Choosing recipes for My Berlin Kitchen wasn't always an easy process. Some things I was sure had to be in the book, like a sour cherry soufflé I once ate for lunch on a day trip to East Germany when I was nine or the stewed artichoke dish that my mother, not an enthusiastic cook, shall we say, learned from her equally bored-in-the-kitchen mother, but that is, nonetheless, a total delight. But I went back and forth on a lot of the other recipes for a long time, unsure whether it made sense to include them or not. In the end, the recipes that did make it into the manuscript are a motley jumble, sort of like me: Some Italian, some German, with a dose of American can-do spirit thrown in for good measure.
Sadly, not every recipe I loved made the cut, like Bienenstich, for example, or potato dumplings. As you can probably imagine, a book-in-process has a mind of its own and some of my favorite recipes, try as I might, just did not fit the way I wanted them to. Since My Berlin Kitchen is a narrative, a food memoir, I had to stick with the food that really inspired the stories.
One of the cast-offs were these pretzels: Yeasty, chewy, salty wonders that look far more complicated to make than they actually are. I loved finding that out. Here in Germany, good pretzels are everywhere (of course, the best ones are in the south of Germany - Berlin is not a pretzel region), but there is something so deeply satisfying about making these yourself. And fresh out of the oven, they are unbeatably delicious. (They do not, however, keep well. Eat them within a few hours of making them or don't bother at all - freezing doesn't help things either.) Besides, the recipe, which comes from Zingerman's Bakehouse, is so easy you will not believe it. You won't! But really, so easy.
The key is having instant yeast, one of my very favorite things in the kitchen (also known as bread-machine yeast and, importantly, not the same thing as active dry. With instant yeast, you just add it directly to the flour without proofing it in warm water first). Once you've got your instant yeast, you make a quick yeast dough that has a little sugar and a little butter in it and then, before it's even risen or anything, you divide and shape it - either into pretzel shapes or into little round balls for pretzel rolls (delicious when split, buttered and filled with smoked salmon, in case you're wondering). Only after the pretzels and rolls are shaped do you let the dough proof, at first on the counter and then in the fridge. I made this recipe several times and I found the pretzels tasted best after a refrigeration of just one hour.
The only other thing you have to do is hunt down some food-grade lye. Here in Germany, this means trekking to your closest Apotheke (pharmacy) and asking for Natriumhydroxid in pellet form. You'll get a little container with enough pellets (that you have to dissolve in water) for several batches of pretzels. But in the US, your best bet is to mail-order it on amazon.com. Do not, I repeat, do not bother with the baking soda bath replacement for lye. It isn't the same thing, not even close. Your pretzels will not have the same inimitable tang or color that the lye-dipped ones have and that make a pretzel intrinsically a pretzel.
Once your pretzels have spent the requisite time in the fridge and you've prepared your lye bath (carefully, with gloves on, and - for security's sake - with any small children at a safe distance), you just heat your oven, line a baking sheet with ungreased parchment paper, dip each pretzel into the lye bath, plop it on the sheet, sprinkle it with salt, and then stick the sheet in the oven until the house fills with the smell of real pretzels after about 15 minutes. It's amazing.
I love tearing into the pretzels when they're hot and pliable. If you've got a couple of mouths around, you'll find the pretzels disappear surprisingly quickly. The crumb is astoundingly white against the deep brown exterior and it has this wonderfully salty, complex flavor. In Bavaria, Laugenbrezeln are often served with a pungent mixture of softened Camembert, butter, raw onions, paprika and other spices called Obatzda - you tear off pieces of your pretzel and dip them into the cheese mixture - but all over the country you also often see Laugenbrezeln split horizontally and thickly buttered, then glued back together again. You know, just a light afternoon snack.
Either way, they are delicious and - in my very biased opinion - light years better than a New York City street cart pretzel festooned with mustard. Not even in the same league, actually. So go forth and buy yourself some lye and get cracking! These are the most fun things (yes, I did just use that as a adverb, forgive me) to come out of my kitchen in a long while.
Zingerman's Laugenbrezeln (Soft Pretzels)
Original recipe here
Makes 12 pretzels
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons softened unsalted butter
2 tablespoons instant yeast
6 cups (about 30 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Food-grade lye, for dipping (amazon.com)
Coarse sea salt or pretzel salt, for sprinkling (do not substitute kosher salt)
1. In a mixing bowl, stir together sugar, butter, yeast, 2 cups warm water and half the flour. Add kosher salt and remaining flour and stir just until mixture comes together in a shaggy mass.
2. Turn out onto counter and knead for 8 to 10 minutes, until smooth and supple. Cut into 12 pieces and let rest 5 minutes.
3. Roll out each piece into a rope about 22 inches long. (For the traditional shape, the ends should be thin and the center fat.) Lift both ends, twist them around each other once, then bring ends back and press them on either side of fat “belly,” at about 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock. Then gently spread out “shoulders” of pretzel. Transfer shaped pretzels to an ungreased baking sheet. (Alternatively, form each piece into a round or oval to make Laugenbrötchen, or pretzel rolls.)
4. Let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes, then refrigerate at least one hour or up to overnight (not recommended).
5. Heat oven to 425 degrees. In a deep bowl, wearing rubber or latex gloves, make a solution of 1/2 cup lye and 10 cups water (or 1 part lye to 20 parts water); pour lye carefully into water to avoid splashing. Dip each pretzel in solution, turning it over for 10 to 15 seconds, and place back on baking sheet.
6. Sprinkle pretzels with salt. Bake about 15 minutes or until deep brown. Remove to a rack and serve warm.