In order not to miss my own deadline, I'm finally posting my main Bread Baking Day #6 event: soft pretzels prepared with a lye solution - the way you get them in Germany! Pretzels are a very popular snack allover my home country - no matter if for breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack or dinner. You see, the Germans really like their pretzels. There are many slight, regional differences but for me, a five-star pretzel needs to have a very fine-textured, soft crumb that doesn't dry out easily whilst the surface has to be of a shiny, reddish brown colour and needs to be quite crusty.
Obviously, it's one of the typical things that an ex-pat might miss fairly soon because chances aren't very high to get the real thing anywhere outside of German-speaking countries. Luckily, in case the desire for pretzels becomes overwhelming, there is a German bakery in Sydney where one can get a quick fix. Since living in Australia, I twice tried to reproduce pretzels but both times the results had been only so-so. Fresh from the oven, they had been good enough - however almost anything that comes straight out of the oven usually tastes good.
Where would I get a proper recipe? German baking books seldom provide one as no one I know has ever bothered to make them at home. When reading Jeffrey Hamelman's "Bread - A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes", I found out that he actually started his career with making hundreds and thousands of pretzels. So he should know what he was talking about, right? Indeed, he does. Using a preferment not only improves the tastes but also the shelf-life quite dramatically. In contrast to pretzels made with the straight dough method that deteriorated fast once they had cooled down, these pretzels tasted in the evening as good as they had during my lunch break. The only thing that hadn't turned out a 100 percent perfect was the crust. It wasn't quite crusty enough but still well above average.
In case you're not too intimidated by handling a lye solution, please give it a try! It's not at all complicated. Most importantly, never touch the lye with your bare skin and give the kitchen a good airing during and after the process. The biggest problem will be to buy the lye. Pharmacist sell it, however, I've always gotten odd looks for this request - like I'm asking for bomb material. I've also boiled a few pretzels in a baking soda solution which is a common replacement. However, it only produced a slight yellow hue instead of the brown colour and the characteristic taste. Next time, I'll just have to improve the crust and I will hopefully get my perfect pretzel!
Jeffrey Hamelman’s Soft Pretzels
I had to convert the recipe and ended up with slightly odd numbers so don't be put off by that. Regarding the yeast, I used instant dry yeast instead of fresh. For the preferment, I've simply used a light sprinkle of yeast. If unsure, you can use a little more than that. The time to ferment will be shortened but if retarding the dough anyway, this should not impart the overall flavour.
72g bread flour
0.01g fresh yeast
290g bread flour
7.1g fresh yeast
18g butter, soft
3.6g diastatic malt powder (I substituted a teaspoon of malt syrup)
121g preferment (all of the above)
Makes about 600g of dough (recipe could be doubled).
Mix pate fermentee using a wooden spoon. It should have the rather stiff consistency of finished bread dough. Let stand for 12-16 hours at room temperature. When ripe, the preferment should have doomed and just start to recede.
4 Divide dough into pieces of roughly 85g. Shape into cylinders and let rest for a few minutes under a cover. 3
Let sit at room temperature for about two hours or until doubled in volume.
Roll into stretches of 40 centimeters in length with the middle slightly thicker. Quickly pick up the pieces and swirl around into pretzels (or simply fold the dough strands around one another). Press ends into dough.
Note: I didn't manage to get my dough strands as long as that and ended up with slightly chubby pretzels.
Let proof for 30-45 minutes or until risen to 75 percent. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to allow a skin to form.
Note: Hamelman suggests that the pretzels can be retarded overnight. To do this, refrigerate after the first 20 minute of proofing. To accomodate my schedule, I decided to retard the finished dough after step 2 instead of the finished pretzels.
Prepare 3 percent lye solution: Put a litre of water into a pot, add 30g of lye and bring to a boil.
Note: Use gloves and take care not to get any lye solution onto your skin. Use a slotted spoon for handling the pretzels.
Completely submerge pretzels for about 5-10 seconds. Let drain on the slotted spoon and then transfer to the baking sheet. Quickly slash at the thicker part and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Note: If you don't have a very sharp knife for slashing, rather use scissors instead. The cut won't be perfectly straight (as you can see) but that's better than destroying the dough structure.
Bake at 450 F/220 degrees Celsius in a preheated oven for 14-16 minutes.
Jeffrey Hamelman: Bread – A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes