It started with a burger. You see, a while back I met a friend for lunch at Kuma’s Corner, which has become a bit of a legend in Chicago. With good reason. The food is fantastic but the environment is something else – a heavy metal bar with an amazing beer list that serves some awesome burgers. The music is loud, the servers are wonderfully tattooed and the wait is crazy long. But the food, oh dang that food. These are the burgers of your dreams. (I am particularly fond of the Iron Maiden – oooh my.) If you haven’t been to Kuma’s, you should go. Right now. I’m serious.
What I really love is that these beauties are served on pretzel rolls. Oh, pretzel rolls where have you been all my life?? After that first visit, I couldn’t stop thinking about the damn rolls. They’re chewy, sturdy, a little salty and a little sweet. The perfect foil to a messy juicy burger and the magic that holds it all together.
Since then, I’ve had a bit of an obsession with pretzel rolls, pretzel bread, soft pretzels and the whole damn pretzel family. I would snap them up every time I saw them, which wasn’t often. In fact, I found them so infrequently that I decided just to make them myself. Easier said than done. Major disappointments followed. I couldn’t quite get the right flavor, the right texture, the right chew. It was frustrating but I started seeing more pretzel bread around – in restaurants, local bakeries, sometimes in grocery stores – so I put the project on the back burner. Yet it nagged at me that I hadn’t yet mastered the stupid thing.
It only took one stale roll to light the fire again. I mean really now Trader Joe’s, Trader Gioco, Trader Jose or whatever you call yourself. You can’t stock fresh bread? Even with a 2 buck price tag, we’re supposed to accept sub-par product? Hell, no. I can do it better. Game on.
I sat down in earnest and poured over my many cookbooks. Peter Reinhart’s recipe, while I adore the man, didn’t quite cut it. Nor did a few others. I raised my wooden spoon and hollered in frustration “to the internet!” As often happens with the world-wide web, I found too much information. So I started whittling recipes down, referring to my notes from previous batches and just started baking. I knew what I was looking for. There had to be some kind of sweetener in the dough, possibly honey but more likely regular ‘ol sugar. A little fat too, likely butter. There had to be some boiling/poaching action going on in some sort of soda solution for that telltale mahogany crust and distinctive chew. It was also vital that I used authentic pretzel salt. Well, vital to me. I’m certain kosher or a good flaky sea salt would work too but I wanted the iconic look of those coarse grains. Two clicks and a 1 pound bag was on the way. What did we do before the internet?
Then I found it …. Alton Brown, of course, had it all figured out. Just reading the recipe, I knew this was it. I should’ve checked in with him earlier in all his dorky food science goodness. His recipe was for traditional twisty pretzels but I was certain I was onto to something here. I wanted rolls – delicious, chewy rolls for delicious, chewy sandwiches. I tweaked a few things here and there and viola! The pretzel rolls I had been searching for. In fact, they’re better than the ones I’d been buying. Score one for the Polish girl!
I usually make these in my stand mixer with the dough hook but if I’m feeling particularly lazy or time challenged, I’ll pull out my cursed bread machine. This colossal monstrosity was a gift from a clueless Ex that I never use but can’t seem to throw/give away because I keep thinking maybe someday I’ll understand this bread machine fascination people seem to have. Hasn’t happened yet. I basically own a heated mixer with a timer that takes up a ton of space. Yippee.
The key thing to getting nice pretty rolls is to shape them correctly. It’s easy once you get the hang of it. Take a piece of dough (I like 2-ounce chunks) and according to Fine Cooking magazine, you should “stretch the top of the dough ball while simultaneously sealing and pinching the bottom. The stretching helps the dough hold up to the expansion that occurs in the oven, while the sealing prevents the roll from opening up while baking and becoming wrinkled and doughy on the bottom.” Plus it makes them pretty. Fine Cooking has a lovely picture tutorial on this as I couldn’t get decent photos of the process myself – you know, with only two hands and all.
Now then, poaching is really important to get the right color and texture – much like a really good bagel. Do not skip this step. I have measurements in the recipe but in actuality, I just put a pot of water on to boil and dump some baking soda in without measuring. A healthy shake and plop of the stuff does the trick. I was curious what would happen if I didn’t poach so I purposely left one little roll out of the bath. It was awful – pale, crusty with none of the distinctive chew. It was a plain old roll and a boring one at that. Amazing what that a little NaHCO3 can do.
Restaurants and bakeries typically use lye or caustic soda for the poaching liquid. I once worked in a restaurant where we had to hide the caustic soda from the health department because we didn’t have the proper permits to store the stuff. Frightening don’t you think? I’m told you can find lye in the hardware store if you want to try that (please do some research first) but buying an ingredient at Home Depot just seems odd to me. So I stick with baking soda – readily available, cheap, harmless and probably in your cupboard right now.
UPDATE 6/10: Some concerned readers have pointed out that food grade lye must be used here; not the stuff found in hardware stores which can contain arsenic and other undesirable and potentially toxic substances. Duly noted and if you read what I’ve written, not what I recommend anyway. Use baking soda.
Another tip is to egg wash the entire roll, then sprinkle with salt THEN slash the tops. That way, during baking you’ll get that nice white slash on the top of each roll. I know, genius.
I finally got my act together to post this recipe after many requests (mainly from my family – alright already!) After all, it has been my header photo since this blog started nearly a year ago so I suppose I should tell you how to make them. That and fact that my pal Dan over at waffleizer beat me to it by posting waffled pretzels using my recipe. That really kicked me into gear. (Check out his post – it’s pretty funny!)
This recipe is a little on the futzy side but the results are fantastic. Though they’re always better fresh, the rolls also freeze really well – pop extras in a Ziploc bag, rewarm in the microwave wrapped in a damp paper towel. If they do go stale, slice thinly and dry out completely to make awesome bread crumbs. I made some pretzel crumb coated fried chicken that was pretty fantastic. Ummmm, may have to make that again.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: 5 GOLDEN RINGS! These are easily one of the top 5 best things I make. Hands down. Sure the recipe makes 18-ish but you’ll eat three right out of the oven you know, for research, so plan accordingly. Serve some sandwiches up on these, or god forbid a burger, and people will lose their minds. I kid you not. I guarantee it. Slide some leftover easter ham and a platter of these beauties across the table and hot damn, you are the Kitchen God/Goddess of the Universe. I’m telling you, pretty special stuff here. Plus there’s something so … so therapeutic in bread baking. Frustrations are kneaded out, the house smells fantastic and you have a warm vehicle for melty butter and sticky honey. Um, hello. This is stress relief baking of the highest order.
UPDATE 4/2010: Hey look! I took this dough and made something else wonderful … pretzel dogs! Pretty stinkin’ delicious if I do say so.
Makes 18 rolls (adapted from an Alton Brown recipe)
If you use a bread machine, dump the dough ingredients in the order listed and hit the “dough” cycle – my machine does the whole cycle in 1½ hours – then pick up at the shaping step and proceed with the recipe. If you don’t feel like getting pretzel salt then kosher salt or a large grain sea salt like Maldon will work. Just don’t use table salt. Ick.
for the dough:
1 ½ cups warm water (110°F or comfortably warm to the touch)
1 Tablespoon active dry yeast (1 package) – not quick rise yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
4 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
for the poaching & glazing:
1/4 cup baking soda
large saucepan of water
1 egg, lightly beaten
- for the dough: Combine the water and the yeast in the bowl of a standing mixer and let rest 5 minutes until foamy.
- Add the remaining ingredients (sugar, flour, salt, butter) and mix with the dough hook until thoroughly combined, the dough comes together and is rather silky – but not sticky – to the touch.
- first rise: Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour or until doubled in bulk.
- Punch down and turn out onto a lightly floured surface.
- Line two sheet pans with parchment paper or Silpat mats.
- shaping: Cut the dough into 18 pieces, roughly 2 ounces each. (Or really any size you wish, keeping in mind that you’re going to have to poach them in the baking soda solution so they need to fit into your pan. A large slim baguette would be wonderful but how are you going to poach the thing?)
- To shape, take a piece of dough and start forming a nice round, smooth ball by pulling the sides to the center and pinching to seal. By doing this, you’re creating a smooth skin around the dough ball.
- Place, pinched side down, on a counter and lightly cupping your hand around the dough ball, rotate your hand in small circles lightly rolling the ball around the palm of your hand. This takes some practice.
- Space evenly on the prepared sheet pans, pinched seam side down, leaving at least 1” between each roll.
- second rise: Cover with a tea towel or a light film of plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for 30 minutes until doubled.
- Preheat oven to 425°F and place oven racks on the lowest and middle positions.
- poaching: In a large saucepan, bring 2 quarts of water to a low boil.
- Add the baking soda and lower heat to a simmer.
- Carefully slip the rolls into the poaching liquid, seam side down.
- Poach for 30 seconds then carefully turn the roll over in the liquid.
- Poach other side for 30 seconds then remove with a spider or slotted spoon to the same prepared sheet pans, seam side down.
- Repeat with the remaining rolls, leaving at least 1” between rolls for baking.
- glaze: With a pastry brush, glaze each roll completely with the lightly beaten egg making sure to coat all sides completely.
- Top each roll with a sprinkle of pretzel salt.
- With a sharp straight edged knife, cut a slash or “X” in the top of each roll.
- bake: Bake the rolls for 15-20 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through baking – top to bottom, front to back – for even browning.
- Cool completely (try to resist snatching one or two while warm. I double dog dare you.)
- Rolls are best eaten on day of baking (most especially when warm with a little butter) but they store pretty well in the freezer, tightly wrapped. Reheat in a damp paper towel for 30 seconds in the microwave.