Monks living in the Holy Roman Empire in the early Middle Ages likely invented the first pretzels. They combined water with flour and salt in accordance with fasting rules that prohibited the use of animal products, then rolled the dough into shapes reminiscent of arms folded across the chest in prayer — the bodily form of prayer commonly practiced then. They named them bracellae, "little arms" in Latin. Their first evidence appears in a 5th century manuscript now housed in the Vatican library. German bakers would, later, mimic the form and pronounce the Latin word bretzel, and into English would arrive the pretzel. So goes one version of the story.
Fact and lore sifted together over 1,500 years like flour and salt in a bowl eventually turn into truth the way a few simple ingredients become bread. Today, pretzels symbolize the Christian Lent, when the faithful spend 40 days fasting or focusing on some other devotional practice.
Even for nonbelievers, the season of Lent (March 5 – April 19 this year) offers a moment to embrace the miracles of rising yeast and basic chemistry embodied in the soft pretzel. Rolling dough into long snakes, then twisting it up and around is as much fun as Play-Doh for kids home for spring break and in dire need of a project. Older kids? They can look up "Maillard reaction" and report back on the purpose of the baking soda in this recipe. Adult supervision is required for the part where you dip raw dough into boiling alkalinized water before baking. It’s worth the effort. No pretzel is tastier than one still warm from your own oven.
A little butter lends softness and flavor, and a touch of sugar encourages the yeast.
3/4 cup milk
1 1/2 Tbsp. sugar
2 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast (or one packet)
2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more if needed
2 Tbsp. butter, softened
1 tsp. salt
Vegetable oil, for bowl
1/2 cup baking soda
1 egg yolk
In a small saucepan, warm milk, 1/4 cup water, and sugar over low heat until the mixture feels warm (not hot) to the touch.
Pour milk mixture into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook. Sprinkle yeast over top and let sit for 5 minutes, until foamy.
Add flour, butter and salt to the mixer, and mix on low speed until combined, scraping sides of the bowl as needed. Then raise speed to medium-low and beat for 8-10 minutes. Dough should form a sticky mass that clings to the bottom of the bowl. If it is still sticking to the sides of the bowl, add flour, a couple of tablespoons at a time, until desired consistency is reached.
Turn dough out onto a clean surface. It will be slightly sticky still. Knead a couple of times, then shape into a ball and place in oiled bowl, turning to coat. Cover with a tea towel and let rise until doubled in size, about an hour.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Punch dough down, then turn out onto a clean surface and divide into 16 pieces. Roll each piece into a "snake" about 15 inches long. Draw ends of snake into a "u," then cross them and press ends to the bottom, pressing to seal into a pretzel shape.
Bring 3 cups water to a boil with baking soda in a Dutch oven. Reduce to a simmer and, working 3 at a time, place pretzels into boiling water for 10 seconds. Retrieve with a slotted spoon and place on parchment-lined cookie sheets.
Mix egg yolk with a tablespoon of water in a small dish, and brush yolk mixture onto each pretzel. Sprinkle each with coarse salt to taste.
Bake 10-12 minutes, until deeply golden.
Transfer to cooling racks immediately, just for a bit. These are best enjoyed warm.
— Adapted from a recipe in Better Homes and Gardens, October 2013