If you’ve ever eaten home-made pretzels, you’ll never again want to eat those which ‘come in a bag’.
While today we think of pretzels to be eaten while drinking beer or maybe with soup, the original pretzel was made, surprise, surprise, surprise, in a monastery where no beer or wine was allowed. So they must be good with soup.
The chef in charge of baking, was busy making their unleavened Lenten bread, and, like all cooks, ended up with some small strips of left over dough. Hating to toss them out, he crossed two thin strips of the dough on a floured board, and then twisted and shaped them until they looked like arms crossed in prayer.
The custom then was for a person in prayer, to cross his chest and rest his hands on his shoulders. The ‘praying arms’ were an instant success, not only at the monastery, but with the children of the area who were given them as a reward for learning their prayers. And soon home to their parents and eventually to the local market where you and I can buy them. But try these first.
Pretzels kept their religious symbology as they spread through Europe and the three holes came to represent the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. They even found their way into the coffins of the dead during the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries.
Soon the pretzel was even copied in stained glass windows, representing the marriage knot and ‘wishing upon a pretzel’ became a common marriage custom. From then on, the story of pretzels grew. They came to the New World and then…as we Americans are wont to do, the religious symbology was cast aside and they found their way to the beer houses. Today we eat them everywhere and with everything.
1 ¼ cups warm water.
1 scant tbsp active dry yeast
2 tsp sugar
3 to 4 cups flour
1 ½ tsps salt
2 tbsp oil
1 egg beaten with 1 tbsp milk, for glaze
Toppings: coarse salt; poppy, sesame or caraway seeds
Place ¼ cup of the water in a bowl and stir in yeast and sugar until dissolved. Let stand until bubbly, about 5 to 10 minutes.
Combine 3 ½ cups flour and salt. Add remaining water, oil and yeast mixture. Stir. On a lightly floured board, knead until smooth and elastic, adding flour if necessary to prevent sticking.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Lightly grease 2 heavy baking sheets with shortening of some sort.
Divide dough into 24 pieces and roll each into a thin strip about 10 inches long. Shape into pretezels by crossing the ends to make a loop, then flipping the ends back across the loop. You’ll see how to do it in a second, but be sure to give the ends a light pinch so that they don’t flip open when baking.
Place on the prepared baking sheets. For chewy pretzels, cover loosely with a towel and let them rest in a warm place until puffy. (about 15 minutes). For crunchier pretzels, bake them immediately, not letting them rise.
Either way, however, when ready for the oven lightly brush the egg-milk glaze over them and sprinkle each with a pinch of salt or seeds. Bake until lightly colored (about 15 to 20 minutes). Makes about 24 pretzels.
Books could and have been written about the history of pretzels, and I could fill this space for the next six months, but enough’s enough. Just remember, some long ago monk made the first one and were the Monk’s treats for ‘good boys and girls’, right there at the monastery. Little did he know, little could he have guessed they’d end up in homes in a land he never knew or even heard of.