, prepare a batch of these charming, heart-shaped goodies for them. If you don’t, make some pretzels for yourself!
While pretzels may seem a little overwhelming in terms of preparation – as can any recipe that involves multiple rising, kneading, or shaping steps – the simplicity of their composition and the meditative satisfaction of creating them more than makes up for it. The ambrosial smell of freshly-baked bread that fills your kitchen is worth it, believe me. And then there’s the delicate ritual of eating them. I like to tear off each arm and twirl them in different sauces – mustard, honey, curry ketchup – before pulling apart the intertwined limbs of the twist and savoring the tender interior without the distractions of condiments. The pleasure of eating with your (now buttery) hands is an experience in itself, made all the more delightful by the taste and texture of these warm, soft treats
A nifty trick of chemistry is responsible for the complex, sweet flavor and golden-brown hue of the chewy pretzel crust. Through a process known as the Maillard reaction, sugars in the dough react with the amino acids that make up proteins to produce the deep browning and distinctive taste characteristic of pretzels. This explains the importance of the boiling process prior to baking. In an alkaline environment – such as that created by lye or, as a more kid-friendly option, a solution of baking soda – the amino acids lose protons and become more reactive with the sugar molecules. This means that the effect of the Maillard reaction is more pronounced and yields a deeper color. The results are similar to those produced by the caramelization of sugars; the reaction is responsible for the browning of foods like seared beef, toast, and dulce de leche (and is therefore totally crucial to my continued happiness).
Breaking bread together is a surprisingly intimate gesture, appropriate to a holiday that celebrates affection and closeness. This year, find someone special to share these pretzels with – the amino acid to your sugar, if you will – whether they be your kid, partner, mom, or the lady in Accounting who drove you home after you had too much to drink at the office Christmas party.
Pretzels (adapted from Williams-Sonoma) – Makes 10
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading
1 package rapid-rise yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup warm water
3 tablespoons plus 3 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons baking soda
2 tablespoons coarse salt
- In a large bowl, using a wooden spoon, stir together the flour, yeast, sugar and salt.
- The warm water must be between 115° and 125°F. Use an instant-read thermometer to check the temperature. Pour the water and the 3 tablespoons vegetable oil into the flour mixture. Stir with the wooden spoon until a rough, shaggy dough forms.
- Sprinkle a work surface with some flour. Dump the dough onto the surface.
- Knead the dough until it is smooth and no longer sticky, about 10 minutes. Flour your hands and the surface with more flour as needed to prevent sticking.
- Gather the dough into a ball. Wipe out the bowl and oil it with about 1 teaspoon of the vegetable oil.
- Put the dough into the bowl and turn the ball to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Set the bowl in a warm spot and let the dough rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes. Poke the dough with your finger to see if it is ready (our note: the indentation will remain if the dough is good to go!)
- Oil 2 baking sheets with the remaining 2 teaspoons oil.
- Dump out the risen dough onto a clean work surface and press gently to deflate. Cut the dough into 10 equal pieces with a knife.
- Work with 1 piece of dough at a time and keep the remaining pieces loosely covered with plastic wrap. Using the palms of your hands, roll the dough into a rope about 20 inches long, adding flour only if needed to prevent sticking. Repeat with the remaining dough pieces.
- Twist each rope into a pretzel by making an oval about 3 inches wide. At the top of the oval, twist the rope together twice.
- Bring the ends of the rope to the bottom of the oval so that the twist is in the middle. Press down the ends so the dough sticks.
- Divide the pretzels evenly between the 2 prepared baking sheets. Cover the pretzels loosely with plastic wrap. Set the baking sheet in a warm spot and let the pretzels rise until puffed and doubled in size, about 20 minutes.
- While the pretzels are rising, preheat an oven to 450°F.
- Fill a large saucepan two-thirds full of water and stir in the baking soda with a slotted spoon. Bring the water to a rolling boil over high heat.
- Remove the plastic wrap from the pretzels. Ask an adult to help you boil the pretzels. Using the slotted spoon, lift a pretzel from the baking sheet and carefully slip it into the boiling water. Be careful: The water and steam are very hot!
- Boil the pretzel until it floats to the surface, about 30 seconds. Turn the pretzel over with the spoon and boil for 30 seconds more.
- Using the slotted spoon, remove the pretzel and return it to the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pretzels, placing them about 2 inches apart.
- Sprinkle each pretzel with a big pinch of coarse salt.
- Put 1 baking sheet in the oven and bake the pretzels until they are deep golden brown, about 15 minutes. Using oven mitts, remove the baking sheet from the oven, set it on a wire cooling rack and let cool completely. (Our note: we carefully brushed a few tablespoons of melted butter onto the cooling pretzels at this stage to up the yum factor.) Repeat with the remaining pretzels.