Soft pretzels and I go way back; as far back as my earliest childhood memories.
I grew up in Schuylkill County in the southern tip of The Coal Region. In the 60’s and 70’s, weekends were for family time. Dad was a bootleg coal miner, but a devastating crushing injury in the mid-50’s ended his desire to go “back inside”. He traded in that “career” for one that involved his own tractor-trailer and hauled — you guessed it — coal to New York and Philadelphia.
When I was about four, road taxes, maintenance, and the general issues that plague the independent trucker got the best of him. He sold the “Miss Lori Ann” (his Mack tractor with my name painted on the black front bumper in elegant white letters) and he learned to operate heavy equipment used on road construction sites.
Pop worked his butt off during the week, but no matter how tired he was, come Friday night — pay check in hand — he returned to our little Coal Region “patch” house with a smile on his face, released from the outside drudgery of life for a couple days.
Weekends in my family were spent together. My Nana and Pappy lived with us, so they were included in the activities more often than not.
Sunday afternoons in the 60’s and 70’s that enveloped my childhood often meant a visit to Knoebel’s Grove, Hershey Park, Angela Park, or Dorney Park. When it didn’t, it usually involved “going for a ride” after Sunday dinner (a concept many folks today have never heard of — right up there with “rotary” phones, manual typewriters, mimeograph machines, and those little front side “vent windows” in cars). We piled into the big boat of a Buick waiting patiently for us in our driveway; Pop at the helm, Mom at his side, and me nestled between Nana and Pappy on the rear bench seat and off we went to explore the back roads through farmland and coal country.
Big night “in town”
Saturday nights though, were more often designated the night to “go shopping”. Now, this concept did not mean getting groceries; in fact, it often did not involve actually buying anything. “Going shopping” meant walking through and browsing around local discount department stores.
On our rotation was Miracle Mart (which became “King’s”) on the outskirts of Minersville (PA). Other favorites included Town & Country, Grant’s/Grant City, and Hill’s Department Store (with locations in Pottsville and Cressona, PA).
In the days of my youth, many of these types of stores had a snack counter in an area on the outside of the check-out lanes. Menu offerings varied from sandwiches, to pizza, to cola and cherry flavored icees, to my favorite: soft pretzels.
I often got “antsy” in my very young days, but tried hard to hide my annoyance with the grown-ups who were showing actual interest in an item on a shelf or rack while all I wanted to do was hit the snack bar for a pretzel.
As we entered the store, I always peered in the direction of the refreshment area looking to see if those golden brown, salty, chewy twists of yeast dough where rotating on their specially designed display case, meant to keep them toasty warm until they met their fate of winding up in a customer’s hand.
It was a devastating blow if the object of my desire was sold out. If you were really lucky, the counter person intended to load up another tray to bake and you got a really fresh one.
If lady luck was not on your side, you finished “shopping” and got to the counter too close to closing time where the announcement, “No more tonight.” felt like a dagger through the heart.
In addition to the department stores, much of The Coal Region was awash in ice cream shops and drive-ins, either dishing up soft-serve, hard ice cream, or both. My “usual” consisted of a cone of soft serve and a soft pretzel which served as a scoop for my ice cream as I tore off bite-sized pieces and scraped them along side the peak of the sweet, cool, creamy treat in my hand.
Sadly, the department stores that made up our Saturday night family excursions are gone, along with the many beloved family run ice cream shops and drive-ins from my childhood; even more heartbreaking — so are Mom and Pop, Nana and Pappy, but, the memories are strong and always bring a smile.
Soft pretzel trivia
Attributed to the Pennsylvania Dutch (German) in America, soft pretzels can be found throughout Pennsylvania, especially in the South-central, South-east and North-east regions. They made their way to street vendors in New York City and beyond; I have never seen a fair or carnival without a pretzel stand no matter where I was.
With the expansion of Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, the soft pretzel (now seemingly attributed to the Amish) spread across the country into malls, airports, military bases, train stations and more and are now worldwide. There are few folks unfamiliar with the soft pretzel these days, but not everyone knows the taste of the Bavarian-style pretzel..
Gotta dunk ’em
To this day, if there is no ice cream to be found, I dunk my pretzels in the familiar, glowing yellow mustard we’re probably all familiar with (that often accompanies a hot dogs on a bun). Another nice dip is this honey-mustard:
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 2 Tablespoons prepared yellow mustard
- 1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 2 Tablespoons honey
- 1/2 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
In a small bowl, whisk all ingredients together, cover and chill several hours or overnight.
Any way you like them, homemade soft pretzels are a giant step above the frozen heat-and-serve from your grocery store and definitely help me step back in time to some very fond Schuylkill County memories.
Easy and fun
Soft pretzels are not difficult to make. If twisting and shaping them leaves you feeling a tad insecure, you can always make pretzel bites or logs. There is no hard or fast rule.
Soft pretzels require dunking in a solution of baking soda dissolved in water before baking to get the brown, chewy outside; much like a bagel. I highly recommend using parchment to line your baking sheet then sprinkle with a little coarse salt.
The traditional ingredient to use for the “bath/dip” is lye, but baking soda will provide you with the alkaline base that, once dipped in the bath, gives the pretzels the outer crust and golden brown deliciousness we know and love.
“Pretzel salt” is available in some stores and online. It contains no additives or anti-caking ingredients, is flat, “non-melting” and sticks to the surface of the pretzel well. An acceptable substitution is to use another coarse salt like coarse kosher salt, “bagel salt” or coarse Mediterranean sea salt (what I use).
This recipe makes 8 soft pretzels; you can cut it in half to serve a small family or gathering (like I do and get 1 tray of four).
Make sure to roll out the dough to a length of at least 24 inches; any shorter and you cannot shape and twist the pretzel properly and it loses its shape/definition when it bakes.
The pretzels are best served warm and fresh from the oven.
Old-fashioned Soft Pretzels (Bavarian Style)Course: SnacksCuisine: PA DutchDifficulty: Intermediate
German-style old-fashioned soft pretzel; golden brown and delicious with an outer, salted crust and soft interior.
1 1/4 cup water, 105 to 110F degrees
2 1/4 teaspoons instant or active dry yeast (1 packet)
1 1/2 Tablespoons light brown sugar, packed
4 to 4 1/4 cups flour or as needed. I use 2 cups bread flour and the rest all-purpose flour. Bread flour gives the pretzels more “chew” to the crust. Use all all-purpose if you prefer. (NOTE: humidity, the brand flour, and accurate/inaccurate measurements all affect the amount of flour needed. Don’t add too much flour or the pretzels will be tough!)
2 teaspoons table or kosher salt
3 Tablespoon butter, room temperature
- Baking Soda “bath”
2 quarts water
1/2 cup baking soda
Coarse salt for sprinkling
Melted butter for brushing baked pretzels
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, or in a mixing bowl to make by hand, add the warm water, the softened butter, the brown sugar, and the yeast. Stir to combine and set aside for 5 minutes. The mixture will get foamy. If it doesn’t, your yeast is dead, get new yeast.
- Add 2 cups bread flour, if using, or 2 cups all-purpose flour, along with the salt to the yeast mixture and mix with a wooden spoon or on low for 1 to 2 minutes to blend. With the dough hook or by hand, incorporate enough remaining flour, adjusting as needed, to obtain a soft, smooth dough that remains tacky, but does not come away on your fingers when tapped. Kneading takes between 5 to 10 minutes depending on whether you use the mixer or do it by hand.
- Spray a clean bowl with cooking spray or lightly oil and turn out the ball of dough into the dish, turning the dough to coat with oil. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and a clean towel. Set in a warm place to double in size; 30 to 60 minutes depending on whether you used instant/fast-rise yeast or dry active yeast.
- When doubled, preheat the oven to 425F degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment and spray with cooking spray.
- In a large pot, bring 2 quarts of water to a boil over high heat. Very gently add the baking soda; it will foam violently then subside. Keep the water at a rapid simmer/low boil.
- Divide the dough into eight equal portions and use your hands to roll each into a 24 to 26 inch rope. If the dough resists, allow it to rest during the rolling. You may lightly flour the board, but this should not be necessary.
- Form into a U-shape on the table, take the two “tails”, twist them around each other, then bring down to the bottom of the “U” to form into a traditional pretzel shape. Press the tails into the dough gently.. Place each shaped pretzel on the parchment lined pans to await the baking soda dip.
- Using a slotted spatula or kitchen spider, lower one pretzel at a time into the water. Boil about 15 seconds, flip and boil 15 seconds on the other side. Remove to a clean cotton kitchen towel or paper towel for a minute to drain. Sprinkle the parchment lined baking sheets lightly with coarse salt and place 4 pretzels on each trays. Sprinkle the tops as desired with coarse salt. If the pretzels are mis-shapen, gently stretch back into place on the baking sheets.
- Bake for 11 to 13 minutes until deep golden brown, rotate and turn the baking sheets half way through baking.
- Remove from oven and brush with melted butter, if desired. Best served fresh and warm.