German style pretzels
After the past month of traveling, it seems as though my brain has turned to mush. And I'm at a loss for words. We spent almost three weeks in Croatia, where I lived in my bikini and dined heavily on grilled vegetables marinated in homemade olive oil. And figs. Lots and lots of fresh figs. From Croatia we flung ourselves into war torn Bosnia and the entire time my heart ached to be near the sea. Not to mention, my mind was confused as to how (why!?!!?) my body went from being half naked for nearly three weeks to being bundled up in heavy knit socks, two long sleeved shirts, and a rain jacket. Just when I thought things couldn't possibly get any more uneasy or intense than they were in Mostar or Sarajevo, we flew to Istanbul. And when the bus carried us into town and dropped us off at Taksim Square, we were instantly blasted with cars and their horns and people and prayers and neon signs and not an ounce of anything familiar in sight. Sensory overload was at an all time maximum, and it carried on that way for the duration of our time in the city. For six days straight we adapted and tried not to buckle from the complete and utter chaos of Istanbul. For six days straight I was certain that - despite what I felt in Krakow or Bratislava or Sarajevo - I was completely out of my element for the very first time in my life.
As a result, I'm still trying to put my experience there into words. Trying to understand how a place can make you feel so scared and exposed and at peace, all at the same time. People ask me how it was and the first thing that comes out of my mouth is It was fucking crazy. Tumultuous, in every sense of the word. Over the top. In your face like the Green Peace solicitors when all you want to do is walk across the street to get a freaking burrito. It was exhausting on every level; physically, emotionally, molecularly, subconsciously. But not necessarily in a bad way. Because my experience there stretched me and moved me and showed me how to be more tolerant; more patient. And for that I am thankful. For that I feel like I just might be forever-indebted to the city because it taught me something I've struggled to learn for years.
But this isn't about Istanbul - although I wish it was because there are so many things I want to write about that place; so many eye opening experiences I want share with you. But at another time, perhaps? Because we're in Munich now and, with a warm cup of coffee by my side, I'm watching Thom as he wrestles with the covers and tries to deal with the fact that the increasing amount of daylight is an indication that he really needs to get out of bed. In a few short hours we'll be on our way to Oktoberfest (my first, his third) (!!!) sans the traditional dirndl/lederhosen attire because between the stack of Turkish towels and random trinkets we've collected, we have no room in our packs for authentic Oktoberfest outfits. But I think the important thing - the thing the Germans care about most - is that we have room in our bellies for beer and brezeln. And I want all the brezeln.
To celebrate Oktoberfest, I've got Thom - The Motherfucking Master of Mixing and Kneading and Shaping and Rolling (official title, yo) - sharing his recipe for German style pretzels. Over the past four or five years he's perfected his method and I figured it's about time I give you guys the recipe. And what better time than while we're in Munich, celebrating with all the best foods in Bavaria? Exactly.
Notes: For true German (or Bavarian) pretzels, you should use lye. But since we didn't (and have never) feel like dealing with that business, we went the baking soda route. They're golden yellow opposed to mahogany brown, but they taste the same going down with a swoop of stone ground mustard and a heavy German beer. Make sure you follow the recipe exactly as pretzels and can downhill pretty fast. Like, if you don't activate the yeast properly. Or if you overwork the dough. Also, I'll have you know I pushed and pushed and puuuushed to use half-part whole grain flour here but Thom said the Germans would be appalled. If you feel like trying to up the nutritional content of these babies, I have a feeling you could substitute 2 cups of whole spelt or wheat flour for the unbleached flour. And throw in an extra 1/4 teaspoon of yeast for good measure.
GERMAN STYLE PRETZELS
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 2/3 cups water, 105-110˚F
1 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
4-4 1/2 cups unbleached flour
8 cups water
1/3 cup baking soda
Lightly oil a large mixing bowl; set aside. Place 1/3 a cup of the water in a small bowl and stir in the yeast; add a pinch of sugar and set aside until foamy (10-15 minutes). When the yeast has proofed, pour it into a large mixing bowl. Add the remaining water, salt, sugar, and 4 cups of the flour; mix with a wooden spoon. Once the ingredients are combined, mix in the remaining flour (2 tablespoons at a time) until the dough is firm and just barely sticky. Lightly flour your work surface and turn the dough out onto it; knead for 4-5 minutes, punching and stretching and all that other fun stuff. Just make sure you don't overwork the dough. Place the dough into the prepared mixing bowl and cover with a towel. Store in a warm part of your house for 30-45 minutes. Or an hour, if you've got the extra minutes.
Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside. On a lightly floured work surface, turn out the dough, divide it into eight even segments, and roll them into balls. Using your hands, roll each ball into a 20-24 inch long rope. It should be about the size of a marker in the middle, and the last six inches of each end should taper off. Twist into pretzels and place on the prepared baking sheets. Refrigerate, uncovered, for one hour - this is what gives them their crackle-y skin. If you're not into the crackle, just let them rise on the baking sheets for 30 minutes.
Once the pretzels have chilled/risen, preheat oven to 450˚F. Bring 8 cups of water to a boil. Once the water is boiling and you're ready to dip the pretzels, add the baking soda. Using a large slotted spatula, dip each pretzel into the bath, submerging for 15-20 seconds. Transfer back to the baking sheet and sprinkle with coarse sea salt (if desired). Bake at 450˚F for about 10-14 minutes, until lightly golden. The pretzels are best served right away, but you can store them in an air-tight container for a day or two and reheat them in the oven as needed. You could also bake them for 4-6 minutes, let them cool and then store them in the freezer until ready to bake completely.
Yield: 8 pretzels