One of my earliest food memories is the soft, chewy, hot pretzels my dad would buy us kids on our regular wintertime visits to Philadelphia, across the river from his hometown of Camden, New Jersey.
Tasting strongly of the charcoal fire keeping them hot, squirted with a squiggle of bright yellow mustard, they both warmed and kept us entertained as we trudged icy city streets in the wake of Mom and Dad, who were busy reliving old times and window shopping.
Window shopping? B-O-R-I-N-G, when you're a kid. Thus the food bribes.
Eventually, our trips to Philadelphia ended; and with them, our access to street-vendor soft pretzels. I kind of forgot them for a couple of decades; the Boston area, where I grew up, isn't Soft Pretzel Central, like Philly or New York.
And neither is Maine, or New Hampshire, or Vermont, where I lived for 35 years.
At one point several years ago, mentally rhapsodizing over those long-ago pretzels, I decided I'd best learn how to re-create them at home.
So I did. And here they are.
Sans the acrid charcoal flavor, it's true; but with the added richness of a generous slather of melted butter.
And, no need to find a metro pretzel cart...
Place the following ingredients into a bowl:
*Use the greater amount in the winter, the lesser amount in the summer, and somewhere in between in the spring and fall. Your goal is a soft dough.
Beat everything until well-combined. Knead the dough, by hand or machine, for 5 to 8 minutes, until it's soft, smooth, and elastic. Place the dough into a lightly greased bowl, cover it, and allow it to rest for 30 minutes.
While the dough is resting, prepare the "dip." Mix 1 cup boiling water with 2 tablespoons baking soda, stirring until the soda is totally (or almost totally) dissolved. Set the mixture aside to cool to lukewarm (or cooler).
After 30 minutes, transfer the dough to a lightly greased work surface.
Preheat your oven to 475°F. Prepare a baking sheet by spraying it with vegetable oil spray, or lining it with parchment paper.
Divide the dough into eight equal pieces (about 70g, or 2 1/2 ounces, each).
Shape each piece into a rough log, and let them rest, uncovered, for 5 minutes.
Roll each piece of dough into a long, thin rope (about 28" to 30 " long), and twist each rope into a pretzel.
Pour the baking soda/water into a 9" square pan.
Working with four pretzels at a time, place them in the pan with the baking soda/water, smooth side down, as pictured. Spoon the water over them; let them soak for 2 minutes before placing them on the baking sheet smooth side up. This baking soda "bath" will give the pretzels a nice, golden-brown color.
Sprinkle the pretzels lightly with coarse, kosher, or pretzel salt, if desired. Allow them to rest, uncovered, for 10 minutes.
Bake the pretzels for 8 to 9 minutes, or until they're golden brown.
While the pretzels are baking, melt 3 tablespoons butter. Unsalted is best, if you've topped the pretzels with coarse salt.
Notice the writing on the parchment? I was doing an experiment here. I'd heard that baking/drying baking soda (and thus concentrating it) before using it for a pretzel dip resulted in browner pretzels.
I got just the opposite result: plain, out-of-the-can baking soda yielded golden brown pretzels (right), while the baking soda I baked made lighter pretzels (left).
My other experiment was whether rinsing the pretzels in plain water after dipping made a difference; it didn't seem to.
An earlier experiment was interesting, though. I was wondering if it mattered how long the pretzel spent in its baking soda bath.
On the left, a pretzel that was dipped in its bath, then immediately transferred to a baking sheet. On the right, a pretzel that spent 2 minutes soaking in its bath.
Clearly, the 2-minute soak is the winner.
Remove the pretzels from the oven, and brush them thoroughly with the melted butter.
Keep brushing the butter on until you've used it all up; it may seem like a lot, but that's what gives these pretzels their ethereal flavor.
Enjoy the pretzels warm – just as you would from a Philly street vendor.
Or reheat them briefly in an oven or microwave; equally good.
Memories are made of this...
Read, bake, and review (please) our recipe for Hot Buttered Soft Pretzels.